Judge blasts church over sex offences

Illawarra Mercury/ August 5, 2000
By Michelle Tydd

A Wollongong judge yesterday launched a scathing attack on the Jehovah's Witness congregation at Balgownie, accusing elders of failing to report child sex abuse.

Judge John Goldring in Wollongong District Court said he was surprised police had not taken action against the congregation.

``And I wished they had,'' the angry judge said.

The attack came as he sentenced Robert Leslie Souter to five years' jail for sexual assaults on two teenage boys 20 years ago.

Judge Goldring said congregation elders were told of the sexual assaults by Souter in 1990 and he was ``disfellowshipped'' or excommunicated five years later without any further action.

``The moral punishment imposed by a church is not punishment demanded by law,'' Judge Goldring said.

``I cannot criticise the church sufficiently enough ... it's well known in these courts that churches are criticised for failing to report criminal activity.''

``The church may have spiritual responsibility but it does not exceed the authority of the state,'' Judge Goldring said.

The congregation that met in Balgownie was known as the Corrimal congregation. It has since moved to Fairy Meadow.

Souter, 46, pleaded guilty to one count of buggery and four counts of indecent assault.

The court was told the offences took place when Souter and the two victims were members of the congregation at Balgownie. From 1978 to 1980 Souter committed at least five offences, four of which were committed on one victim.

The court heard Souter became known to the boys' families and earned their trust.

Souter committed the sex acts during outings to the beach and to the Blue Mountains.

Solicitor for the Crown Ines Chiumento said it had been a major violation of trust.

Souter's barrister Terry McGill, who defended the congregation saying it took great pains to care for its flock, told the court his client had suffered remorse since the offences.

He said Souter's marriage had broken up and he now lived in another state.

Judge Goldring said he reduced the jail sentence taking into account Souter had been a sex abuse victim. He imposed a non-parole period of three years.

Presiding elder in the Corrimal congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Roger Graham, said he could not comment about practices 20 years ago.

However, he said the approach the congregation took today was to speak to victims and offer them support and encouragement to come forward.

``If they choose to take legal action, we give them all the support they need,'' Mr Graham said.

``It is not up to the church to take that action without victim approval because it is they who have to face the interrogation and stress of the matter.''

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