Abuse case going to trial
Jehovah's Witnesses national groups dropped from suit
By JIM McBRIDE
A sex abuse lawsuit against Jehovah's Witnesses groups in Amarillo and Dumas will go to trial in the wake of a judge's ruling, but national Jehovah's Witnesses groups from New York and Pennsylvania have been removed from the suit.
The case centers on the claims of an Amarillo woman, Amy B., who sued Larry Kelley and several Jehovah's Witnesses organizations last year, claiming Kelley sexually abused her and church officials took no action to halt the abuse.
Church groups have denied the suit's claims.
According to the suit:
· Kelley used his position as Dumas church elder to sexually abuse children.
· While Kelley was a Dumas elder, church officials learned he was sexually abusing children of the congregation, but they did not report the abuse to authorities or warn church members.
· In 1988, Kelley transferred to the Amarillo congregation and sexually abused the plaintiff, who was 8 years old at the time. In 1992, Kelley was convicted of indecency with a child/sexual contact and served 10 years of shock probation.
Kelley has filed a legal response admitting he committed indecency with a child, but denied some allegations in the suit.
During a court hearing last week, 251st District Judge Pat Pirtle heard legal arguments on the defendants' motion for summary judgment.
Pirtle overruled defense claims that sought to bar the case from moving forward, based on a statute of limitations.
Also at issue in the case is whether national and local Jehovah's Witnesses groups had a legal duty to the plaintiff.
In his ruling, Pirtle said the court considered various factors, including the risk of harm and whether the actions that led to Amy B.'s suit were foreseeable.
"Additionally, the court must consider whether or not one party had superior knowledge of the potential risks, and, the court must consider the nature and the extent, if any, of the right or ability to control the conduct of the alleged wrongdoer," the ruling states.
Pirtle ruled that no legal duty could be imposed on two national Jehovah's Witnesses groups, but said legal duty existed between the Dumas and Amarillo Jehovah's Witnesses groups and Amy B.
"On balance ... the court is of the opinion that a duty exists as between the plaintiff and the defendants, Dumas Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses and Amarillo-Southwest Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses," Pirtle's ruling states.
In a separate ruling, Pirtle granted the plaintiff's requests for some church documents referring to allegations of sexual abuse by Kelley. Attorneys for Jehovah's Witnesses groups had argued that such documents were protected from disclosure because of a "clergy-penitent" privilege.
Christopher Jensen, one of the attorneys representing Jehovah's Witnesses groups, said the defendants were pleased with some aspects of the judge's ruling.
"I think that it was obviously well-considered. We disagree on a couple of points with the court. We are obviously pleased with other parts of it," he said Friday.
The Globe-News was unable to reach Hartley Hampton, the plaintiff's attorney, for comment on the ruling.