A registered sex-offender became a ‘ministerial servant’ for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Springfield; he’s now in prison for assaulting child | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

SPRINGFIELD — A Level 3 sex offender who moved to Springfield and secured a role with the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization is now in prison.

Jay Aaron Smith, 62, was sentenced recently in Hampden Superior Court to 15 years in prison for several counts of indecent assault and battery on a child. Aaron abused a 13-year-old at his home for months in 2020 and 2021.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses deny that Smith, convicted late last month of child sexual abuse, was a church elder, the title used by the Hampden District Attorney’s Office to describe his role with the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Springfield.

But the DA’s office says it stands by its statement.

And both the office and the Springfield Police Department say the church did not report the abuse that Smith inflicted on the victim. According to a court document, a family member went to the organization seeking action regarding the abuse.

The victim reported to police that Smith told her no one would believe her if she were to tell what he’d done.

Smith was already a state-registered Level 3 sex offender, the highest category, when the abuse happened because of a rape conviction decades before in Georgia, according to the DA’s office.

A spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ U.S. branch in Wallkill, New York, said Smith has never been an elder, but did serve for less than a year as “ministerial servant,” an assistant to an elder.

“We are deeply saddened by these horrible events,” the religious organization said in a statement in response to questions about the case from The Republican and MassLive. “It should be noted that the allegations had nothing to do with any congregation activity.”

The church reached out to the DA’s office asking that it correct a press release about Smith it published on social media stating his leadership position, according to the office’s spokesperson, Jim Leydon.

Leydon said the office will not be issuing a correction.

“Based upon evidence collected through the course of the investigation, we are comfortable with our assertion of his place of prominence within the hall,” Leydon said.

Role of elders

In the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, elders are volunteer leaders and “spiritually mature men who take the lead in the congregation and shepherd,” according to its website.

When asked if there are background checks the church conducts to qualify someone with a criminal history to serve as an elder, the church spokesperson reiterated that Smith was not an elder, and pointed to the Bible for eligibility.

“The Bible sets forth the requirements for volunteer elders,” the spokesperson said in a statement. Several Bible passages are cited on the Jehovah’s Witnesses website under qualifications for the elder role.

A victim’s family member “attempted to find resolution within her church,” a court document in the case says.

When the congregation found out about the abuse allegation against Smith, “it promptly reported the matter to the authorities,” a Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesperson said.

However, the Springfield Police Department did not get a report from the church, according to spokesperson Ryan Walsh.

The victim and a parent reported the abuse to Springfield police in February 2021, according to a report filed in court. When authorities investigated, the church had not filed a 51A report, a report of alleged child abuse or neglect, according to the DA’s office. Clergy members are mandated reporters in Massachusetts.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesperson said its policy in responding to abuse allegations is to first comply with reporting laws, and that it reported allegations against Smith to the state Department of Children and Families in February 2021. The spokesperson said the church believed that DCF reported the abuse to police.

Around the world, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been criticized for mishandling allegations of child sexual abuse.

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