Jehovah's Witnesses ordered by jury to pay $35M to abuse survivor
The defendant said the church covered up her sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a congregation member.
Sep. 27, 2018 / 2:42 PM EDT / Updated Sep. 27, 2018 / 4:03 PM EDT
By Associated Press
HELENA, Mont. — The Jehovah's Witnesses must pay $35 million to a woman who says the church's national organization ordered Montana clergy members not to report her sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a congregation member, a jury ruled in a verdict.
A judge must review the penalty, and the Jehovah's Witnesses' national organization — Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York — plans to appeal.
Still, the 21-year-old woman's attorneys said Wednesday's verdict sends a message to the church to report child abuse to outside authorities.
"Hopefully that message is loud enough that this will cause the organization to change its priorities in a way that they will begin prioritizing the safety of children so that other children aren't abused in the future," said attorney Neil Smith Thursday.
The Office of Public Information at the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses responded to the verdict with an unsigned statement.
"Jehovah's Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts. Watchtower is pursuing appellate review," it said.
The Montana case is one of dozens that have been filed nationwide over the past decade alleging Jehovah's Witnesses mismanaged or covered up the sexual abuse of children.
The case that prompted Wednesday's ruling involved two women, now 32 and 21, who allege a family member sexually abused them and a third family member in Thompson Falls in the 1990s and 2000s.
The women say they reported the abuse to church elders, who handled the matter internally after consulting with the national organization.
The elders expelled the abuser from the congregation in 2004 then reinstated him the next year, the lawsuit states, and the abuse of the girl who is now 21 continued.
The lawsuit claimed the local and national Jehovah's Witnesses organizations were negligent and violated a Montana law that requires them to report abuse to outside authorities.
"Their national headquarters, called Watchtower, they control when and if anyone within their organization reports child abuse," Smith said. "Watchtower instructed everyone involved that they were not to report the matter to authorities."
Attorneys for the Jehovah's Witnesses said in court filings that Montana law exempts elders from reporting "internal ecclesiastical proceedings on a congregation member's serious sin."
The church also contended that the national organization isn't liable for the actions by Thompson Falls elders, and that too much time has passed for the women to sue.
The jury awarded the 21-year-old woman $4 million for her injuries, plus $30 million in punitive damages against Watchtower and $1 million in punitive damages against the Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, another Jehovah's Witness corporation that communicates with congregations across the U.S.
The monetary award must be reviewed by the trial judge and could be reduced. A Montana law caps punitive damage awards at 3 percent of a company's net worth or $10 million, whichever is less. A legal challenge to that law is pending before the Montana Supreme Court.
The jury dismissed claims that the church should have reported the second woman's abuse by the same congregation member. Jurors concluded church elders did not receive notice of the 32-year-old woman's abuse in 1998 as she said they did, and therefore did not have a duty to tell authorities.
The third family member who claimed abuse was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they are a victim of a sex crime.
$35 million sex-abuse verdict puts spotlight on insular Jehovah's Witness community
While there have been dozens of sex abuse claims in the past decade, experts say the religion's self-enclosed nature makes it hard for victims to speak up.
Sep. 28, 2018 / 3:59 PM EDT / Updated Sep. 28, 2018 / 4:55 PM EDT
By Elizabeth Chuck
A jury ruling this week that the Jehovah's Witnesses must pay $35 million to a woman who says the church covered up her childhood sexual abuse puts a rare public spotlight on the normally insular religious organization, experts say.
The penalty, handed down by a Montana jury on Wednesday, will go to a 21-year-old woman who accused the Jehovah's Witnesses' national organization of telling local clergy members not to report her abuser, a relative who she and another woman say molested them and a third family member. The church plans to appeal.
The case was just one of dozens filed nationwide over the past decade alleging Jehovah's Witness officials have mishandled sexual abuse of children, including a $13.5 million award by a San Diego judge in 2014 to a man who was abused by a church leader when he was seven years old.
"They don't vote. They don't celebrate birthdays and holidays. They don't say the pledge [of allegiance]. They are not just another Christian denomination."
Many of the allegations have surfaced as other religious groups, such as the Catholic church, have wrestled with similar abuse claims. But bringing up such accusations in the Jehovah's Witness community comes with an extra set of challenges, religious scholars say.
"In terms of reporting complaints or misbehavior or abuse, there's what they call the 'two-witness rule,' which means that, for example, if I were abused, I would need another witness to come forward to corroborate that," said Mathew Schmalz, an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "Because of this, it's very difficult to get corroborating evidence of any kind of abuse complaint."
The two-witness rule is only for internal modes of discipline and does not prevent a victim from going to the police, Schmalz added.
But the fear of being ostracized from the tight-knit community also prevents members from speaking out.
"There are very strict internal modes of discipline within Jehovah's Witnesses and I know Jehovah's Witnesses who have been shunned or what they call disfellowshipped, and that’s an incredibly painful experience," he said.
Experts say Jehovah's Witnesses are a misunderstood and very self-enclosed group, despite counting some celebrities among its ranks — including Venus and Serena Williams.
Perhaps best known for going door-to-door to preach their beliefs, the New York-based religion has nearly 8.5 members worldwide — far fewer than the more than 1.2 billion Catholics in the world — and unlike in Catholicism, where bishops are often well-known, prominent figures, Jehovah's Witness leaders are not typically known to the public.
"They are an eccentric group in the sense that they separate themselves from public life," said Mark Silk, a professor and the director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "They don't vote. They don't celebrate birthdays and holidays. They don't say the pledge [of allegiance]. They are not just another Christian denomination."
All of these tenets, plus their other beliefs, stem from a strict, often literal interpretation of the Bible and the belief that the Jehovah's Witnesses organization is "God's organization on Earth," according to Schmalz.
"Whatever belief they have or mode of internal discipline they have, they have a biblical justification for it," he said.
In keeping with their penchant for privacy, the church issued only a brief, unsigned statement after Wednesday's verdict, according to the Associated Press.
"Jehovah's Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts. Watchtower is pursuing appellate review," the Office of Public Information at the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses said in a statement.