Clergy confidentiality at issue in Amish bishop's case

The criminal complaint against the Amish bishop is clear about how he learned of a church member’s alleged sexual assault on three young teenage girls:

“John G. Beiler confessed the sexual assault incidents to Bishop Levi S. Esh Sr.,” says the complaint, pending in Lancaster County and filed by Pequea police in April.

“Confessed.” Whether the case moves forward could hinge on that word.

In April, Pequea police charged Mr. Esh, 63, with felony and misdemeanor charges of failing to report suspected child abuse to authorities after Mr. Beiler allegedly confessed to the sexual assaults.

The case is believed to be the first in Lancaster County — hub of the nation’s largest population of Amish — in which one of their spiritual leaders is charged with violating a Pennsylvania law that includes clergy among those mandated to report suspected child abuse.

But Pennsylvania law allows a privilege, or exemption, for clergy who learn about suspected abuse in “confidential communications” while in the course of their “duties.”

Mr. Esh’s attorney plans to challenge the charges on that and other grounds.

The charges come amid growing scrutiny in various states about the clergy-confidentiality privilege.

The case also involves the latest in a series of allegations of sexual abuse and coverup among Amish and closely related Mennonites, both part of the Plain church tradition. In 2017, a Dauphin County Amish bishop pleaded guilty to failing to report abuse, and in 2019, a Huntingdon County Mennonite pastor pleaded no-contest to a similar charge. Both received probation. 

The Post-Gazette reported in its “Coverings” series in 2019 that Amish and Mennonite elders have often treated sexual abuse allegations as sins to be dealt with through church discipline rather than as crimes, and that victims are often pressured to reconcile with abusers who profess repentance. Church leaders say they have improved their responses and their cooperation with law-enforcement and child-welfare officials.

In Mr. Esh’s case, police cited witnesses from within the Amish community who said while his church excommunicated Mr. Beiler, the bishop had the matter “handled internally” to keep the incident quiet. Two congregants told police when they raised concerns in October 2019, Mr. Esh said, “It’s been taken care of, and it’s none of your business.”

State law has evolved on mandated reporting of abuse. Since December 2014, the law has explicitly required several categories of persons, including clergy, to report suspected child abuse. (The charge against Mr. Esh alleges a continuous failure to report through October 2019.) Mr. Beiler himself faces nine criminal charges.

While part of Mr. Esh’s defense will center on which laws were in place at the time of Mr. Beiler’s alleged confession, defense attorney Christopher Sarno said he would also defend Mr. Esh’s actions under the clergy-confidentiality exemption.

“It says it right there in the complaint,” said Mr. Sarno, a former prosecutor. “The way he was tol...

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