IONIA, Mich. (WOOD) - An Ionia County circuit court judge said a pastor who invoked clergy-penitent privilege was within his rights when he did not report suspicions of a man molesting his stepchildren to authorities.
Dozens of members of Prominski's church packed the Ionia County circuit courtroom Wednesday morning to show support for the pastor. They erupted in applause and cheers when Judge Suzanne Kreeger announced her decision.
"Our church has grown to know each other and to love each other and to love our pastor and, you know, we love him so much that we wanted to come and support him," said church member Greg Saurbeck, one of the men who turned out Wednesday.
Neither side disputes the basic facts: A woman approached Prominski in 2009 and told him that she thought her husband may have been sexually abusing her daughters.
Court documents from prosecutors said the woman told Prominski she was afraid her husband was having the girls touch themselves in front of him.
Prominski didn't report the allegations to police. Rather, he counseled the man. That man denied everything at the time and the girls involved did not want to talk to the pastor.
But two years later, the same woman came to Prominski with more abuse allegations. This time, she said her daughter woke up in the middle of the night screaming, "I hate you," and "I hate, I hate you, don't ever touch me again." Records say the girl's stepfather was in her bedroom.
This time, Prominski told the woman she'd have to tell police -- or he would.
That man was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in 2011 and is still in jail.
Prominski was charged in late 2011 with failing to report child abuse -- a misdemeanor that is punishable by up to 93 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Prosecutors said it was the pastor's duty to tell police. They pointed out the incident was not told to him in confession and the man's wife wasn't admitting a crime she committed.
"In both cases, [the conversations in 2009 and 2011] the situations were the same -- he just made the distinction based on what he thought about the facts reported to him," said Ionia County assistant Prosecuting attorney Kristen Stinedurf. "That's not how the privilege works, and that's not what he gets to decide under the mandatory reporter law."
The charge against Prominski was dismissed early in 2012. Prosecutors appealed that dismissal.
Prosecutors argued that Prominski should have gone to police in 2009 because it wasn't up to him to decide if the allegations were true.
"His reasons for not reporting the behavior had nothing to do with privilege confidentiality," said Stinedurf. "He decided not to report it because of what his personal opinion was about the facts of the report -- and that's not the way that privilege works."
County prosecuting attorney Ron Schafer told 24 Hour News 8 that his office plans to appeal this case to the state appeals court. Schafer said that it's important since there's a "severe lack of case law" in this issue and everyone "needs some guidance."
The defense argued the privilege is absolute. Defense attorney Bruce Block said Prominski wasn't bound to report the allegations to anyone.
"The clergy-penitent privilege is something we take for granted in this country," Block told the court.
He then argued that the woman, in some ways, may have been talking about her own actions to the pastor.
"Isn't that disclosing, perhaps, her own feelings? Perhaps her own sins? If you want to call it that -- her own lack of good judgment? Of marrying somebody such as this?" Block asked.
Judge Kreeger said she agreed with the defense and the district court's decision to dismiss this case. She said that she thought the woman wanted confidentiality when she initially approached the pastor and thought she would get it.
When asked about what he would say to people who think he did the wrong thing, Prominski said, "Given the information, the situation I was in, I made the best call I could have made."
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