Trial set for Jehova’s Witnesses elders accused of failing to report sexual abuse allegations against congregant

Accusations surfaced during a confessional so could be considered protected, one defendant’s attorney says

A pair of Jehova’s Witnesses elders will stand trial later this month on claims they failed to notify police that a congregant was sexually abusing a young family member.

Jehovah’s Witnesses elder Michael Penkava, 71, of Crystal Lake, and Colin Scott, 87, of Cary, were charged in November with violating reporting provisions. Both men are accused of failing to notify police about a congregant who was accused of sexually abusing a child. The abuse continued for more than a decade after the church elders became aware of the accusations, prosecutors have said.

Because the accusations surfaced during a confessional, the disclosure could be considered protected communication between faith leaders and congregants, Penkava’s attorney Philip Prossnitz said.

Penkava and Scott are scheduled for a joint trial by judge that is expected to begin on March 17.

Scott’s attorney, Terry Ekl, could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

Penkava, a member of the Crystal Lake Spanish Congregation of Jehova’s Witnesses, was called to testify at an October 2019, jury trial of one of the church’s congregants, Arturo Hernandez-Pedraza.

The jury ultimately found Hernandez-Pedraza guilty of sexually assaulting and abusing a young female relative for more than 13 years, and he was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Prosecutors have asked the Illinois Department of Corrections to transport Herandnez-Pedraza to McHenry County for the trial. It was unclear Monday whether Hernandez-Pedraza would be called as a witness.

In 2019, Penkava invoked his right as a religious leader to not testify at the man’s trial.

“When Michael Penkava, an Elder in his church, testified at the Arturo Hernandez-Pedraza jury trial, the trial judge ruled the clergy-penitent privilege covered discussions between Mr. Penkava and Mr. Hernandez-Pedraza in 2006,” Prossnitz said.

Penkava still was required to answer questions about actions the congregation took after learning of the sexual abuse more than 10 years before it was reported.

Prosecutors alleged that Penkava and Scott learned about the accusations in July 2006 through their positions as church elders. Shortly after, church leaders warned parishioners not to leave their children alone with Hernandez-Pedraza, according to testimony at the 2019 trial.

Those accusations weren’t reported to police until 2018, however, when the victim told church elders the abuse had not stopped, prosecutors have said.

Both Penkava and Scott’s attorneys are seeking to limit trial evidence to allegations that took place on or before July 27, 2006, claiming the “most serious” acts occurred between 2013 and 2018.

“Any sexual abuse which (the victim) was subjected to subsequent to July 27, 2006, is irrelevant to whether the Defendants knowing(ly) failed to report sex abuse by a (relative), which they became aware of on July 27, 2006,” the attorneys wrote in a Feb. 18 motion.

The branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses instructs its elders to report accusations if a minor is still in danger of abuse, according to the website.

Outside his involvement with Jehova’s Witnesses, Penkava taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake and previously wrote as a freelance columnist for the Northwest Herald.

When the allegations against Hernandez-Pedraza surfaced, Penkava spoke with an attorney who advised the church elder he had “no legal obligations under the Illinois law to disclose any information,” Prossnitz wrote in a March 1 motion.

“When that conflict of law arose, Michael Penkava sought the legal advice of legal counsel with Jehovah’s Witnesses at their national headquarters in New York state,” Prossnitz said.

Penkava has asked to waive attorney-client privilege at trial and testify about the conversation with that attorney, who was not named in Prossnitz’s motion.

Prossnitz also asked that the New York attorney be allowed to testify via Zoom at the trial, citing COVID-19 travel precautions.

“Testimony from Mr. Penkava and the New York lawyer would be limited in scope to the topic of discussing what if any mandatory reporting requirements Mr. Penkava needed to follow on the Arturo Hernandez-Pedraza matter and related issues,” Prossnitz wrote.

Hearings on pending motions in both men’s cases are expected to take place on Wednesday. A March 11 court date is scheduled as the final status date before the cases go to trial.

Katie Smith

Katie has reported on the crime and courts beat for the Northwest Herald since 2017. She began her career with Shaw Media in 2015 at the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, where she reported on the courts, city council, the local school board, and business.