Vancouver attorney Ryan D. Whitaker was convicted Thursday in Clark County Superior Court of abusing his position as a Sunday school teacher and molesting a 9-year-old girl at least twice in 2011 at the St. Johns Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Judge Robert Lewis acquitted him of a more serious charge of first-degree child rape and another count of first-degree child molestation. Whitaker opted for the case to be tried in front of the judge instead of a jury.
Whitaker, 59, remained calm during the verdict but swiveled in his chair slightly to see the reaction of his wife, Diane, seated in the public gallery. She met his gaze and shook her head. The victim wasn’t present for the verdict.
Whitaker was immediately taken into custody. He will be sentenced March 15.
The verdict wrapped up Whitaker’s four-day trial on charges of one count of first-degree child rape and three counts of first-degree child molestation.
In closing arguments Thursday, Deputy Prosecutor Jessica Smith argued that Whitaker used his position of trust as a Sunday school teacher to molest and rape the victim between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2011.
The victim testified on Monday that Whitaker reserved her a special seat next to him nearly every Sunday in the back row of a children’s worship room, called the Sharing Room. She said Whitaker would touch her private parts as about 30 to 50 children and some 15 adults, including teachers and parents, carried out group lessons, activities and songs. Sometimes, he reached his hand under her skirt from the front and other times, he slipped his hand through a gap in her folding chair and touched her from the back, she testified. He concealed the crime from other people in the room by draping a jacket over the back of her chair or over her lap, she said. She told her mother about the abuse after Whitaker asked her if the touching made her feel uncomfortable.
The child rape charge stemmed from the victim’s accusation that Whitaker also penetrated her with his finger on one occasion. Lewis said evidence had not proven that.
Whitaker took the stand on Wednesday and Thursday. He denied ever molesting or raping the girl. He said a mishap in the library at the church one Sunday when the girl was helping him may explain how the accusations originated. He was winding up an electrical cord on a piece of electrical equipment, and the cord swung and struck the girl below the waist, he said.
Defense attorney Vernon McCray, in his closing argument, argued that the girl was innocently trying to tell her mother that she had been struck accidentally in the groin area in the library, and her mother and subsequent adults involved in the case, including investigators, planted the idea of abuse in the girl’s mind. He referred to testimony by the defense’s expert witness, Dr. Daniel Reisberg of Reed College, that children’s perceptions can change over time and with pressure from adults.
Smith rebutted that the girl’s mother had testified she purposely didn’t ask her daughter any leading questions about the abuse because she didn’t want to plant any ideas in her head. The girl showed her mother where and how Whitaker touched her, she said. Smith also said the key facts had remained the same as the girl told the story to multiple adults.
Both the defense and the prosecution’s witnesses, including teachers and parents from the church, provided conflicting testimony on whether it would have been possible for Whitaker to molest the girl in the crowded Sunday school class.
Lewis said he suspects that Whitaker molested the victim more than the two counts he was convicted of, but the judge said there was not enough evidence to prove it.
Whitaker intends to appeal, said attorney Josephine Townsend.
Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; firstname.lastname@example.org.