Religious Authority May Increase Likelihood of Criminal Conviction

Court upholds child molester’s conviction partially because of his role as a religious leader.

Church Law and Tax 1996-05-01

Child Abuse

Key point. A religious leader who molests a child may be more likely to be guilty of a criminal offense.

A Utah court upheld the criminal conviction of a child molester partly on the ground that he was a religious leader. A 35—year—old male (the “teacher”) rented space in a religious bookstore to conduct a series of weekly Bible study classes. He became acquainted with the owner and her 14—year—old daughter (the “victim”). The victim began attending the Bible classes, and was asked to be in charge of music. The teacher began helping the victim with her homework both at home and at the bookstore, and the two became very close. The teacher would call the victim every day and the two would pray together. The teacher would often tell the victim that he was making plans for the two of them to be together. In time the relationship became physical, with the teacher engaging in multiple acts of sexual molestation. Most of these acts occurred in the teacher’s van after he picked the victim up after school. The teacher assured the victim that God had “answered his prayers” and that their “sexual activity was all right.” He informed her that he had developed a plan to get her pregnant so that her parents could not “break them apart.” The teacher was charged with “forcible sodomy” which is defined under Utah law as the commission of a sexual act with a person who is 14 years of age or older, without the victim’s consent. The law further states that a sexual act is “without the victim’s consent” when “the victim is 14 years of age or older, but not older than 17, and the actor is more than three years older than the victim and entices or coerces the victim to submit or participate ….” The teacher was convicted of committing forcible sodomy, and he appealed. A state appeals court upheld his conviction. It concluded: “The victim was only 14 years old, and [the teacher] was 35. [The teacher] held himself out to be a man of God. The victim testified that during this time she and [and the teacher] were praying together every day and that they often read scriptures to one another. She stated that [the teacher] was always referring to scripture when he spoke to her. In short [the teacher] used his faith and his religious position to eventually overcome the victim—who was also a religious person and who sought approval of God in her daily life.” This case illustrates that special criminal charges may apply to adults who molest adolescents, and that the religious authority and status of the perpetrator may make a criminal conviction more likely. State v. Scieszka, 897 P.2d 1224 (Utah App. 1005).

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