• Key point: A child molester can be convicted of a felony offense by “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” though he denies the allegations and there is no direct evidence of guilt other than the victim’s testimony.
• A Louisiana appeals court upheld the felony conviction of a minister for child molestation despite his claim that there was insufficient evidence to convict him. In many child molestation cases, there is little if any evidence to substantiate the testimony of the alleged victim. This makes the investigation and prosecution of these cases very difficult. Many churches experience the same dilemma when an allegation of improper sexual advances or contact is brought by a minor or adult against a staff member who vigorously denies the allegation. The recent Louisiana decision provides some guidance in these cases. An ordained minister was employed as a band director by a public high school. He was accused of molesting two female band members. One student claimed that the director removed her from a home economics class and took her to the band room to counsel her about her family problems and discuss her poor performance. The student informed the director that she was not able to practice regularly because of the many new responsibilities caused by her mother’s illness. The director emphasized the importance of prayer in solving her personal problems. He then allegedly questioned the student about a rash on her face, and soon began undressing her to determine how far the rash had spread. The student alleged that the director proceeded to sexually assault and molest her. A second student claimed that the director later molested her while “examining” her in the band room to determine the truth of a rumor he had heard that the student was pregnant. Both students informed their parents of these incidents, and the director was prosecuted for two counts of sexual molestation. He was found guilty and sentenced to two concurrent prison sentences of 5 years, at hard labor. The director appealed his convictions on the ground that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Specifically, he claimed that (1) the students’ testimony was unreliable since some portions of it had been contradicted by other school officials, (2) the behavior of one of the students following the alleged incident was inconsistent with her story, since she allegedly had written him a letter “thanking him for his understanding,” (3) at a meeting of the director, the director’s minister, one of the student victims and her parents, the student stated that the director did “not need to apologize,” and (4) the students had a motive in inventing their allegations of molestation—diverting the attention of the pregnant student’s parents from the news about her pregnancy. An appeals court ruled that there was sufficient evidence to support the director’s convictions. In particular, it pointed to the following factors: First, much of the victims’ testimony was corroborated by the director’s testimony. He admitted that he had counseled with both students in the band room about the same matters that the students had indicated in their testimony. Second, the court noted that prior to the alleged incidents both of the victims had “liked and admired” the director and “therefore they had no reason to lie.” Third, the director had produced no evidence to support his theory that the students had fabricated their stories to protect the pregnant student after her parents learned of her pregnancy. Fourth, the victims both had “provided detailed information about the incidents.” The court further noted that the one student’s letter to the director thanking him for his “understanding” was written before the alleged molestation, and that the alleged inconsistencies in the students’ testimony were immaterial. The court also discounted the statement of one of the students that the director had “no need to apologize.” It noted that “considering the victim’s age and her confusion over the entire incident, we find that a rational jury could conclude that the victim’s failure to request an apology has no bearing on her credibility.”
This ruling is useful for the following two reasons. First it demonstrates the seriousness of inappropriate sexual contact with minors. The band director (who was an ordained minister) was sentenced to two concurrent 5-year prison sentences at hard labor. The court rejected the minister’s claim that his sentence should be reduced on the basis of his position in the community as a minister. Second, the case provides some guidance in evaluating the truthfulness of allegations of sexual misconduct. This is a very important determination for a number of reasons, including the following: (1) In many states clergy and other church leaders have a legal duty to report “reasonably suspected” incidents of child abuse or molestation to a state agency. (2) If the alleged offender is a church employee, the church must determine whether or not to dismiss or discipline the individual. (3) If the alleged offender is a church member, the church must determine whether or not to discipline or dismiss the individual. (4) The response of the church to the victim and the victim’s family will depend on an assessment of the accuracy of the victim’s allegations. State v. Moses, 615 So.2d 1030 (La. App. 1 Cir. 1993).
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