Private prosecution gets thrown out of court

Latrobe Valley Express, Australia/February 27, 2012

A Toongabbie man's personal quest to hold a religion "to account" over its past "refusal" to comply with child protection legislation has been thrown out of court.

Carpenter Steven Unthank, a former Jehovah's Witness member, took his former religion to the Latrobe Valley Magistrates' Court in a private prosecution for failing to ensure its ministers adopted Working with Children Checks, as required by State Government legislation.

The prosecution, comprising a total of 35 charges against five organisations which make up the Jehovah's Witnesses structure, alleged religion elders had engaged "in child-related work at the Traralgon Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses ... knowing that (they did) not have a current 'Assessment Notice' as required under the working with Children Act 2005."

Mr Unthank said he hoped the court case, if successful, would set a precedent for all religions, nation-wide, who "refused to take leadership and the law seriously".

However the charges were officially withdrawn by the director of the Office of Public Prosecutions on Tuesday, as they were "not seen to be in the public interest".

The court, before Magistrate Daniel Muling, heard the Department of Public Prosecutions had applied to take over the conduct of proceedings to withdraw all charges.

Mr Unthank said he, and other members of the Traralgon congregation who wished to remain anonymous, were "disappointed" with the decision, and said it "sent a very clear message" to religions who "thought they were above the law".

The WWC was introduced by State Government in 2005 to ensure volunteers and employees, including ministers of religion, working with children went through background checks.

However, the Jehovah's Witness' corporate body, the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society, informed Victorian congregations their elders required the WWC in November last year.

Jehovah's Witness Traralgon Chaplain Albert Helbling said due to the "family orientated" nature of the religion, with Bible study classes "always conducted in the presence of family members", its six elders - some of which he said already held a WWC - had not seen the need for the background checks.

"Families are responsible for their children, they stick together and work together; that's how we operate;" Mr Helbling said.

"If a parent is not with the children, it's because the parent has agreed that the child goes alone with another family.

"As far as we're concerned, we've never had a problem with (not having the WWC); from our stand, is all we can see (Mr Unthank) is trying to cause ill feelings and problems."

Conjecture remains over whether Jehovah's Witness members, involved in door-to-door preaching methods in the company of children, referred to as 'publishers', were required to undergo the background checks.

In an audio recording of a letter from the Watchtower Society, read to a local congregation in late 2011 and heard by The Express, it was stated door-to-door activities were part of a member's "personal ministry", and 'publishers' were not representatives or volunteers of the Watchtower Society.

However the letter reading went on to state, "nevertheless, an individual may volunteer to apply (for WWC)", which Mr Unthank said was the religion absolving itself of responsibility, and putting the onus on individuals.

Watchtower Society senior elder Alan Wood, confirmed a letter had been sent out to Victorian congregations "about November" last year, informing elders of their requirement to apply for WWC.

This came after a Watchtower Society spokesperson told the Herald Sun in July last year it did not believe its ministers were required to obtain background checks "because they did not typically work unsupervised with children".

While Mr Wood said that "unclarity" initially surrounded the legislation and WWC criteria, he confirmed the Watchtower Society had been in discussions with the Department of Public Prosecutions, but would not comment on whether it was ordered to conform with the legislation, or had voluntarily accepted it.

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