CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire's highest court on Wednesday rejected a new trial for a man convicted of raping and impregnating a 15-year-old member of his church, a case that gained national attention because she said the church's pastor made her apologize to the congregation.
Ernest Willis was convicted in May 2011 of raping the girl in 1997. His lawyer argued that statements he made to the pastor of the fundamentalist Trinity Baptist Church should not have been used against him. But prosecutors countered that Willis' statements were not protected by religious privilege because they involved the sexual abuse of a child.
Willis' public defender, Christopher Johnson, said he had no comment on the unanimous ruling by the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
Jurors at Willis' trial heard testimony by former Trinity Baptist Church pastor Charles Phelps that Willis told him that he was "the aggressor" and that there were two instances of sexual assault — one during driving lessons he was giving the girl, Tina Anderson — and again at her apartment a month later. The Associated Press does not typically identify victims of sexual assault, but Anderson wanted her name publicized to highlight church abuse.
The justices noted that all 50 states have laws protecting the confidence of clergy-parishioner communications, but New Hampshire is one of six states that revokes that privilege in its child abuse reporting statutes.
"Whether the communication is a 'confidence' within the meaning of the religious privilege depends upon the objectively reasonable expectations of the communicant, under the totality of the circumstances," Justice Carol Ann Conboy wrote.
Willis maintained at trial that the sexual intercourse was consensual and happened only once. Before trial, he pleaded guilty to statutory rape, based on the girl's age. He is serving 15 to 30 years in prison.
Phelps helped Anderson move to Colorado to have the baby and put the infant up for adoption. She says he also made her apologize to the New Hampshire congregation. The pastor reported the sexual assaults to police and the Division of Children, Youth and Families, as required by state law, and at trial disputed that he required Anderson to apologize.
Phelps said Wednesday there is often tension between religious privilege and the obligation to report criminal behavior, but the New Hampshire law worked to ensure justice.
"The trial judge fulfilled his responsibility in ruling that information shared in private should be part of the case against Ernest Willis, and the information helped lead to a conviction," Phelps said in a statement. He also lamented that police did not act promptly on his child abuse report.
Concord police say they were forced to shelve the case when they couldn't locate the girl to interview her. They finally learned her married name from websites critical of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist movement and reached her in Arizona, where she now lives.
Phelps is now senior pastor at Colonial Hills Baptist Church in Indianapolis.
The court on Wednesday also rejected Willis' claims that jurors should not have heard portions of a police interview with him in May 2010, in which a detective stated that Anderson had no reason to lie in her version of events. The court ruled there is a difference between a police officer giving an opinion while testifying at trial and offering an opinion during an interrogation.
It ruled that it was a mistake for the trial court to permit jurors to hear that portion of the police interview, which referenced an anonymous report to child welfare officials about the sexual assaults, but said the judge's instruction to the jury to not accept the statements as true rendered the error harmless.