CONWAY, N.H. (ABP) — A minister and two elders of a Southern Baptist church in New Hampshire have been convicted on misdemeanor charges of failing to report suspected sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl.
Tim Dillmuth, 34, a pastor at Valley Christian Church in Conway, N.H., was one of four church leaders arrested in February on a charge of violating a state law requiring the report of child abuse to authorities.
Dillmuth and elders Richard Eland, 62, and Robert Gagnon, 70, will be sentenced Dec. 21. They face up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
A fourth man, Michael Wedge, 32, cooperated with the investigation. His case was placed on file without finding for one year.
According to North Conway radio station WMWV, Dillmuth met in September 2009 with parents who told him their daughter had been sexually abused by a man who was a deacon in the church.
Court documents said the parents asked Dillmuth not to report the incident. The pastor told church elders about it but not the police. Legal authorities finally learned of the allegations Feb. 1, 2010, after a church member who knew about the case insisted that it be reported.
The three men argued in court that they acted in good faith by urging the parents to report the alleged abuse. District Court of Northern Carroll County Judge Pamela Albee, however, ruled Nov. 15 the leaders "deliberately attempted" to keep the matter within the church while discussing it at meetings of the congregation's board of elders.
New Hampshire's Child Protection Act includes ministers in a list of occupations requiring persons with "reason to suspect that a child has been abused or neglected" to report the information to authorities.
Police have not charged anyone with actually abusing the child, but court documents said that did not excuse church leaders who "knowingly have reason to suspect" that a child was raped and "neglected to report" the case as required by law.
The judge said that permitting an immunity defense sought by the church leaders "would eviscerate the very purpose of the Child Protection Act and its reporting law provisions."
David Clohessy and Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) praised authorities for filing the charges. "This pattern — church-goers keeping silent about suspected abuse — is terribly common but rarely punished," the SNAP leaders said in a press release.
They said in a letter to prosecutors and police that deterring child molesters is hard but deterring people who witness or strongly suspect crimes from keeping silent "may be the best way to stop a child molester after his fourth victim, instead of his 44th victim."
Founded in 1997, Valley Christian Church reports an average attendance of about 225. It is an elder-led congregation affiliated with New Hampshire Baptist Association, the Baptist Convention of New England and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Media reports at the time of Dillmuth's arrest identified him as an associate pastor. The radio station report of his conviction labeled him interim pastor. The church's listing on the New Hampshire Baptist Association website lists him as youth pastor. The association's director of missions referred an inquiry about Dillmuth's employment status to the church. An e-mail sent to an address on the church website did not receive a response.
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.