Montana Supreme Court decides on abuse case in favor of Jehovah's Witnesses


The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday canceled a 35 million dollar ruling against the denomination of Jehovah's Witnesses media in the United States. It was a judgment because of the fact that the church did not report sexual abuse of a child to the authorities.

Montana's law requires officials, including clergy, to report child abuse to the authorities when there is a reasonable reason for suspicion. However, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses in this case fall under an exception to that law.

Annuls the ruling a judgment from 2018 awarding compensation to Alexis Nunez who was abused as a child by a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Thompson Falls. Alexis believes that the church has instructed local elders not to report her abuse to the authorities. As a result, her abuse could have continued for a long time.

The abuse of Nunez came to light after local elders had corrected the man for allegations of abuse of two other family members in the 2000s and early XNUMXs. The elders dealt with the issue internally. The perpetrator was excluded from the municipality but within one year he was taken back to the municipality. All the while, Alexis' abuse continued.


In this case, Jehovah's Witnesses have argued that the law in Montana allows persons with a spiritual office (such as elders) not to report sexual abuse of children. The reason would be that it is an "established church practice" where internal investigation into allegations of child abuse by the church is considered "confidential."

The Supreme Court has ruled that Jehovah's Witnesses have established procedures for receiving and investigating reports of child sexual abuse within their congregations; that they regard this procedure as confidential; and that this procedure necessarily involves several elders and congregation members, including the accused, service department elders, and local elders. (Nunez and McGowan vs. Watchtower New York, 2020, pp. 13-14).

"Clergymen are not obliged to report known child abuse or suspected child abuse if this knowledge is the result of the confidential communication or confession of a member of the congregation and if the person making the statement does not agree to disclosure," the Supreme Court ruled. The Supreme Court states that the legislator has not specified what exactly is to be understood by confidential communication. This makes it possible to regard the entire proceedings of Jehovah's Witnesses as confidential.

In the report Jehovah's Witnesses and the Discernment of the Spirit it is shown that Jehovah's Witnesses use a very specific definition of confidentiality that differs from what is commonly understood by this term (Suierveld 2019, pp. 33-35, 50-51). When a victim of abuse speaks in confidence about this abuse with an elder, this information is shared with other elders, some members of the branch office (the legal department and the service department), the accused, and the circuit overseer. This can even happen without the victim being informed or asked if this information may be shared.

Suierveld wonders whether the personal definition of confidentiality among the Witnesses "is in the interest of a member of the congregation or is it actually about the interests of the organization itself." "Is there a question of a relationship of trust to be taken seriously with regard to the elders in their capacity as spiritual care and counselors [?]" (Suierveld 2019, p. 51).

The Supreme Court in Montana states that it is not competent to determine whether the practices and beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses are valid within themselves. Nor does she comment on whether the procedures followed by Jehovah's Witnesses offer the most optimal form of child safety (Nunez and McGowan vs. Watchtower New York, 2020, pp. 15-16).

Legal privilege

Alexis's lawyer states in a statement that he finds it a very disappointing decision, "especially in our time in our society, where religious and other institutions hide the sexual abuse of children."

Dutch law also has an exception where spiritual office holders can invoke the right of non-disclosure with regard to information that is shared with him in his capacity as mental care and social worker. There must also be a relationship of trust. This right of non-disclosure serves a social interest in which free and unimpeded access to personal spiritual (pastoral) assistance is possible. Yet there can be compelling moral reasons for sharing confidentiality. However, this requires a professional and ethical consideration of the clerical office holder (Suierveld 2019, p. 13).

Practice shows that this exception can be used carelessly or even misused in the law. In August 2018 RTL News reported about a lawsuit in the Netherlands in which the denomination of Jehovah's Witnesses refusing to have the privilege to refuse to respond to a request from the Public Prosecution Service. In October of the same year RTL News reported having internal communication from the church between the head office and the national departments with instructions to investigate all legal options for ending up under a reporting or declaration obligation.

During the meetings of Jehovah's Witnesses in May 2019, an article from The Watchtower was discussed suggesting that elders of Jehovah's Witnesses abide by a legal obligation to report child abuse to the authorities. In a comment from Reclaimed Voices we wrote at the time that this is only a partial representation of things. If there are exceptions to the Act, elders will be instructed to invoke this.

The Montana lawsuit shows that the denomination of Jehovah's Witnesses seems to be more concerned with legally defending their own internal church proceedings than with the interests of victims of sexual abuse. This attitude seems to be inspired by a worldview and self-image that a blind spot works where the needs of children and victims of sexual abuse are still not being seen.

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