Jehovah’s Witnesses not negligent in $35M child abuse case, court rules

Trials & Litigation

Montana Supreme Court seal

The Montana Supreme Court has reversed a $35 million judgment against Jehovah’s Witnesses for failing to report that one of its members had been sexually abusing children for years.

In its 7-0 decision, the court held that even though Montana law requires clergy and other officials to report child sexual abuse to authorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses fell under an exemption in this case “because their church doctrine, canon, or practice required that clergy keep reports of child abuse confidential.” NPR and the Associated Press have coverage.

Holly McGowan, one of two plaintiffs in the lawsuit, told elders in the Thompson Falls Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1998 that her stepfather, Maximo Reyes, had inappropriately touched and fondled her, the court’s opinion states.

The elders told McGowan that without a confession from Reyes or another witness, they could not take action against him. According to the court’s opinion, McGowan was later raped by her stepfather numerous times.

In 2004, one of McGowan’s male relatives told an elder that Reyes had also sexually abused him. McGowan served as his second witness, but instead of reporting Reyes to authorities, the elder convened a committee that banished him from the congregation for one year, the court’s opinion states.

Reyes had started sexually abusing another female relative, Alexis Nunez, on a weekly basis two years earlier when the girl was 5. According to the court’s opinion, the abuse continued after Reyes rejoined the congregation.

McGowan and Nunez sued the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2016 for damages stemming from their failure to report Reyes to authorities. The district court ruled in favor of Nunez, awarding her $4 million in actual damages and $31 million in punitive damages.

In its reversal, the Montana Supreme Court wrote that Montana’s mandatory child abuse reporting statute states that “a member of the clergy or a priest is not required to make a report under this section if the communication is required to be confidential by canon law, church doctrine, or established church practice.”

According to the court’s opinion, it was demonstrated in this case that “Jehovah’s Witnesses have an established process for receiving and investigating reports of child abuse within their congregations; that they consider this process confidential; and that the process necessarily involves multiple elders and congregation members, including the accused, [Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses] elders who provide spiritual guidance, and local elders who conduct the investigation.”

According to the U.S. Children’s Bureau, about 18 states require those who suspect child abuse to report it to authorities, NPR reports. While some states require clergy to report abuse, exceptions are granted for privileged communications, including confessions.

While the ABA Journal does not typically name survivors of sexual abuse, the law office representing the two plaintiffs in this case told NPR they granted their permission.

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