Jehovah's Witness elder called out for providing court character reference for Kezia Whitton's abuser

Legal (CSA)
ABC Online
Briana Fiore. (February 7, 2024 Wednesday). Jehovah's Witness elder called out for providing court character reference for child abuser. WebNews - English.

A survivor of child sex abuse has criticised one of the leaders of her former church for providing a character reference for her abuser in court.

WARNING: This story contains references to child sexual abuse.

Kezia Whitton was sexually abused by her brother Joel almost three decades ago, when she was five and he was 18.

Ms Whitton confronted her brother in 2018 following the royal commission into child abuse and he was jailed last year.

However, during the court proceedings, Ms Whitton was shocked to learn a Jehovah's Witnesses religious leader, Jon Oldfield, had given her brother a character reference.

The internal investigation

Mr Oldfield was one of the Jehovah's Witness elders to whom her brother initially confessed in 2018 before the police became involved.

There were two other elders named in a confidential summary document of the confession, seen by the ABC.

They include Les Mansell, who declined to comment, and John Johnson, who the ABC attempted to contact for comment.

Mr Mansell did not provide Mr Whitton with a character reference in court.

Mr Oldfield said he did not contact police following the confession because Joel Whitton told him his sister did not want the abuse reported.

He said the reporting was left up to Ms Whitton.

Asked whether he was concerned that his failure to contact police may have left Joel Whitton free to access a Working With Children Card, Mr Oldfield said: "I didn't think about that, but that's a valid concern."

"We definitely, in the congregation, put restrictions in place," he said.

Mr Oldfield said the congregation was made aware of what Joel Whitton had done and that any new congregation he joined would have received a warning that he had that conviction.

Ms Whitton denies that she did not want the abuse reported, and later reported her brother to police herself, after which he was charged and jailed.

"They've let the perpetrator take charge," Ms Whitton said.

Had the confession happened in another Australian state, the elders may have been legally compelled to report the abuse.

However, WA's mandatory reporting laws do not cover incidences of historical child sexual abuse.

Shock over character reference

Mr Oldfield said he would not say he "supported" Joel Whitton, but that he supplied a character reference to the court in relation to how he was now, rather than "how he was" in the past.

"I very much feel for Kezia and what she's been through," he said.

Ms Whitton said she was hurt by the elder's decision to provide the reference.

"I think I was more shocked than disappointed at the character reference from the [elder]," she said.

However, Ms Whitton said she was grateful one of the church's elders had chosen to speak openly about her case.

Notes given to police

Mr Oldfield told the ABC he gave notes he had kept from Joel Whitton's confession to police after they requested it for their investigation years later.

However, he said he may have had other notes.

"We might have made brief notes but I don't know where they'd be," Mr Oldfield said.

"In the end, we just put it into the summary and put that into the file. We're not disposing of notes, we're not trying to hide anything."

Ms Whitton said if the case had gone to trial, she may have needed any potential extra evidence, and that the church should leave criminal matters to the police.

"If it was a break-in at the Kingdom Hall or their own homes, they would call the police — why call the police to investigate a break-in, but something more serious like child abuse [is handled] internally?" she said.

The ABC is not suggesting Mr Oldfield or any of the other elders intentionally disposed of any extra notes about Joel Whitton's confession.

A Jehovah's Witness spokesperson from the organisation's headquarters previously told the ABC that information concerning allegations of child sexual abuse was "retained indefinitely".

"We expect anyone who is aware of any accusation [or] who is aware of a criminal offence under our laws [to] report to police," he said.

He said not doing so could put people at risk of being charged with covering up a crime.

Mr Cook said the effectiveness of all laws was reviewed over time, and there would be an opportunity in the future to assess whether WA's laws on reporting historical sexual abuse were working.

A WA Police spokesperson encouraged anyone aware of child sex abuse to report it to police.

"It is the right thing to do, regardless of who is involved," they said.

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