DOVER, Del. — The Delaware attorney general’s office is suing a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Sussex County, claiming that elders failed to report an unlawful sexual relationship between a woman and a 14-year-old boy, both of whom were congregation members.
After speaking with attorneys this week, a New Castle County Superior Court judge scheduled oral arguments in the civil action against the Laurel congregation for Nov. 9.
Under Delaware law, any person, agency, organization or entity who knows or in good faith suspects that a child is being abused or neglected must call a 24-hour hotline to report it. The law specifically states that the reporting requirements apply to health care workers and organizations, school employees, social workers, psychologists and law enforcement officials.
But a lawyer for the congregation is arguing that the elders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation are protected from the reporting requirements by clergy privilege, similar to the confidentiality of a church confessional.
“It’s a First Amendment issue,” defense attorney James Liguori said.
Department of Justice authorities say the boy reported to his mother in January 2013 that he and Katheryn Harris Carmean White, who worked as a teacher’s aide at Seaford Middle School, had engaged in a sexual relationship. According to the complaint, the boy and his mother met that same day with congregation elders Joel Mulchansingh and William Perkins.
The two elders met a few days later with Carmean White, who confirmed the ongoing sexual relationship, according to the complaint.
“At no time ... did defendant elder Mulchansingh and defendant elder Perkins contact the 24 hour child abuse report line to report the alleged incident of child sexual abuse,” Delaware Deputy Attorney General Janice Tigani wrote.
Authorities also claim that the congregation itself should be held liable because it was or should have been aware that the two elders had interviewed the boy and that it failed to properly supervise their activities, including their responsibility to report the suspected abuse.