Sep 27, 2018

Jehovah's Witness trial begins

The Sanders County Ledger
September 27, 2018

The Thompson Falls Jehovah’s Witness congregation, as well as two of the religion’s national corporations, are on trial in Sanders County this week.

Plaintiffs Alexis Nunez and Holly McGowan filed the lawsuit against the Thompson Falls congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, and Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (CCJW) alleging damages when the organizations failed to report sexual abuse to legal authorities.

The trial began Monday with selection of the jury of seven men and two women, plus an alternate juror. Attorney Neil Smith of Dallas, representing the victims, and Joel Taylor, representing Watchtower, CCJW and the Thompson Falls congregation, gave their opening statements before testimony began.

The plaintiffs argue that both the local and national organizations are responsible for damages to the victims in the case, while the defendants maintain that they were exempt from Montana’s mandatory reporting law.

The state’s mandatory reporting law states that if professionals and officials, including clergy, teachers, medical professionals and others, “know or have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is being abused or neglected … they shall report the matter promptly to the department of public health and human services.” In the Jehovah’s Witness faith, elders are considered members of the clergy.

The defense maintains that the organizations were exempt from the law because of an exemption that states, “a member of the clergy or a priest is not required to make a report under this section if the communication is required to be confidential by canon law, church doctrine, or established church practice.”

The defense says that Jehovah’s Witnesses “endeavor to comply with all governmental laws, so long as those laws do not conflict with the Bible.” Watchtower NY and CCJW have a policy that directs congregations to call the organization’s legal department when elders learn of allegations involving child sexual abuse.
Nunez and McGowan testified Tuesday that they were sexually abused by Max Reyes (Nunez’s step-grandfather and McGowan’s stepfather) when they were children. McGowan testified that she first reported the abuse to church elders in 1998. Don Herberger, an elder with the Thompson Falls congregation, testified earlier this week that the abuse was not reported until 2004, when McGowan’s brother came forward with allegations of abuse against Reyes. Nunez came forward in 2015 with allegations of past sexual abuse by Reyes, her step-grandfather.

When the abuse was reported in 2004, Herberger testified on Monday that the elders approached Reyes about the allegations and he admitted to the abuse. Herberger also testified that the elders called the legal department of the national organization and were advised that they were not required by law to report the abuse to local authorities.
While the abuse was not reported to authorities, Herberger testified that Reyes was disfellowshipped from the congregation in 2004, meaning his membership was revoked, but continued to participate in the church. Reyes was re-instated as a member in 2005.

As the trial continues this week, the jury will be asked to determine if money should be awarded to the plaintiffs to compensate them for any damages resulting from the abuse. If so, they will determine a dollar amount and which of the defendants will be responsible for the damages.

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