Helena, Mont., Jan 10, 2020 / 17:01 pm
The Montana Supreme Court has unanimously reversed a $35 million judgement against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the grounds that the lower court wrongly ruled that the elders involved in hearing allegations of abuse did not enjoy the religious confidentiality protections guaranteed by state law.
A Montana district court wrongly ruled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were mandatory reporters under state law, said the 7-0 decision written by Supreme Court Justice Beth Baker and announced Jan. 8.
Under the law, the court said, “clergy are not required to report known or suspected child abuse if the knowledge results from a congregation member’s confidential communication or confession and if the person making the statement does not consent to disclosure.”
The high court overturned the 2018 verdict of compensatory and punitive damages to a woman abused as a child in the mid-2000s by a member of the Thompson Falls Jehovah’s Witness congregation. Her lawsuit accused the congregation of illegally failing to report a child sex abuser to authorities, a failure which allowed him to continually sexually abuse another child.
Jim Molloy, who represented the woman, said, “This is an extremely disappointing decision, particularly at this time in our society when religious and other institutions are covering up the sexual abuse of children.”
Joel Taylor, the attorney for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the denomination follows the law.
“No child should ever be subjected to such a debased crime,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “Tragically, it happens, and when it does Jehovah’s Witnesses follow the law. This is what the Montana Supreme Court has established.”
According to the lawsuit, the congregation’s elders internally disciplined the woman’s abuser over allegations he abused a stepdaughter and stepson in the 1990s and early 2000s. They expelled him from the congregation in 2004 and reinstated him the next year.