Jessica Masulli Reyes, Judge weighs religious exemptions for child abuse reporting ,The News Journal

A Delaware judge is considering the constitutionality of a state law that exempts priests from being required to report suspected child abuse disclosed during confessions – and, if the law is constitutional, whether it should protect elders in a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation.

The Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit against the Laurel Delaware Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses last year alleging two elders failed to report to state authorities a sexual relationship between a woman and a 14-year-old boy, both of whom were members of the congregation.

State law says individuals and organizations must report suspected child abuse and neglect immediately via a 24-hour state hotline, unless they learn of the abuse in an attorney-client setting or “that between priest and penitent in a sacramental confession.”

On Monday afternoon, Superior Court Judge Mary M. Johnston heard arguments in Wilmington about whether the elders should fall under the exemption for priests. This then led her to question if it is constitutional to have language in a law that only protects clergy of one religion.

The judge, who called the case “very interesting,” is expected to issue a ruling at a later date.

A 14-year-old boy disclosed to his mother in January 2013 that he was in a sexual relationship with Katheryn Harris Carmean White, a fellow member of the congregation and a teacher’s aide at Seaford Middle School, according to the lawsuit.

The boy and his mother met with elders at the religious hall that same day, and the elders said they would speak with Carmean White regarding the allegations, the suit said.

Four days later, the elders met with Carmean White, but did not call the state hotline, according to the suit.

She was arrested in February 2013 and admitted to authorities that she had sex with the boy about 40 times over a 10-month period. The now 37-year-old woman was convicted of third-degree rape, fourth-degree rape and child endangerment, and is serving a six-year prison sentence.

Francis McNamara, a lawyer arguing on the congregation’s behalf, told the judge that Carmean White and the victim shared information about the sexual relationship during confidential meetings that are equivalent to a Catholic confession.

“It is part of that shepherding responsibility,” McNamara said about the spiritual nature of the meeting.

The judge questioned whether any conversation between a parishioner and church elder could then be considered confidential and exempt from reporting.

“It depends on the subject matter,” he said. “The effectiveness of this statute cannot be only for priests.”

​The state, however, said the meeting, especially with Carmean White, was not a sacramental confession.

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