In its decision, the court said that almost every witness supported the claim that church doctrine requires confidentiality from its elders. While the Jehovah's Witnesses have an established process to receive and investigate reports of child abuse, they also maintain confidentiality "pursuant to church doctrine, canon and/or established practice."
The Montana Supreme Court noted that legislators amended the mandatory reporting bill with exceptions after hearing clergy concerns that the legislation would "entangle the State in the affairs of the church."
The decision cited the Jehovah's Witnesses argument that "imposing a narrow definition of confidentiality impermissibly could discriminate between different beliefs and practices, protecting confidentiality of reports made in a confession from a parishioner to priest, like the traditional Catholic practice, while offering no protection to a congregant's disclosures to a committee of elders using a process like that followed by the Jehovah's Witnesses."
The decision noted that the court was prohibited by state and federal constitutions from adjudicating any questions about whether religious conduct conformed to the standards of the religious group.
Some states do not allow religious exemptions for clergy in mandatory reporting laws.
In 2019, the Montana legislature passed legislation that adds the possibility of felony charges for mandatory reporters who fail to report sexual abuse of a child, the Associated Press reported last year.
The same legislation ended the statute of limitations on prosecution of child sexual abuse. It extended the age deadline for a victim to file a lawsuit against their abuser from 21 to 27. It opened a one-year legal window for victims to file lawsuits against their abuser even if the statute of limitations on civil action has expired.
While some Catholic commentators suggest that the abuse of minors is rarely discovered in sacramental confessions, they also worry that the lack of protections could result in legal prosecution of priests accused of learning of abuse in the confessional.
CNA sought comment from the Montana Catholic Conference and the Catholic dioceses in Montana, which declined to respond.
Jehovah's Witnesses, founded in Pennsylvania in the 1870s, make up less than one percent of the U.S. population, the Pew Research Center reports. They are known for their door-to-door proselytism.
However, they differ from mainstream Christianity in their rejection of the Trinity, the divinity and resurrection of Christ, the immortality of the soul, and the reality of hell, among other differences.
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Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services' Egan Journalism Fellowship.