Jehovah's Witnesses elders sentenced to supervision, community service for not reporting child's sexual abuse

Two Jehovah's Witnesses elders were sentenced Friday to one year of court supervision, 10 hours of community service and $250 in fines for failing to report that a congregant was sexually abusing a child.

Michael Penkava, 72, and Colin Scott, 88, who have served as Jehovah's Witnesses elders for decades, each were found guilty March 18 of a Class A criminal misdemeanor charge of violating the Abused and Neglected Child Reporting Act.

Their failure as mandated reporters to report the abuse in 2006 resulted in the child enduring sexual abuse over 12 more years and "300 more times than she should have," Assistant State's Attorney Ashur Youash said.

He asked that the men be sentenced to 12 days in the McHenry County Jail, which would represent one day for each of the 12 years the girl continued to be sexually abused. He also asked that they serve 30 months of community service, pay $2,500 in fines and be required to complete a mandated reporting program.

Both men plan on appealing the convictions, their attorneys said Friday.

"It is possible to act in good faith and still be wrong," said Penkava's attorney, Philip Prossnitz. "He had no benefit in this. He did not aid the abuser."

Scott's attorney, Terry Ekl, also said it is "pure speculation" to say that even if the elders reported the abuse when the girl was 6 years old that it would have stopped. He said the mother also knew she was being abused and did not stop it or report it.

Before sentencing Friday, Penkava said he believed the advice he received from Jehovah's Witnesses world headquarters in New York in 2006 that he was not required to report to authorities statements about the child being sexually abused to be "trustworthy and accurate."

The allegations that Arturo Hernandez-Pedraza, a congregant, was sexually abusing the child were instead handled by a judicial committee of three elders through prayer and spiritual guidance. The girl reported 12 years later to Penkava that the abuse never stopped, and he then took her to the Crystal Lake Police Department. Hernandez-Pedraza, 44, was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison in 2019.

"I had earnest trust and faith in God" and the judicial committee, Penkava said. "I never acted in bad faith. I truly believed I was following the law of Illinois. I am so sorry for any suffering in this utterly sad situation. I never became a conspirator to cover up abuse of a child."

Penkava's statement Friday detailed his 45 years as a Jehovah's Witness, 35 of those as an elder. He talked about his 35 years as a teacher at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake, where he "safeguarded" and considered his students as his family.

Penkava previously wrote as a freelance columnist for the Northwest Herald.

He said being a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses and following the faith has taught him how to love and respect and has led him on a path of being a "good member of society."

Scott, who attended the sentencing from his home via Zoom, also detailed his long history with Jehovah's Witnesses, which began at birth. He traveled to different states and to Colombia, supporting the faith and building Kingdom Halls. He described himself as a law-abiding citizen, loving father, grandfather and husband of 66 years before his wife died in 2020.

"Jehovah's Witness is an excellent way of life led by principals in the Bible," Scott said. "Jehovah's faith led me to be a faithful husband and father. ... I deeply regret any harm by my actions."

Ekl described Scott as a "good and decent man ... a good, honest man."

Penkava and Scott were both mandated reporters since 2002 and in a position of trust in the community and failed the child in not reporting the abuse, Youash said.

"When you hear a child is being abused, you don't call legal. You do the right thing, judge," he told McHenry County Judge Mark Gerhardt. "He was a teacher for 35 years. He had been trained. He knew better."

Youash told the judge that a message needed to be sent to Jehovah's Witnesses that "it is not OK to not report child abuse."

The elders, Youash said, warned other congregants to not leave their children alone with Hernandez-Pedraza but did nothing to help the girl or alert the community.

Prossnitz said that although the attorneys in court have years of legal education and case law to refer to, Penkava had "a moment" to decide what to do and he followed the advice of attorneys.

For prosecutors to say that Penkava should had known what to do is "arrogance" on their part and a "vast understatement," Prossnitz said.

Ekl said there are people in the world who are criminals, and they commit crimes. Then "there are "basic, decent, good people who may have committed a criminal act."

"He is an honorable member of society for almost 89 years," Ekl said of Scott. "He is a hardworking man who supported his family, volunteers ... (and before the pandemic) visited sick (church) members in the hospital and in nursing homes. (He) did not contemplate this would cause harm. He never intended to violate the statute."

In asking that Scott receive six months of court supervision and a fine, Ekl added that he has "no question" that Scott would today handle such a situation differently. He noted his age and health as a factor in not being sent to jail and said Scott became part of the judicial committee after the decision was made by Penkava not to report the abuse.

Scott, Ekl said, may have some blame in the situation but is not "exclusive" in that blame.

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