A Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in Annandale, Minn., isn't liable if one of its members sexually abused two child congregants more than a decade ago, a Minnesota Court of Appeals panel ruled Tuesday.
Though congregation elders had received a prior complaint of abuse and didn't immediately report it to authorities, according to the ruling, the organization wasn't responsible for protecting two of its members who claim they were abused by the same person later.
The two girls, now adults living in Twin Cities suburbs, sued in 2002. They claim they were abused in the late 1980s and early 1990s and argue that they followed the organization's doctrine to report their concerns to elders -- not law enforcement or anyone else. Elders at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses congregation told them to stay silent or risk losing membership, they claim.
The women say the organization's rules prevented them from protecting themselves and gave the organization a legal duty to protect them.
But in an opinion written by Judge Robert Schumacher and decided with judges Bruce Willis and Wilhelmina Wright, the court ruled that the organization didn't have control or custody of the girls when the alleged abuse happened. Incidents were alleged to have taken place on a snowmobile, in an automobile and at the alleged perpetrator's house, not at a Jehovah's Witnesses function or on the organization's property, the panel reasoned.
St. Paul attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who is representing the two women, said the ruling came as "a deep disappointment" and he expects his clients will appeal.
Anderson said he thinks the ruling gives Jehovah's Witnesses the freedom to live by their own laws and not the rule of mandatory reporting.
"I'm concerned that if somehow they can't be held to account for failure to report child abuse, what is the significance of having the law?" Anderson said.
An attorney for the Jehovah's Witnesses congregation couldn't be reached for comment.