HELENA, Mont. — The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed a $35 million judgment against the Jehovah's Witnesses for not reporting a girl's sexual abuse to authorities.
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Montana law requires officials, including clergy, to report child abuse to state authorities when there is reasonable cause for suspicion. However, the state's high court said in its 7-0 decision that the Jehovah's Witnesses fall under an exemption to that law in this case.
"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," Justice Beth Baker wrote in the opinion.
The ruling overturns a 2018 verdict awarding compensatory and punitive damages to the woman who was abused as a child in the mid-2000s by a member of the Thompson Falls Jehovah's Witness congregation. The woman had accused the church's national organization of ordering Montana clergy members not to report her abuse to authorities.
The Montana case is one of dozens that have been filed nationwide over the past decade saying Jehovah's Witnesses mismanaged or covered up the sexual abuse of children.
The attorney for the Jehovah's Witnesses, Joel Taylor, said in a statement that there are no winners in a case involving child abuse.
"No child should ever be subjected to such a debased crime," Taylor said. "Tragically, it happens, and when it does Jehovah's Witnesses follow the law. This is what the Montana Supreme Court has established. "
The woman's attorney, Jim Molloy, read a prepared statement: "This is an extremely disappointing decision, particularly at this time in our society when religious and other institutions are covering up the sexual abuse of children."
The Montana woman's abuse came after the congregation's elders disciplined the man over allegations of abusing two other family members in the 1990s and early 2000s, the woman's lawsuit said.
The elders handled the matter internally, expelling the abuser from the congregation in 2004 and then reinstating him the next year, when the abuse of the younger victim continued, according to the lawsuit.
The woman said in her lawsuit that the church shouldn't qualify for the exemption to the state reporting law because Jehovah's Witness officials testified that an elder can choose to report a child abuser to authorities under church practice.
Church attorneys said in their appeal that elders handled the allegations internally in accordance with church practices.
The Supreme Court declined to look into whether the Jehovah's Witnesses tenets and doctrines are valid, or whether church officials adhered to their own standards in this case, saying in the opinion that it's not within the court's power to do so regarding a religious institution.
The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse.