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Faith-healing follower sentenced for not reporting sex abuse

Lester and Sarah Kester. Photos courtesy Canyon County Jail.
Lester and Sarah Kester. Photos courtesy Canyon County Jail.
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NAMPA, Idaho (AP) - An Idaho woman who refused to report her husband's years-long sexual abuse of young family members, choosing instead to pray for "the demon" to leave him, has been ordered to spend a year in a prison treatment program.

The Idaho Press reports 51-year-old Sarah Kester was sentenced to the retained jurisdiction program on Thursday. Judge Christopher Nye said that if Kester fails to successfully complete the treatment program, she will have to serve at least four and up to 10 years in prison.

Prosecutors say her husband, Lester Kester Jr., molested five children over two decades. He pleaded guilty in October to five felony charges of lewd conduct with a minor in exchange for prosecutors not pursuing charges of possession of child pornography.

The couple is affiliated with the Followers of Christ Church, whose members eschew medical care for themselves and their children in favor of "faith healing" because they believe that prayer and rituals can sufficiently treat even catastrophic illnesses.

The church has a prominent following in parts of southwestern Idaho and Oregon, and the congregation has been accused of allowing dozens of children to die from a lack of basic medical care. Idaho's child injury law, however, includes a religious exemption that has long allowed church members to act without state intervention.

After Sarah Kester's July 11 arrest, she said she had known of the abuse for the past 17 years, according to the Canyon County Sheriff's Office.

"Sarah Kester 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," the agency said in 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."

Sarah Kester's defense attorney said at sentencing that her client grew up in an isolated community and experienced her own trauma.

"She did everything that she knew to do to take care of them," attorney Bethany Harder Haase said.

Sarah Kester cried as she addressed the court.

"I should've paid attention to all the rumors going around," she said. "I feel so devastated. I should've got out of marriage right there and then."

Three of the victims, now in their teens and 20s, also gave statements, saying Sarah Kester called them offensive names and blamed them for her husband's actions.

The Associated Press isn't identifying the victims or their relationship to the Kesters.

Sarah Kester entered in October a modified guilty plea, in which she maintained her innocence but acknowledged there was enough evidence to convict her. Lester Kester is set to be sentenced Feb. 26.

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