*Update: While original reports stated that a $35 million judgment was given to “two women” suing the Watchtower and a local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, recent reports from US News & World Report and other outlets state that the verdict was rendered for just one plaintiff, while the second plaintiff’s claim was dismissed.
This case took place in the Thompson Falls congregation, where it was alleged that a congregation member sexually assaulted, molested, and raped two young women, both family members of the abuser, over a 13-year period, dating back to the 1990s.
The abuse began with one plaintiff, now age 32, who alleges that her brother was also a victim of abuse. Elders in the congregation apparently disfellowshipped [excommunicated] the abuser in 2004, but allowed him back into the religion the very next year.
After he was reinstated, the man then began abusing the second plaintiff, a niece of his first victim, now age 21.
The Trial and Judgment
Leading up to the trial, Watchtower’s attorneys had requested that the state’s Supreme Court overturn many of the judge’s ruling and delay the proceedings, but those requests were denied.
It was also reported in court filings that Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t deny the abuse happened, but claimed that Montana law exempted the elders from reporting “internal ecclesiastical proceedings on a congregation member’s serious sin.”
The attorney for Jehovah’s Witnesses also said in her arguments, “The Constitution bars the court from contradicting a religious organization on issues of religious beliefs, including canon law, church doctrine and established church practice.”
It was also reported that Jehovah’s Witness lawyers argued that too much time had passed for the women to sue, and the Watchtower Society claimed that they were not responsible for the actions of individual elders.
The trial itself only lasted three days, and the judgment was against both the Thompson Falls congregation and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in New York as well as the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The older woman’s claim was dismissed; according to news stories, “Jurors concluded church elders did not receive notice of the 32-year-old woman’s abuse… and therefore did not have a duty to tell authorities.”
The judgment pays $4 million in compensation plus $30 million in punitive damages from Watchtower and $1 million in punitive damages from the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. That judgment must be reviewed and can be reduced by the trial judge.
The judge also did not accept the attorney’s argument that church practice was exempt from mandatory reporting laws, as one news report stated:
“Earlier in the case, Judge James Manley ruled that Reyes’ criminal acts were foreseeable to the church leadership when they allowed him to return and that the congregation’s elders were not exempt from Montana’s mandatory reporting law when they learned of the allegations against him and didn’t turn him over to law enforcement.”
News reports have referenced what the Australian Royal Commission Inquiry Into Institutional Response to Child Sex Abuse revealed about Jehovah’s Witnesses and their handling of child sex abuse claims; read more about that Inquiry and Jehovah’s Witnesses at this post. See the Pedophilia category of this site for more information as well.
Also reference the handbook, “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Child Sex Abuse,” at this page.
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