HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court has overturned a $35 million verdict in a case accusing the Jehovah’s Witnesses of negligence in failing to report sexual abuse.
Justices ruled unanimously Wednesday that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were exempted from a state law requiring clergy to report child abuse, because church doctrine says allegations of abuse should be handled in a confidential process.
The case stems from a 2016 lawsuit in Sanders County. Members of the Thompson Falls congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses sued the congregation and the national Jehovah’s Witnesses organization, saying they had been abused by another member.
The lawsuit said congregation elders had received reports of child sexual abuse by the same man in 2004, and that they had “disfellowshipped” him – an internal punishment expelling him from the congregation. The elders later reinstated the man.
The plaintiffs argued the man continued his abuse for several more years. They claimed the Jehovah’s Witnesses had failed to follow Montana law requiring certain groups, including clergy, to report child abuse to authorities.
A Sanders County judge found the Jehovah’s Witnesses were liable for the harm one of the plaintiffs suffered, and instructed a jury to award damages. The jury awarded the victim $4 million in compensatory damages and $31 million in punitive damages.
However, justices ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses were not required to report the abuse. The state law includes a provision that exempts clergy from reporting if they learn about abuse through a statement “intended to be a part of a confidential communication between the member of the clergy or the priest and a member of the church or congregation.”
Justices ruled that the law does not strictly define “confidential communication” as being between two people, so it also applies to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ practice of consulting with a group of elders.