Man loses bid to sue Jehovah's Witnesses over sexual abuse

Associated Press, Oct 18, 1999
By David Sharp

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) A Portland man who sued the Jehovah's Witnesses over sexual abuse he suffered from a church member when he was a teen lost his appeal Monday to have the case reinstated by a state supreme court that expressed reluctance to interfere with church activities.

Bryan Rees, 24, obtained a judgment against Larry Baker, who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing Rees, but he also sought to sue three elders of the Augusta church as well as the denomination's legal corporation.

In a unanimous ruling, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lower court's dismissal of the claims against the church leaders and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc.

Rees' lawyer said that the decision effectively gives rights to churches that would not be afforded individuals or corporations.

''If we molest someone, we're liable. If they molest somebody, they can hold up the First Amendment shield and be granted immunity,'' said Michael J. Waxman, who vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bruce Malonee, a Bangor lawyer for the Watchtower Society, said the way in which the Watchtower Society chooses leaders and disciplines church members is part of its constitutionally protected freedom of religion.

He said the decision permits members to make religious decisions without worrying about being second-guessed by a secular court.

In his lawsuit, Rees contended leaders in the Augusta church he attended as a teen-ager knew that Baker had molested a child in the past but did not warn church members or expel Baker.

Rees was molested by Baker from 1989 to 1992 while he was a teen-ager living next door to Baker in the Lincoln County town of Jefferson.

Baker, who served six months in prison for unlawful sexual contact with a minor and sexual abuse of a minor, said in a deposition that he engaged in sexual acts about 30 times with Rees, Waxman said.

Rees ultimately required psychiatric hospitalization following the acts that started when he was 14 years old, Waxman said. Rees won a $1.2 million judgment against Baker but did not collect damages, the lawyer said. Rees' lawsuit accused the defendants of breaching a fiduciary duty owed to him as a member of the congregation and of infliction of emotional distress. He also sued his stepfather, one of the church elders, for negligence. According to the supreme court ruling, the elders of the church demoted Baker, rebuked him in private and temporarily forbade him from having contact with minors after becoming aware of the first case episode.

However, the elders did not make the congregation aware of the episode and they later allowed him to resume activities as an ordinary member of the church.

In dismissing claims for emotional distress, Justice Leigh Saufley wrote that that to hold the church responsible would require delving into matters of redemption and forgiveness, ''an inquiry that would require secular investigation of matters that are almost entirely ecclesiastical in nature.''

''State courts may not interfere in matters concerning religious doctrine or organization,'' Saufley wrote.

Waxman said the state's position regarding churches is among the most conservative in the country. He also said that common sense dictated the church should have done something to protect children from Baker.

''The church's dogma would not have precluded reasonable and appropriate action in this case,'' Waxman said.

Malonee said his clients are sorry that Rees was victimized but he said they felt the court made the right decision.

As for Rees, he said has straightened out his life after going through a difficult period following the sexual abuse. He said he now has a daughter and a steady job as a security officer.

He said he believed the justices let him down in Monday's ruling, and he also said he is disenchanted with organized religion. ''I agree with Governor Ventura that religion is a sham for weak-minded people,'' he said, quoting recent comments the Reform Party governor from Minnesota made in an interview with Playboy.

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