Linda Martin isn’t surprised her second cousin, Lester Kester, is accused of sexually abusing four children.
She’s not surprised his wife, Sarah Kester, is also accused of knowing about the abuse and doing nothing about it, citing the Kesters’ religious beliefs.
And because the state of Idaho allows some religious exemptions for “faith healing” in child abuse laws, Martin has concerns that Sarah Kester may be allowed to make that argument in court — and win — as a defense for her alleged silence.
The Kesters’ church has been accused for years of allowing children to die because it practices “faith healing,” a practice where members of the church do not believe in modern medicine and rely on prayer to cure the sick.
While most of the attention the Followers of Christ have received is due to their beliefs and lack of medical care for their children, Martin said the faith also does not believe in involving outside authorities if they know of a crime. Instead, they “handle it within the church,” she said.
An Idaho lawmaker, who has fought for years to rid state code of a religious exemption in some Idaho child abuse laws, came to the Kesters’ court hearing Thursday with similar concerns. State Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, attended the hearings to see if Sarah Kester’s defense would use the religious beliefs exemption to free her.
Gannon made clear that he was not implying guilt nor was he focusing Kester specifically, but he’s focused on how or if the exemption could be used as a defense.
Sarah Kester waived her preliminary hearing Thursday, so attorneys have not yet talked about that in court. If the exemption is used as an argument in Sarah Kester’s case, Gannon, who’s an attorney and a member of the state’s House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee, said it would provide only more evidence of the need to change the injury-to-child exemptions.
“Sexual abuse never goes away,” Martin said. “It’s always there. I’m 64 years old, and it still haunts me. It’s time to remove the religious shields that protect religious (abuse).”
The Kesters’ case
On July 26, a judge denied Lester Kester’s request for a lower bond. Lester Kester, 48, is accused of abusing four children and has been charged with four counts of lewd conduct with a child younger than age 16. He’s awaiting trial in Canyon County jail and faces life in prison if convicted of those crimes.
The alleged crimes occurred between 1997 and 2018, according to court records. The four alleged victims were ages 1 to 13, and the abuse may have lasted years, according to police.
On Thursday, District Judge David Eames denied Lester Kester’s bond reduction request to lower the amount from $500,000. His defense attorney, Scott James, argued that Lester Kester had no criminal record and was cooperative with police. He argued that a lower bond was a reasonable request.
In exchange, a Canyon County deputy prosecutor said the reason Kester had no criminal history is because “other people in the community covered it up.”
Lester Kester waived his preliminary hearing, and his next court appearance is set for 8:30 a.m. Aug. 8.
Sarah Kester, 50, is charged on suspicion of felony injury to child because police allege she knew of the sex abuse and did not report it. The Kesters were arrested after one alleged victim went to law enforcement with the accusations. Sarah Kester also waived her preliminary hearing.
On Tuesday, Sarah Kester pleaded not guilty and her attorney requested a bond reduction, but was denied. She remains in custody with bond set at $25,000.
One former follower’s experience
Martin, who left the church when she was 16, has frequently and openly testified before lawmakers, urging them to lift an exemption in Idaho law for faith healing and hold those who practice it accountable. Under that law, a parent or guardian may withhold medical assistance in cases where he or she “chooses for his child treatment by prayer or spiritual means alone.”
Martin said church members’ actions meet the definition of child abuse. While the Kesters are not accused of medical neglect, Martin said she wasn’t surprised to learn of accusations of other forms of abuse by church members, as she experienced sexual abuse as a child herself.
“I’m very familiar with the abuse (in the church),” Martin said. “I did experience it, and the only way I could bring the abuse to light is to talk publicly.”
A faith with exemptions
The Followers of Christ congregation is accused of allowing multiple children to die due to a lack of medical care, and the church has been in the spotlight for the last several years as the Idaho Legislature has repeatedly tried — unsuccessfully — to lift the exemption in Idaho’s child abuse law regarding faith healing.
When interviewed by police in July, Sarah Kester reportedly admitted to detectives that she learned of her husband’s actions about 17 years ago, and she was again confronted by the alleged victims about three years ago, according to a Canyon County Sheriff’s Office news release.
“Sarah Lester told detectives that she didn’t report the abuse because it was against her belief system to involve agencies such as law enforcement, child protection services, or counseling services into personal matters,” according to a press release. “Instead, she said she attempted to protect ... children through praying for ‘the demon’ to leave Lester and attempting to keep him busy with other tasks.”
Prosecutors and law enforcement argue that the exemption enables child abuse because if any other person were to allow a child to suffer due to medical neglect, they would be criminally charged.
Lawmakers have repeatedly debated the religious exemption in Idaho’s injury-to-child charge, the same criminal accusation that Sarah Kester is now facing. Martin believes Sarah Kester will point to that exemption in court.
After the hearing, Gannon told the Idaho Statesman he came to the hearing because he knew Sarah Kester was charged with injury to child. Gannon has repeatedly pitched legislation attempting to remove the religious exemption in that charge — something he plans to do again in 2019.
“If there is an unattended consequence in this law, the argument is very compelling that any unintended consequence has results,” Gannon said about this kind of criminal charge.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue has also been outspoken about the need to remove the religious exemption in the injury-to-child law. In the past, discussion at the Statehouse has always centered around whether a parent is obligated to provide medical care if it is in conflict with a religious belief.
Donahue said he does not know of other sex abuse by church members, and while the Kesters’ case is a much different scenario, the protections of the law still come into question. Donahue said the problem is that the law can protect a small group of people under one umbrella, and they know it.
“It gives them confidence that they don’t have to comply,” he said. “(As if) ‘your law does not apply to us. We’re going to hide behind this religious shield.’”