Sexual Molestation Conviction Upheld

Decision comes despite victim’s retraction of accusations.

Church Law and Tax 1993-11-01 Recent Developments

Sexual Misconduct by Clergy and Church Workers

Key point: Church leaders should not assume that child abuse has not occurred solely on the basis of a child’s denial of an earlier allegation of abuse.

An Alaska appeals court upheld the conviction of a father for sexually molesting his minor daughter even though the daughter later denied her previous allegations of abuse. The girl attended a summer camp. One night, a camp counselor noticed that she was crying and asked her what was wrong. The girl told the counselor that her stepfather had sexually abused her by having intercourse with her. She begged the counselor not to tell anyone. The counselor informed the girl that she (the counselor) had no option but to report the allegations to the civil authorities, but only if they were true. The girl affirmed that the allegations were true. Twenty minutes later, the counselor took the girl to see the director of the camp, and the girl repeated her allegations. A report of child abuse was made, and the girl was later interviewed by a social worker and examined by a physician. She informed both of them that her stepfather had sexually molested her over a period of years. The case was presented to a grand jury. The girl testified before the grand jury and retracted her previous allegations of abuse. She stated that she had invented the story in order to retaliate against her stepfather for an incident in which he had disciplined her. She insisted that any physical contact by her stepfather was purely accidental. The girl’s mother also testified, and informed the grand jury that her daughter had earlier confided in her that the allegations of abuse were false. The grand jury also heard evidence from the camp counselor, social worker, and physician, and based on this evidence decided to indict the stepfather for first degree sexual abuse of a minor. At the criminal trial, the daughter again testified that her story was false. She testified that a criminal investigator had relentlessly questioned her about the alleged abuse, and that she “told him what I thought he wanted to hear” in order to make him stop asking questions. Despite the testimony of the girl and her mother, the stepfather was found guilty, and a state appeals court affirmed the conviction on appeal. This case is important, for it illustrates that child abuse victims sometimes deny their prior allegations of abuse, but that such denials should not necessarily be taken at face value. The grand jury, trial court, and appeals court all believed the girl’s initial allegations of abuse (which she made to her camp counselor) even though the girl and her mother later denied those allegations. Many pastors have been faced with similar circumstances—a minor alleges that he or she is being abused by a parent or some other adult, and later denies those allegations. This case suggests that subsequent denials of prior allegations of abuse do not necessarily eliminate the possibility of abuse. A minister still may have reasonable cause to believe that abuse has occurred, even though the minor later denies it. This means that a report of the abuse must be made to civil authorities if the minister is a mandatory reporter under state law and the “clergy-penitent” privilege does not apply. The lesson is clear—clergy cannot necessarily ignore a minor’s allegations of abuse simply because the minor later denies them. Nunn v. State, 845 P.2d 435 (Alaska 1993).

See Also: Failure to Report Child Abuse

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