On Wednesday 26 September, a lawsuit in Thompson Falls, Montana (USA), determined that the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses should pay 35 million dollars to a victim of sexual abuse. The attention soon remains hangen around this huge amount and can deduce from what really matters.
The case revolved around whether the organization had been negligent ('negligence') in the protection of children in the municipality, or that there was malicious intent ('malice'). The amounts awarded relate to this assessment: 4 million dollars were granted on the basis of negligence, 31 million due to the 'malice' judgment. This is telling. It seems that the jury came to the conclusion that the organization deliberately tried to protect its image at the expense of the safety of children.
Overview of the events
It is September 1994 when the mother of Holly and Peter marries Maximo Nava-Reyes. Only a few weeks later, Reyes starts to harass his 9-year-old stepdaughter sexually.
In the summer of 1998 Holly gathers all courage and tells Don Herberger - who later claims to have not been an elder at the time - that she is being sexually abused by her stepfather. Herberger refers her to two other elders. They do nothing with her complaint because there is no second witness who can confirm it. The abuse continues at home.
In 2004 Peter tells the elders about the sexual abuse by Reyes from the fact that he was 8 year to about 12 years old. He tells them that his sister Holly was also sexually abused by Reyes. Holly then writes to the elders a letter, dated 19 March 2004, in which she describes the abuse of her. Maximo Reyes denies everything at first. Later he admits that he has sexually touched Peter on three occasions. Reyes is excluded. On 1 April 2004 it is announced in the congregation that he is no longer one of Jehovah's Witnesses. The only people in the municipality who are aware of the sexual abuse are Reyes himself, his wife Joan (mother of the children), Holly, Peter and their older sister Ivy. And the elders.
No one has been aware that Reyes also misused Alexis (Lexi) Nunez. Lexi is the daughter of Ivy, Maximo Reyes is her step-grandfather. Reyes started to sexually abuse her in 2002 when she was only 5 years old. It will continue until 2007.
More than 14 months after his exclusion, on 16 June 2005, Reyes is recovered and taken back into the municipality. Even now nobody is informed about his past.
Lexi only tells her family in 2015 about her abuse.
In 2016 days Holly and Alexis de Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., de Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses and the local congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Thompson Falls in court because they have not protected them adequately. Maximo Reyes and his wife Joan flee to Mexico.
The supporting documents
Four supporting documents were enough to complete this case. These documents consist of Holly's letter dated 19 March 2004, the S-77 form completed in response to Reyes' exclusion, a letter from the Service Department to the body of elders of the Thompson Falls municipality dated 12 April 2004 and a letter in reply to the Service Department with date 21 April 2004.
On the S-77 form the reason for the exclusion is mentioned 'porneia'. Porneia is a sort of collective term in which Jehovah's Witnesses have virtually all sex with a person with whom one is not married. For the organization it does not seem to make any difference whether there is sex between two adults who are not married to each other but both agree, or that there is an unequal situation in which a child is abused. Porneia is rather meaningless when it comes to child sexual abuse.
The form also contains a concise report that explains what allegations have been made against Reyes and for which he is excluded. The form also states which actions Reyes himself admitted. The S-77 form is therefore a powerful piece of evidence.
The organization's policy prescribes that the S-77 form concerning a person who is excluded because of child sexual abuse must be kept in a closed envelope with "do not destroy".
In the 12 April 2004 Service Department's letter to the body of elders of the Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Thompson Falls, there are a few additional questions in addition to instructions for completing and signing the S-77 form: How long ago did he commit sin? What was his age at the time? How old was / were his victim (s)? Was there a one-off event or a habit? If it was a habit, to what extent? How is he seen in the community and by the authorities? Does he have a notorious reputation in the community? Are members of the congregation aware of what happened? How do they and / or his victim (s) view him?
The elders of the Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses of Thompson Falls replied in their letter from 21 April 2004 that neither the community nor the authorities are aware of the matter. The members of the municipality do not know anything about it at that moment. The only ones who know about it are Maximo Reyes (the perpetrator), his wife Joan (mother of the children), Holly and Peter, and their older sister Ivy. The victims feel dislike for Reyes.
'Clergy privilege' or privilege
In Montana there is a law that says that an adult who knows that a child is being sexually or has been abused must report this. For 'clergy' - people in a spiritual office - an exception applies in certain situations.
The lawyers of Watchtower New York, Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses and its local congregation in Thompson Falls, have tried to invoke this exception by pointing to confidentiality of what is said in an interview with elders. They think they can rely on 'clergy privilege' if there is a confession.
This appeal was rejected because the elders themselves did not keep the information they had received about the abuse, both from the prosecutors and the accused, confidential, but gave it to individuals higher up in the organization. Moreover, the confession had been made by Reyes when the elders had approached him about this and not the other way around. Jim Molloy, one of the lawyers for the prosecutors, therefore indicated that such excuses do not apply here.
The basis on which a clergyman in Montana can be exempted from the duty to report corresponds to what we know as an appeal to legal privilege. Elders and the administration of Jehovah's Witnesses here in the Netherlands use the same arguments for not having to give evidence in a lawsuit or to withhold files. They rely on 'confidentiality'. In the Netherlands, members of the organization (as well as the organization itself) repeatedly appeal to privilege law, where it is questionable whether this was lawful under Dutch law. Lawyers, prosecutors and judges should be more aware of the internal system of Jehovah's Witnesses, their way of "spiritual care" and dealing with confidential information.
'Negligence' and 'malice'
"Elders must always do what they can reasonably do to protect children from further abuse," says the elders book "Pay attention to yourself and to the entire herd" (p.93), which was used in 1998 and 2004 at the time. And according to the article The Watchtower from 1 January 1997, Let us be disgusted by what is wicked"the church has the responsibility to protect its children before Jehovah." (p.29)
If the elders in 1998, when Holly told them the first time about sexual abuse, acted in the interests of the children and had reported to the police, child protection or a similar body, further misery could have saved them. Lexi would then probably never have been abused.
During the trial, the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses indicated that they had no documentation showing that Holly was with the elders in 1998. It is the word of Holly to that of the elders. For the jury it could not be proven in the case that the elders were already aware of the abuse in 1998. In the judgment this was therefore not included.
In 2004, when according to their own policies they had two witnesses and were able to exclude Reyes, the elders left after reporting to the authorities while this is mandatory in the state of Montana. Church members were also not informed. Reyes had the opportunity to abuse Lexi and could have been a danger to other children as well.
The elders have not done everything to protect these children from further abuse. They have been negligent in this. The question was also whether there was (malicious) intent.
Elders should contact the legal department of their branch office if they are accused of sexual abuse against a church member. Afterwards they receive instructions from the Service Department about how to proceed. For lawyer Neil Smith it was clear that the ultimate responsibility was not with the local elders: 'This is not about them. It is the puppet masters in New York who issued orders by the threat of punishment from God"(This is not about them, they are the puppet masters in New York who gave orders under threat of punishment from God).
We do not know what instructions the elders received verbally. There is, however, the letter from 12 April 2004, in which the questions make us suspect that people were particularly concerned about the extent to which the abuse had become known, in the municipality and in society as such. Together with the tendency to secrecy and the fact that no mention has been made, it appears that the organization deliberately tried to keep the matter internal to protect its image. It is a serious matter if this is at the expense of the safety of children. The jury's verdict was clear.
Much more than money
At the end of the Watchtower in Focus episode 15 The John Cedars Channel, which dealt with this lawsuit in Montana, summed up Karen Morgan: "It is not about the money. It is about getting them to apologize for what they have done and admit that they have changed their policy. And that's all it's ever been about."(It's not about money, it's about apologizing for what they've done and admitting that they've made mistakes and adjusting their policies.) And that's all that it ever was about.)
The fact that Holly McGowan and Alexis Nunez were also much more than compensation in the form of money, turns out to be a statement they made afterwards: 'This case was about uncovering a system that protects the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses. by keeping the victims still. We learned at an early age not to talk to secular authorities and to trust the elders to solve problems - even child abuse. That system took our voice away from us. In this case it was all about demanding our voice back and being heard. It feels like we have achieved that. We know, however, that one thing will not be enough to make Jehovah's Witnesses change their policies. We hope that other victims will hear our story and feel the power to speak out and fight. "
- Evidence Montana-case: S-77 form (Plaintiff's exhibit 1), Holly J. Benavides to the Body or Elsewhere of the Thompson Falls Congregation, 3 / 19 / 04 (Plaintiff's exhibit 2), Letter April 21, 2004 (Plaintiff's exhibit 3 ), Letter SDJ: SSM April 12, 2004 (Plaintiff's exhibit 4). To consult via: https://reclaimedvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Bewijsstukken-Montana-zaak.pdf
- The Watchtower 1 January 1997, Let us be disgusted by what is wicked. To consult via: https://wol.jw.org/nl/wol/d/r18/lp-o/1997003
- Seaborn Larson, Montana Jehovah's Witness sex abuse case underscores church's worldwide reckoning, Missoulian.com (link from the EU not directly accessible). To consult PDF-print via: https://reclaimedvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/artikel-The-Missoulian.pdf
- "Pay attention to yourself and the whole flock" (ks-91), Textbook for the Kingdom Ministry School. To consult in English via: https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/sites/default/files/WAT.0013.002.0001.pdf
- WATCHTOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, INC., CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION OR JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, and THOMPSON FALLS CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, petitioners, v. MONTANA TWENTIETH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, SANDERS COUNTY, AND THE HONORABLE JAMES A. MANLEY, PRESIDING JUDGE, respondents, Petition for writ and supervisory for motion of stay of proceedings. Filed: 09 / 11 / 2018. To consult via: https://supremecourtdocket.mt.gov/APP/connector/9/604/url/321Z29C_07SWCWM4W000011.pdf
- WATCHTOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, INC., CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION OR JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, and THOMPSON FALLS CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, petitioners, v. MONTANA TWENTIETH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT, SANDERS COUNTY, AND THE HONORABLE JAMES A. MANLEY, PRESIDING JUDGE, respondents, Response to petition for writ or supervisory control. Filed: 09 / 14 / 2018. To consult via: https://supremecourtdocket.mt.gov/APP/connector/8/603/url/321Z29J_07YFZW4F4000006.pdf
- ALEXIS NUNEZ and HOLLY MCGOWAN, Plaintiffs, vs. WATCHTOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, INC .; WATCHTOWER BIBLE AND TRACT SOCIETY OR PENNSYLVANIA, INC .; CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES and THOMPSON FALLS CONGREGATION OF JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, Defendants, First Amended Complaint, 14 November 2016. To consult via: https://reclaimedvoices.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/2016.11.14-First-Amended-Complaint.pdf
- The John Cedars channel, The Montana Verdict - Episode 15 - Watchtower: in Focus. To consult via: https://youtu.be/oaUK1gnVWu8