Two former Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced on Friday to one year of judicial supervision, 10 hours of community service and a $250 fine for failing to report that a worshiper was sexually abusing a child.
Michael Penkava, 72, and Colin Scott, 88, who served as elders of Jehovah’s Witnesses for decades, were each found guilty on March 18 of a Class A misdemeanor charge for violating the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act.
Their failure as reporters mandated to report the abuse in 2006 resulted in the child being sexually abused for 12 more years and “300 times more than she should have been”, the assistant prosecutor of the state, Ashur Youash.
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 called for them to serve 30 months of community service, pay $2,500 in fines and be required to complete a mandatory reporting program.
Both men plan to appeal the convictions, their lawyers said on Friday.
“It is possible to act in good faith and be wrong,” said Penkava’s lawyer, Philip Prossnitz. “He got no benefit from that. He didn’t help the attacker.
Scott’s attorney, Terry Ekl, also said it was “pure speculation” to say that even if the elders had reported the abuse when the girl was 6, it would have stopped. He said the mother also knew she was being abused and did not stop or report him.
Before sentencing on Friday, Penkava said he believed advice he received from Jehovah’s Witnesses world headquarters in New York in 2006 that he was not required to report to authorities claims that the child had been sexually abused were “trustworthy and accurate”.
Allegations that worshiper Arturo Hernandez-Pedraza sexually abused the child were instead dealt with 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 later took her to the Crystal Lake Police Department. Hernandez-Pedraza, 44, was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison in 2019.
“I had sincere trust and faith in God” and in the Judiciary Committee, Penkava said. “I have never acted in bad faith. I truly believed that I was following Illinois law. I am so sorry for any suffering in this utterly sad situation. I never became a conspirator to cover up child abuse.
Penkava’s statement on Friday detailed his 45 years as a Jehovah’s Witness, including 35 as an elder. He spoke of his 35 years as a teacher at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake, where he “protected” and treated his students as his family.
Penkava previously wrote as a freelance columnist for the Northwest Herald.
He said being a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses and following the faith taught him to love and respect and set him on the path to being a “good member of society”.
Scott, who watched 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 Colombia, supporting the faith and building Kingdom Halls. He described himself as a law-abiding citizen, loving father, grandfather and husband of 66 before his wife died in 2020.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are a great way of life led by biblical principles,” Scott said. “The faith of Jehovah has led me to be a faithful husband and father. … I deeply regret any harm caused by my actions.
Ekl described Scott as a “good, decent man…a good, honest man”.
Both Penkava and Scott had been commissioned reporters since 2002 and held a position of trust in the community and let the child down by not reporting 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. for 35 years. He had been trained. He knew better.
Youash told the judge that a message should be sent to Jehovah’s Witnesses stating that “it is not acceptable not to report child abuse”.
The elders, Youash said, warned other worshipers not to leave their children alone with Hernandez-Pedraza, but did nothing to help the girl or alert the community.
Prossnitz said that although the court’s attorneys have years of legal training and case law to refer to, Penkava had “a moment” to decide what to do and he took the attorneys’ advice.
For prosecutors to say that Penkava should have known what to do is “arrogance” on their part and a “vast understatement,” Prossnitz said.
Ekl said that there are people in the world who are criminals and who commit crimes. Then “there are ‘basic, decent, good people who may have committed a criminal act.’
“He’s been an honorable member of society for nearly 89 years,” Ekl said of Scott. “He is a hardworking man who supported his family, his volunteers… [and before the pandemic] visited sick [church] members in hospitals and nursing homes. [He] did not foresee that it would cause harm. He never intended to break the law.
Asking that Scott receive six months of judicial supervision and a fine, Ekl added that he had “no doubt” Scott would handle such a situation differently today. He noted that his age and health were a factor in not being sent to prison and said Scott became a member of the judiciary 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.