Jehovah’s Witnesses fight law on reporting child sex abuse to police
Trey Bundy, February 1, 2016
In 2013, 30-something Katheryn Harris Carmean White confessed to elders in her Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation that she had repeatedly had sex with a 14-year-old boy.
The two elders didn’t tell police. They, and the congregation, now face a lawsuit from the Delaware attorney general accusing them of violating the state’s mandated reporting laws. The defendants claim the elders were protected from having to report the abuse by a legal exemption for clergy.
The case highlights the struggle of courts to interpret a convoluted web of clergy reporting laws that stretches across U.S. Elevating the tension is the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses explicitly are instructed not to report child sexual abuse to secular authorities unless required by state law.
Clergy are mandated to report child abuse in 45 states, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But laws in 32 of those states contain some version of a loophole called a clergy-penitent privilege. Those exceptions allow clergy to withhold information from authorities if they receive it from members seeking spiritual advice.
Delaware law requires any individual or organization suspecting child abuse to report it. But then it gets confusing. The law allows an exemption for a priest who learns of abuse during a “sacramental confession,” wording that suggests a privilege specifically for clergy in the Catholic Church.