The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned a $35 million judgement against the Jehovah’s Witnesses for not reporting the sexual abuse of a girl to authorities because the religious organization requires “allegations of serious sin” to be kept confidential.
A state district court previously found in 2018 that the church illegally failed to report a child sexual abuser to authorities, which allowed him to continue sexually abusing another child, NPR reported. The Jehovah’s Witnesses national organization was ordered to pay $35 million the then 21-year-old victim.
In a unanimous opinion on Wednesday, however, seven state Supreme Court justices concluded that the lower court had “erred in ruling that Jehovah’s Witnesses were under a mandatory duty to report” sexual abuse.
“We hold that Jehovah’s Witnesses are excepted from the mandatory reporting statute under § 41-3-201(6)(c), MCA, because the undisputed material facts in the record show that Jehovah’s Witnesses canon law, church doctrine, or established church practice required that the reports of abuse in this case be kept confidential,” Justice Beth Baker said in delivering the opinion of the court.
“Under § 41-3-201(6)(b), MCA, 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,” the justices noted.
The exception noted here refers to a special exception to mandatory reporting laws made in some states for “clergy-penitent” communications, law firm Wagenmaker & Oberly explain.
“These deeply personal and spiritual communications are received confidentially by ordained or other ministry individuals whose professional responsibilities include regularly receiving confessions of sin, admissions of repentance, and similar private communications from church members and other religious worship attenders,” the firm said.
As more revelations of child sexual abuse by clergy members continue to be unearthed, these exceptions are increasingly being challenged in states where they are applied.
Jim Molloy, the woman’s attorney, said in a statement cited by the AP that: “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 abuse of the Montana woman only came to light after the congregation’s elders disciplined the man over allegations of abusing two other family members in the 1990s and early 2000s, according to…