A Jehovah’s Witness church elder is accused of failing to notify police about a known instance of sexual abuse against a minor in his congregation.
Michael M. Penkava, 71, of Crystal Lake, was charged Nov. 18 with violating reporting provisions. The offense is a misdemeanor typically punishable by less than one year in jail.
Outside of his involvement with the church, known among Jehovah’s Witnesses as a Kingdom Hall, Penkava taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He also previously wrote as a freelance columnist for the Northwest Herald.
He’s accused of failing to tell police about a male congregant who was sexually abusing a family member, court records show.
Woodstock-based attorney Philip Prossnitz said Penkava might not have been a mandated reporter at the time. Illinois law grants some protections to communication between faith leaders and congregants, Prossnitz said.
“Our research indicates that if information is received within the context of a penitent-clergy privilege, it does not have to be disclosed and such individuals are not mandated reporters, and I think that might be what is at issue here in this prosecution for this misdemeanor,” he said.
Penkava testified more than a year ago at the trial of Crystal Lake man, Arturo Hernandez-Pedraza.
A jury found Hernandez-Pedraza guilty in October 2019 of sexually assaulting and abusing a young female relative for more than 13 years.
At trial, Penkava invoked his right as a religious leader to not testify against the man. Ultimately, he was required to answer questions about actions the congregation took after learning about the sexual abuse more than a decade before it was reported.
Penkava learned about the accusations in July 2006, prosecutors said. Shortly after, church leaders warned parishioners not to leave their children alone with Hernandez-Pedraza.
The accusations weren’t reported to police until 2018, however, when the victim told church elders the abuse hadn’t stopped, prosecutors said at the time of 2019 trial.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Penkava declined to comment about the charge while the case was ongoing.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses official website, followers of the faith “abhor child abuse and view it as a crime.”
It went on to say that “authorities are responsible for addressing such crimes” and “elders do not shield any perpetrator of child abuse from the authorities.”
When elders learn of an accusation of child abuse, they consult with the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses to “ensure compliance with child abuse reporting laws,” according to the website.
Regardless of reporting laws, the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses instructs its elders to report the accusations if a minor is still in danger of abuse, according to the website.
Penkava is scheduled to make his next court appearance on Jan. 6.