On January 18th, 2018, attorneys representing Jehovah’s WItnesses signed a formal settlement agreement with the State of Delaware, concluding a historic case in which two elders and one congregation were held responsible for withholding detailed knowledge of a sexual relationship between an adult and a 14-year-old minor.
This case is unique, profound, and will likely set a precedent for other States.
According to the terms of the settlement, Jehovah’s Witnesses paid a total of $19,500 to the Delaware Department of Justice, and the body of elders from the Laurel Delaware congregation was required to attend the Stewards of Children training program and pay associated costs.
A third requirement mandated by Delaware included the signing of an affidavit stipulating that Jehovah’s Witness elders must comply with all Delaware statutes involving the reporting of child abuse. Among the itemized requirements, the Coordinator of the Body of Elders, William Perkins, agreed that communications with minors related to matters of abuse would not be treated as “penitential confessions.” This is significant, since attorneys for Jehovah’s Witnesses attempted to claim clergy privilege as their defense for failure to report.
On January 26, 2016, Justice Mary M. Johnston threw out Watchtower’s motion for summary judgment. Johnston pointed out that the elders’ sworn statements suggested that the victim and the perpetrator did not seek out the elders for private confession, which is the basic definition of penitential confession.
The case, formally called the State of Delaware versus Laurel Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Joel Mulchansingh, and William Perkins, was filed November 9th, 2015. It was brought by the Delaware Attorney General’s office following the discovery that 35-Year-old Katheryn Carmean-White had been arrested for engaging in at least 40 incidents of sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old boy. Both were baptized members of the Jehovah’s Witness religion.
Deputy Attorney General Janice Tigani became aware of this case from police reports, which had been filed in 2011. The mother of the 14-year-old victim contacted local authorities. A warrant was issued for Katheryn L. Carmean-White, who was arrested on 10 counts of third-degree rape, continuous sexual abuse of a child and endangering the welfare of a child. Carmean-White is currently incarcerated in the Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution of Delaware, serving a 6-year prison sentence.
Neither William Perkins nor Joel Mulchansingh contacted the police.
Instead, both elders initiated internal Jehovah’s Witness judicial proceedings which resulted in the disfellowshipping of both Carmean-White and her victim. Despite his age, the victim was considered a willing participant in consensual sexual acts. The repetitive nature of these sexual encounters was the foundation for disfellowshipping action by the church.
Delaware Sets the Example
Until now, the national epidemic of child abuse has been brought to light primarily through the efforts of mainstream media and numerous documented civil lawsuits. Such cases have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements against the Catholic Church and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the religions most notorious for their mishandling of abuse allegations.
While individual states have codified laws penalizing mandated reporters for failure to report child abuse, almost none have brought charges against clergymen, or elders. Tackling religious organizations is often seen as trampling the First Amendment rights of these groups.
According to Deputy Attorney General Tigani, the Delaware case was about to go to trial when Watchtower lawyers opted for a private settlement. In part, the agreement stated:
“WHEREAS this agreement is made solely for the purpose of avoiding the time and expense of further protracted litigation”
Tigani agreed that Watchtower benefitted by conforming to the stipulations of the State of Delaware, in lieu of a protracted public trial. Evidence presented on both sides, including depositions from the two Witness elders, clearly pointed to gross infraction of Delaware law.
The progressive nature of Delaware’s punitive measures for violation of mandatory reporting laws comes on the heels of the worst case of child sexual abuse in United States history. Pediatrician Earl Bradley was sentenced to seven consecutive life terms, plus 165 years in prison for the molestation of hundreds of child patients, whose average age was three. The Bradley case was so egregious that Attorney General Beau Biden abandoned his bid for his father’s vacated Senate seat to funnel all energies into the prosecution of this case.
As Delaware prosecuted and jailed the notorious Bradley, lawmakers began to question how this man could have abused so many children for more than a decade, evading detection and prosecution. In 2010, Governor Jack Markell commissioned the Dean of Widener University Law School, Linda L. Ammons, to investigate what went wrong, and to itemize necessary changes. One key discovery involved the lack of proper reporting of abuse allegations to law enforcement or other state officials. Under the topic “Mandatory Reporters,” Ammons stated:
“It is my finding that no law enforcement agency, health professional or anyone else reported the allegations regarding Dr. Bradley to any administrative or regulatory body in accordance with current Delaware law. “
Families of victims were shocked to discover that allegations against Bradley stemmed back to 1994 in Pennsylvania, where the doctor had completed his residency. Layers of bureaucracy stymied the reporting process. Plausible deniability was contagious, and without enforcement of reporting laws, organizations, members of clergy, and ordinary citizens are without incentive to abide by these statutes. Professor Ammon made numerous recommendations to the Governor of Delaware, including the following:
“Increase penalties for violating the mandatory reporting requirements in the Medical Practices Act.”
Delaware agreed. Enforceable penalties were signed into law. Delaware code 914 states:
914 Penalty for violation. (a) Whoever violates § 903 of this title shall be liable for a civil penalty not to exceed $10,000 for the first violation, and not to exceed $50,000 for any subsequent violation.
This code enforcement is not limited to the medical practices field. In fact, every Delaware citizen is expected to report, regardless of their occupation. The Professionals’ Guide to Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect says:
“Professional reporters are often referred to as mandated reporters, although all citizens of Delaware are required to report child abuse and neglect.” [bold, italics ours]
Jehovah’s Witness elders Joel Mulchansingh, and William Perkins were found liable, both as professional mandated reporters, and as citizens of the State of Delaware. The congregation body of elders was also named as a responsible party.
In addition to financial penalties paid, the Laurel Congregation body of elders was required to attend the Stewards of Children training program, an initiative sponsored by the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children. The Biden foundation is a non-profit organization created in 2015 to further the goals of the late Biden in ensuring that children are afforded every possible protection from predators.
I spoke to a representative of the Stewards of Children program, who confirmed that their educational materials have been sanctioned by courts across the United States on the basis of competent, peer-reviewed research.
The third and final settlement term involved a multi-part affidavit, signed by the Laurel Coordinator of Body of Elders, and distributed to all congregations within the State of Delaware. Terms included:
- Communications with individual involving acts of abuse shall not be considered as “penitential confessions”
- Communications with minors involving acts of abuse shall not be considered as “penitential confessions”
- Elders and the Congregation will comply with the law in accordance with the two items above
- A copy of the signed and notarized affidavit will be provided by Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attorneys to all congregations within the state of Delaware
While Jehovah’s Witnesses have been forced to comply with the terms of this settlement, there is no evidence to suggest that this organization will participate in mandatory training programs in other states or countries. Currently, Witness policy dictates that the first notification of allegations of child abuse must be made by local elders to the Jehovah’s Witness legal department in Patterson New York. This policy has a profound chilling effect upon justice for victims and protection of the community.
Once their legal department advises elders whether they are in a mandatory reporting state or not, the call is handed over to the Service department, located inside the Witnesses’ Walkill New York compound. These men advise local elders of their internal judicial responsibility, such as whether to disfellowship a minor deemed as a willing participant in sexual acts.
Nowhere in Watchtower literature are victims or others encouraged to immediately contact civil authorities when allegations of abuse become known. By design, Jehovah’s Witnesses are trained to regard local elders as the primary authority, particularly when any sexual contact is discovered between two unmarried persons.
A Precedent Has Been Set
Delaware’s lawsuit against Jehovah’s Witnesses has broken the barrier which has, until now, protected churches from prosecution for failure to report child abuse.
In 2006, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office recommended that charges be filed against Catholic Bishop Daniel Walsh. Walsh failed to file a timely report upon discovery that Catholic Priest Xavier Ochoa sexually abused at least three boys, the youngest being 12. The delay in reporting gave Ochoa the time he needed to escape to Mexico.
According to the San Francisco journal SFGATE:
“If prosecutors decide to charge Walsh, the case would appear to mark the first time a U.S. Catholic Church official has faced criminal prosecution for failing to properly report sexual abuse.”
Charges were dropped, however, in lieu of a plea agreement in which Bishop Walsh was required to attend a four-month counseling program.
The State of Delaware did not back down so quickly in its case against Jehovah’s Witnesses, leaving Watchtower attorneys little choice but to settle the case on Delaware’s terms.
Other states may soon follow suit, including Pennsylvania, where police are investigating the abuse of 4-year-old Abby Haugh in 2005. The assault occurred inside the local Kingdom Hall and was reported to congregation elders by the victim’s father, Martin Haugh. Local elders did not contact law enforcement.
Police are not commenting on this case, as the investigation is currently ongoing.
The terms of the Delaware settlement stipulated that once Jehovah’s Witnesses paid the agreed-upon fines, the State would dismiss civil action with prejudice. The settlement agreement was obtained by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
Additional Research Documents:
In the course of investigating the Delaware case against Jehovah’s Witnesses, it became apparent that the Witnesses settled for a variety of reasons. Aside from the inability to win the case, this civil matter was in the process of being scheduled for trial. Had the settlement not been reached, a protracted and public trial would have been publicized across Delaware and picked up by media outlets across the U.S.
The monetary fines would not have differed much from the current result, with a maximum penalty of $10,000 per elder (for two elders) along with a $10,000 fine for the collective elder body, resulting in a $30,000 fine, plus court costs and legal fees. The most significant advantage of settling this case with Delaware was the fact that Watchtower was able to pay the fines without admission of guilt.
In the eyes of the public, anyone who reads the court docket for this case will note that the final act of Delaware was to dismiss this case. While dismissal was the net result, it obscures the fact that Watchtower was held accountable for failure to report child abuse. For this reason, I found it necessary to file a Freedom of Information Act request from the State of Delaware, to obtain the documents which prove that Watchtower paid the fines for failure to report, and was forced to agree to compliance with State reporting laws. Additionally, they were required to disperse mandatory reporting materials to all congregations in Delaware.
I hope that the public has a better understanding of what it means when a case is dismissed, and how private, behind-the-scenes settlements often reveal what actually happened.
It is my goal to make such cases transparent, for the benefit of the public.
I would like to thank the following individuals who were both supportive and informative during the course of my research:
Janice R Tigani, Deputy Attorney General for Delaware
Novene Tate, Case Manager for Justice Johnston
Kim Siegel, FOIA Coordinator for the State of Delaware
Jeffrey Fritz, Attorney, Soloff and Zervanos
Irwin Zalkin, Attorney, Zalkin Law Firm
Michael Rezendez, Boston Globe Spotlight Team
David Gambacorta, Philadelphia Enquirer
Carrie Teegardin, Atlanta Journal Constitution
Professor Marci Hamilton
Natalie Batten, Darkness to Light, Stewards of Children
The JW Survey team
Scrappy, the cat