The Christian denomination Jehovah’s Witnesses must pay $35 million to a woman who says the church’s national organization ordered clergy members in Montana to not report her sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a congregation member, as ruled by a jury.
A judge must now review the penalty, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ national organization – Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York – has made plans to appeal.
The 21-year-old woman’s attorneys said Wednesday’s verdict sends a clear 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.
An unsigned statement was released by the Office of Public Information at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in response to the verdict:
“Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts. Watchtower is pursuing appellate review,” it said.
The case in Montana is one of dozens that have been filed nationwide over the past decade with allegations that 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 as well as a third family member in Thompson Falls in the 1990s and 2000s, according to AP.
The abuser was expelled from the congregation in 2004 by elders in the church, but reinstated him the next year, the lawsuit states, and the abuse of the girl who is now 21 continued.
The lawsuit claimed both 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.”
In court filings, attorneys for the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that Montana law exempts elders from reporting “internal ecclesiastical proceedings on a congregation member’s serious sin.”
The church went on to contend that the national organization isn’t liable for any actions by Thompson Falls elders, and claim that too much time has passed for the woman to sue.
The jury awarded the 21-year-old woman $4 million for her injuries, plus $30 million in punitive damages against Watchtower and another $1 million in punitive damages against the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, another Jehovah’s Witnesses corporation that communicates with congregations across America.
The trial judge must review the monetary award, and it could potentially be reduced. A Montana law caps punitive damage awards at 3% of a company’s net worth or $10 million, whichever is less. A legal challenge to the 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 didn’t receive notice of the 32-year-old woman’s abuse in 1998 as she claimed to have given them, therefore they had no duty to tell authorities.
The third family member who claimed abuse was not named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
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