CHURCH officials hushed up a child sex scandal in their ranks and refused to co-operate with police.
Jehovah Witness ministerial servant Gordon Leighton admitted sexually abusing a child when he was confronted by his church elders, a court heard.
But during the official police investigation, the 53-year-old – who made headlines in the 1990s when wife Yvonne, 28, died after refusing a blood transfusion after childbirth on religious grounds – denied any illegal wrongdoing.
And 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, the elders refused to co-operate with the criminal investigation and kept up that stance when the case was brought before Newcastle Crown Court after the victim made a complaint to police.
Each was issued with a witness summons which they fought to overturn before being ordered to testify by Judge Penny Moreland citing public interest.
Their barrister Richard Daniels said the men had a “duty to God” not to breach confidence.
He added: “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 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 still refused to make statements to police until just hours before they were called before the jury.
Leighton, who has since been expelled from the church at Lambton Kingdom Hall in Washington, denied two charges of indecency with a child and seven of indecent assault.
He was yesterday found guilty of two charges of indecency with a child and six of indecent assault. He was found not guilty of one indecent assault charge, on the direction of the judge.
He was remanded in custody until he is sentenced next month but warned he is facing a lengthy spell behind bars.
Prosecutor Katherine Dunn told the court the victim, who is now an adult, broke her silence in 2009.
The court heard how at a special church meeting, Leighton “admitted sexual abuse” and made excuses for his behaviour.
Miss Dunn said: “The elders conducted their own investigation. A meeting was arranged and the defendant was confronted with the allegations.
“After initially denying the allegations, he broke down and admitted sexually abusing the complainant.”
The court heard Leighton, of Wigeon Close, Ayton, refused to answer any questions when interviewed by detectives and claimed his confession at the meeting was limited to masturbation and reading pornographic material.
Throughout the six-day trial, Leighton denied all allegations and that he had confessed to the elders, telling jurors: “It never happened. It’s all untrue.”
Leighton had also denied unrelated assault charges, which he was found guilty of.