Church elders fought against giving evidence in a child abuse case.
Gordon Leighton, a Jehovah’s Witness ministerial servant, admitted when confronted by elders at Lambton Kingdom Hall, in Washington, that he had abused a young girl.
But the churchmen refused to co-operate with the ensuing police investigation and had to be forced by a judge to give evidence against Leighton after a lengthy legal battle.
Now he is behind bars after being convicted of a series of sex offences against the youngster.
Leighton was remanded in custody and told to expect a lengthy prison term when he is sentenced in August.
The 53-year-old, of Wigeon Close, Ayton, Washington, who hit the headlines in the 1990s when his wife Yvonne, 28, died as a result of refusing a blood transfusion after childbirth, on religious grounds, had denied any wrongdoing.
But Newcastle Crown Court heard he had secretly confessed to the abuse to the elders.
The court heard that at a special meeting, aimed at “keeping the congregation clean”, Leighton admitted sexual abuse and made excuses for his behaviour.
When detectives asked elders Simon Preyser, Harry Logan and David Scott to make statements about the confession, all three refused and said what they had heard was confidential.
For three years they refused to co-operate with the criminal investigation.
The three men kept that stance when the case was brought to court and they were each issued with a witness summons.
The elders launched a court battle against the summonses but were ordered to testify by Judge Penny Moreland after months of legal wrangling.
Their barrister Richard Daniels said the men had a “duty to God” not to breach confidence.
He said: “Privileged communication between members of the congregation and ministers is an absolute right and duty and there is no power in law to breach such a confidence.”
Judge Moreland ordered that the men must reveal what they had heard and said: “It is apparent that the three elders who were present when this conversation took place are in possession of relevant evidence as to a point which is of real significance in this case.
“They claim the right of confidentiality, they claim that what they heard said by the defendant during the course of that meeting ought to be subject to privilege, as ministers of religion.”
Judge Moreland refused to withdraw the summonses and said: “Public interest is clearly in favour of this evidence being given. What was said by the defendant on that occasion is of great significance in the trial.”
Despite the judge’s ruling, the men refused to make statements to police until hours before they were called as witnesses before the jury.
Leighton, who has since been expelled from the Church, was convicted of eight counts of indecency with a child and indecent assault and three assaults on another victim.
He was remanded in custody until he is sentenced and told to sign the sex offender register.