As many activists know, the Montana Supreme Court reversed a $35 million judgment against Jehovah’s Witnesses recently, in a case involving the religion’s failure to report child sex abuse to the authorities. (See this news story.)
Confidentiality Trumps Mandatory Reporting Laws
The court noted when religious authorities are exempt from the state’s mandatory reporting laws; from page 14 of their ruling:
“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.”
In other words, if someone communicates something to their clergy and expects that information to remain confidential, that clergy member is not required to report that information to authorities or anyone else.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Promise Confidentiality to Congregants
The decision by the state justices referred to statements made by Dave Chappel,¹ “a Jehovah’s Witnesses Service Department elder designated by the Watchtower and CCJW [The Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses] boards of directors to serve as their representative in this litigation”:
In short, Chappel argued that congregants in the religion are promised that things discussed with elders remain strictly confidential. Chappel used this promise of confidentiality as a legal argument against requirements of reporting child sex abuse to the authorities.
The Deception Over “Confidentiality”
There is a problem with this so-called promise of confidentiality, however. The 2010 edition of “Shepherd the Flock of God,” the handbook used by Jehovah’s Witness elders, chapter 7, paragraph 15, says:
These instructions are repeated in the 2019 versions of the “Shepherd” book, in chapter 15, paragraph 15.
In other words, these so-called promises of keeping things confidential are rubbish. Elders are outright instructed to share things said during judicial committee cases with other elders, the circuit overseer, and the branch office as they see fit, without informing the “wrongdoer.”
I’m not a lawyer so I have no input as to how this information affects any legal case, if at all. However, set that aside; from a moral point of view Jehovah’s Witnesses were, at the very least, downright deceitful in their arguments. They don’t ensure confidentiality during the judicial committee process, even instructing elders to use someone’s name in certain discussions and to not tell that person that they’ll be sharing their supposed confidential information.
Whatever anyone’s legal arguments and outcome of any court case, there is no doubt in my mind that Jehovah’s Witnesses continuously fail child sex abuse victims in their religion. They keep the secrets of molesters, fail to warn parents, fail to notify authorities, fight victims in court, and say whatever they can to protect their assets over their children.
I’m heartbroken over how the court’s decision must make those victims feel, and knowing that the case was reversed based on a dishonesty obviously doesn’t make things any easier to accept.
¹It’s my understanding that the person’s name was Douglas, not Dave.