HELENA, Mont. — 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.
Abuse of the third victim, the lawsuit’s plaintiff and a niece of the abuser’s stepchildren, began in 2002, when she was five. She was ten years old when it ended. The abuse happened on a weekly basis and escalated to “numerous incidents of rape,” the Supreme Court’s opinion said.
Montana’s mandatory reporting law requires various professionals to report abuse of underage victims during the course of their official work. These professionals include physicians, nurses, school teachers and other school officials, social workers, foster care workers, and peace officers.
Members of the clergy are required to report abuse under the law, but they are allowed exemptions in cases such as confidential communications.
In the Montana Supreme Court’s view, a committee of Jehovah’s Witnesses elders were not mandatory reporters of child abuse under Montana law “in this case because their church doctrine, canon, or practice required that the clergy keep reports of child abuse confidential.”
Disclosing confidential information could be a breach that results in an elder’s removal. Even if not removed, the court reasoned, the elder believed he would be accountable before his “ultimate judge.”
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.