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Posted 09 Apr 2002   For week ended January 25, 2002
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News about Mormons, Mormonism,
and the LDS Church
Sent on Mormon-News: 24Jan02
By Kent Larsen
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Confession to LDS Branch President Leads to Abuser Conviction

LONDON, OHIO -- The Branch President of the Madison Lake Ohio Branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who heard the confession of a child molester, started a process that led to the conviction of the abuser just over a week ago. The case demonstrates the difficult position that clergy are sometimes in when they hear such confessions, and given other public cases and lawsuits against many churches, it is clear that the outcome of these cases doesn't always leave churches and clergy free of liability.

Branch President Steven Richardson appears to have done everything right when he heard the confession of John Lee Neely, 30, last summer. He advised Neely to tell his wife immediately, and called the LDS Church's hotline for advice, "This was a horrible situation. I called our chief office in Salt Lake City and talked to legal council and they told me that our paramount obligation is to make sure the child and the family are protected in a situation like this," Richardson said. "I am relieved that we had a chief office that I could go to for some guidance."

He then followed up a week later to make sure that Neely had told his wife, April. When Neely told him "No," Richardson went to Neely's home and stayed there until Neely had confessed to his wife. She then kicked him out of the house.

The next day the couple returned to Richardson for counseling, and he advised Neely to turn himself in to the police. According to testimony from April Neely, her husband told Richardson that April's then three-year-old daughter from a previous marriage had initiated the sexual conduct. In his defense, Neely's lawyer introduced evidence to show that the girl had previously been abused by her father, and that the girl's actions were consistent with that.

About a week after the couple met with Richardson, April Neely called the police, explaining "I didn't know how to handle it," when asked why she delayed. London police then interviewed John Neely and he confessed to them. He even tried to plead guilty at an arraignment, but was talked out of it by counsel.

But while John Neely seemed cooperative and showed regret through his arraignment, by the time his wife testified against him at the recent trial, he was more angry and belligerent, making obscene gestures to his wife and to the jury during the trial. Those actions raised the ire of the Judge, who threatened to remove Neely to another room and force him to watch the proceedings on closed circuit television if he didn't stop his intimidation.

Now Neely is awaiting sentencing after being convicted, and his wife is trying to rebuild her family in the wake of his conviction, undoubtedly with the assistance of Richardson and his branch.

But Richardson realizes that Neely's case could have been much worse. He says that it is rare that someone who has confessed would not follow his advice, but if Neely had refused, he would have had to take some other action to protect the three-year-old girl, "We cannot stand idly by while something like this happens, but there are other ways to deal with this than going to the police."

Traditionally, clergy and churches try to protect the confidentiality of confessions, refusing to disclose to anyone, including law enforcement officials and courts, what has been confessed to them. "Historically, civilized societies have tried to keep hold of this. I think that is important to keep. If someone came to me as their pastor, I would have to respect that confidentiality," said Pastor Ron Reynolds of the Mt. Sterling Church of the Nazarene.

But the high profile of child sexual abuse in recent years has led some clergy to re-examine the sanctity of the confessional, and led to an assault on the principle by some activists. Pastor Reynolds admits that the abuse of a child is, at least to him, a very different situation from someone who has stolen money, for example, "That would take a very special situation when my role would change from the protector of the parishioner to the protector of my flock and of society at large. At that point," he said, "the pastor is in a very difficult conundrum. It is almost as if there is no right thing to do."

However, police and the courts still recognize that confessions are confidential. Prosecutors in Madison County, Ohio, where John Neely was convicted, say that they would never prosecute a member of the clergy for not disclosing a confession, "It is an old confidentiality that is still recognized in the state of Ohio. If a parishioner comes to a member of the clergy in a penitent situation, all that information is privileged. That cuts across all religious borders," said Madison County Assistant Prosecutor Gregory T. Merritt.

Like many churches, the LDS Church has seen lawsuits and claims for failing to disclose child sexual abuse that has been confessed. Last September it paid $3 million to settle claims in a Portland case which claimed that an LDS Bishop knew that a member of his ward was an abuser and failed to warn the LDS family that took him in. The Church claims that the Bishop didn't know of the previous abuse.

But in other cases involving the LDS Church, other churches and their clergy there isn't always a clear-cut defense of the confessional. Bishops and branch presidents also learn of abuse or suspected abuse from the victims and from third parties. The lawsuits in these cases cover a variety of claims, including claims that the clergy didn't believe the reports when they should have, or that the clergy didn't keep children away from the suspected abusers. In general, the LDS Church has vigorously defended these cases.


Criminal confessions can be tough on clergy
Madison OH Press 17Jan02 P2
By Mac Cordell: Press Staff Writer

Neely's wife testifies against him
Madison OH Press 9Jan02 P2
By Steve Smith: Press Staff Writer
Testimony gives graphic details of girl's behavior

Neely rape trial gets underway
Madison OH Press 8Jan02 P2
By Steve Smith: Press Staff Writer

Neely attempts to plead guilty in rape case
Madison OH Press 20Jul01 P2
By Steve Smith: Press Staff Writer
Lawyers talk him out of it during arraigment

Child rape case goes to grand jury
Madison OH Press 2Jul01 P2
By Steve Smith: Press Staff Writer
Defense says 3 year old initiated contact


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