Prosecution of Child Molesters

Public statements made by accused molesters may be used against them in court.

Church Law and Tax 1997-11-01

Key point. Statements made to a church congregation by a staff member who is accused of child molestation may be admissible in a later criminal prosecution.

Key point. Prior incidents of misconduct are often helpful in refuting a church youth worker’s claim that his inappropriate touching of a child was accidental and innocent.

! The Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled that a statement made by a child molester to his church congregation could be used against him in a criminal prosecution. A 6—year—old girl (victim) and her family attended a church for the first time on a Sunday morning. Following the worship service, the victim went upstairs to the church’s gymnasium where she saw an adult male (the defendant) giving piggyback rides to young children. There were no other adults present. While the defendant was giving the victim a piggyback ride, he reached his hand beneath her underwear. The victim immediately told him to stop because her mother had taught her that no one should touch her “private parts.” Later that day the girl made the following entry in her diary: “Today is Sunday. We went to church. A guy lift me up and he put his hands in my panties.” The victim later showed this diary entry to her mother, who went into shock. The mother immediately informed the church of what happened. The next Sunday, the defendant appeared before the congregation and said that he came from a dysfunctional family, that he had a “problem,” that he spoke with a pastor about it, and that the pastor was going to get him counseling. A few days later the mother contacted the police. The defendant was later prosecuted for child molestation. He insisted that he was innocent, and that his contact with the victim had been “accidental.” The jury disagreed, and found the defendant guilty. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The defendant appealed his conviction on two separate grounds. First, he claimed that his statement to the congregation should not have been disclosed to the jury. The court disagreed. It concluded that the defendant’s statement to the congregation was “an implicit admission of wrongdoing toward the victim” and was properly disclosed to the jury. The defendant also claimed that the prosecutor erred in disclosing that the defendant had previously molested a child in another church. During the trial, the prosecutor informed the jury that ten years earlier, in another state, the defendant had molested another child. The defendant had approached two young boys in a church sanctuary and asked them to show him a particular Sunday School classroom that was located upstairs. The boys agreed, and while the three of them were in an isolated classroom the defendant showed the boys a pornographic magazine and then molested one of them. He was later sentenced to five years in prison for this offense. The court concluded that it was permissible for the prosecutor to disclose this prior conviction, since it tended to refute the defendant’s claim that he had touched the victim innocently and accidentally.

Application. (1) This case provides an excellent opportunity for church leaders to identify the mistakes that the church made in this case that directly or indirectly contributed to the defendant’s act of molestation. How many can you identify? Here are a few obvious ones. First, the church allowed the defendant to interact with young children in an isolated gymnasium without any other adults present. Second, the church allowed the defendant to engage in close, physical contact with young children. Third, the church may not have done a sufficient background check to discover that the defendant molested a child in another church. If church leaders were aware of the prior conviction, they never should have allowed the defendant to have any contact with minors.

(2) This case also demonstrates that statements made to a congregation by persons who are guilty of misconduct may be used against them in criminal trials. Generally, statements that persons make against their own interests are admissible in court as an exception to the hearsay rule. This does not mean that such statements should not be requested, or are not appropriate. Quite to the contrary, they can be very appropriate in bringing about healing and reconciliation. This case illustrates that they may be admissible in court.

(3) This case illustrates the difficulty that is often experienced in evaluating alleged child molesters’ claims of innocence. Such persons often claim that the alleged molestation was purely accidental and innocent. This case suggests that such a defense can be rebutted by proof of prior similar acts of misconduct. Remember, the court upheld the defendant’s criminal conviction, meaning that it was satisfied that his guilt had been established beyond a reasonable doubt.

(4) Finally, this case illustrates the seriousness with which the courts view cases of child molestation. The defendant was sentenced to 25 years in prison-though the act of molestation lasted only a few seconds. State v. Davis, 670 A.2d 786 (R.I. 1996). [ Defamation, Negligent Selection as a Basis for Liability, Negligent Supervision as a Basis for Liability]

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