(Updated January, 10, 2020: For the latest on this story, click here.)
A jury verdict has ruled that the Jehovah's Witnesses must pay $35 million to a woman who says the national church's leadership ordered clergy in Montana to cover up the abuse she suffered as a child.
The Jehovah's Witnesses' national organization, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, plans to appeal the decision, and the decision still needs the review of a judge.
The 21-year-old woman who the jury ruled should receive the payout was abused by a member of her church's congregation, and (disturbingly) was also a member of her family. Two other women, one 32-year-old and another whose age has not been disclosed were abused. The 32-year-old woman's claims were dismissed by the jury. The third woman was not a plaintiff in this lawsuit. I am identifying the women by their ages because the Associated Press generally does not reveal the names of victims of sexual abuse.
The allegations from the women who reported the abuse state that they informed church elders of what happened. Those church elders then handled the matter internally after consulting with the national organization.
The elders expelled the abuser from the congregation in 2004, but they reinstated him the next year. The lawsuit details how the abuse the woman, who is now 21, was suffering resumed when the abuser was reinstated in the church.
In the lawsuit, the victims claimed the local and national Jehovah's Witnesses organizations were negligent and violated a Montana law that requires them to report abuse to outside authorities.
Attorneys for the Jehovah's Witnesses said in court filings that Montana law exempts elders from reporting "internal ecclesiastical proceedings on a congregation member's serious sin." Oh! How convenient! The elders get to pick and choose what gets reported to authorities based on their own discretion and the level of "sin". That kind of thinking never fosters a cesspool of corruption.
The tragedy of this woman's abuse, and the knowledge that there are so many more people who were abused, is worth considering. But while speaking about this case, attorney Neil Smith, who is representing the plaintiff, said, "Hopefully that message is loud enough that this will cause the organization to change its priorities in a way that they will begin prioritizing the safety of children so that other children aren't abused in the future."
We can hope so, but until we see the change, the fight continues.