Nashua -- Jehovah's Witnesses' elders were obliged not to report complaints of sexual abuse made during confidential pastoral counseling sessions, a judge ruled earlier this month.
Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge William Groff's ruling sets back a lawsuit brought by two sisters against their former congregation in Wilton and the national Watchtower Bible & Tract Society.
The sisters will appeal the ruling, their lawyer said.
Their suit stems from the case of Paul Berry, 47, formerly of Greenville, who was convicted of sexually assaulting his stepdaughter, Holly Brewer, 24, of Berkeley, Calif., while she was between 4 and 10.
Paul Berry was convicted on 17 counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault, and sentenced to serve 56 to 112 years in prison - one of the stiffest terms ever imposed for a sexual assault case in New Hampshire.
Charges that Berry also assaulted his biological daughter, Heather Berry, 21, of Charlestown, were dropped after he was sentenced, in effect, to life in prison in the first case.
The Telegraph ordinarily doesn't identify victims of sexual abuse, but the sisters opted to go public when they filed the suit in 2001.
The sisters said they learned around the time of Berry's trial that their mother, Sara Poisson, had told church elders of the abuse while it was happening and asked for their help. Their mother testified that the elders told her to keep quiet, pray more and strive to be a better wife.
The sisters charge that the elders should have reported the alleged abuse to state authorities.
The church argued, and Groff agreed, that the elders are covered by the state's "religious privilege" rule, which protects the confidentiality of confessions or other confidential communications with religious officials.
Groff found that Jehovah's Witness elders are "ordained ministers" under the law, and thus the privilege applies. He also found that the meetings during which the Berrys discussed their situation were treated as confidential by the church at the time, so the elders were barred from reporting any allegations or admissions of abuse.
The church disputes the sisters' claims, and its lawyer, Donald Gardner of Manchester, has said church elders didn't know about the abuse until long after it had stopped and police were involved.
Gardner could not be reached for comment. One of the lawyers representing the Berry sisters, Janine Gawryl of Nashua, said they expected all along that the issue would be decided by the state Supreme Court.
"We all knew, when we had our arguments before the judge, that we were presenting some difficult questions that haven't really been resolved to any great degree. We already knew that either our side or the other side would lose . . . and that an appeal would be taken," Gawryl said.
"This is just another stage in the process," she added. "This (ruling) will not conclude the litigation. This is going to be presented to the New Hampshire Supreme Court in one fashion or another."
Filed in August 2001 in Hillsborough County Superior Court, the Berrys' suit has spawned six files worth of court documents. Because of Groff's ruling, hearings on other issues in the case have been postponed, court records show.