Jehovah’s Witnesses elders guilty of failing to report sexual abuse of 6-year-old child: Elders face up to one year of jail time

Jehovah’s Witnesses elders guilty of failing to report sexual abuse of 6-year-old child: Elders face up to one year of jail time

By Amanda Marrazzo, Shaw Local News

A McHenry County judge ruled Friday that two Jehovah’s Witnesses elders are guilty of “knowingly and willfully” failing to report to authorities in 2006 that a 6-year-old child in their church was being sexually assaulted by a congregant.

Not reporting the sexual abuse permitted the abuse to go on for another 12 years.

The ruling follows two years of hearings and a bench trial before McHenry County Judge Mark Gerhardt in a case stemming from the 2019 conviction of Arturo Hernandez-Pedraza.

Hernandez-Pedraza, 44, a church congregant, was convicted of sexual assault and other crimes related to the girl’s ongoing sexual abuse. Neither police nor the Department of Children and Family Services were notified until the victim was 18 years old, when she told church elders that the abuse continued.

The girl endured countless sexual assaults and death threats by her abuser throughout her childhood, according to trial testimony.

Hernandez-Pedraza is serving 45 years in prison.

On Friday, the church elders, Michael Penkava, 72, and Colin Scott, 88, were found guilty of Class A criminal misdemeanor for violating provisions of the state’s mandatory reporter law. They each face up to one year in jail when sentenced March 25.

Defense attorneys argued that the elders were not mandated reporters. They maintained that Hernandez-Pedraza’s confession, as well as statements made by the child and another church member, were protected under clergy-penitent privilege.

Anything they heard related to the child’s abuse fell under the protection of the confessional process, in the same way a confession made inside a confessional booth in the Roman Catholic Church would, defense attorneys maintained. Gerhardt considered the child’s and the other church member’s statements in his ruling but not the confession made by Hernandez-Pedraza.

Rather than call authorities, Penkava, as he was trained to do as a church elder, said he sought the advice of attorneys at the Jehovah’s Witnesses world headquarters in New York. The abuse was handled through “spiritual guidance,” as was directed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses attorneys.

Scott, who participated in the bench trial via Zoom and did not testify, was part of the three-person judicial committee formed the day after Penkava learned of the abuse. His attorney, Terry Ekl, said he was not part of the decision to not call police.

Scott became involved in the days that followed and participated in “spiritual guidance.”

Under questioning Friday by McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally, Penkava testified that he made the phone call to headquarters but did not know who he spoke to or what their qualifications were as an attorney. But, he said, this person advised that he was not required to report the abuse and he trusted that advice, he said.

In closing arguments, Kenneally said under Illinois law Penkava and Scott are mandated reporters despite their claims they are not.

This case is the reason for which the statute was written, “to stop this in 2006,” Kenneally said.

It was “extremely irresponsible” of Penkava to take advice regarding the protection of a 6-year-old child from someone over the phone, in another state, not even knowing who he was talking to or what their qualifications were, Kenneally said.

“It was ignorance born out of carelessness, their own recklessness and stupidity,” Kenneally said.

If they decide to put themselves in charge of the well-being of a 6-year-old child, “then they better act responsibly,” he said.

“The purpose of the clergy-penitent [privilege] is to shield the flock and not protect the devil,” Kenneally said, adding that what they did protected Hernandez-Pedraza.

The girl and the other church member “already paid the price for [Penkava and Scott] not following the law; now it’s their turn,” Kenneally said.

Assistant State’s Attorney Ashur Youash said the elders knew the girl was an abused child and their defense “went from privilege to bad legal advice.”

He said the mandatory reporting statute is not to protect the church but “to protect a child, to protect an abused child. How absurd would it be to allow a church to cloak itself and avoid state law?” Youash said.

In his ruling, Gerhardt said Penkava’s testimony “was not credible” and ruled that the elders are considered mandated reporters.

“The defendants had an obligation to report [the abuse] whether or not clergy-penitent privilege trumped that,” Gerhardt said. “The defendants chose not to contact DCFS knowingly and willfully.”

4 thoughts on “Jehovah’s Witnesses elders guilty of failing to report sexual abuse of 6-year-old child: Elders face up to one year of jail time

  1. This post has Zero credibility, ONLY because it does not clearly state the date, city, and State of the trial. When I click the link it costs money, which MIGHT indicate clickbait motive.
    Anything that cannot be independently checked by making phone calls to clerks of courts, or similar methods, can be disregarded.

    At this stage in your careers, you should all know that. I learned it in the 7th grade.

  2. Good news that they were convicted. Too bad it took so long but hopefully this will wake up more JW elders to the fact that calling headquarters is no excuse to avoid their responsibilities. A good point was made that whoever answers the phone at headquarters is just a voice and not a lawyer. Probably reading off of a script of talking points, avoiding any liability or concern. Considering how long this has been going on worldwide, imagine the number of victims still out there with no resolution to their cases. Thanks for reporting this Barbara and thanks for all that you do.

  3. My heart goes out to the victim of assault. I was a teenager when it happened to me and I too had death threats. When I finked on the pedophile rapist, I was met with the good old boy’s club of elders. They did not want to believe that their friend’s son is a serial rapist. I like four other victims (that I know of!) of his, in the same Kingdom Hall were demonized and shunned…shamed and blamed.

    A couple of years ago after having watched Leah Remini’s segment on television on the way JW’s handle crimes against humanity, I had written to the Kingdom Hall 3 times. After getting no response from them, I wrote to the Governing Body in New York. Only then I had the opportunity to be apologized to by the new younger elder body that have long since replaced the older ones that are now of the mindset of King Nebuchadnezzar grazing with the cows and talking crazy. The ones that treated me like the plague don’t even remember me let alone people in their own families. The younger elders assured me that what happened to me was largely due to nepotism/misogyny/under educated imperfect people and that is not the mindset or the legal stand of the Organization as a whole. So in a nutshell this is what happens when elders play favorites and go rogue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.