MrShorty

Oregon Woman sues Church for reporting abuse

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https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/01/08/turner-woman-mormon-lds-church-child-sex-abuse-lawsuit-oregon/2846278001/

In an interesting turn-about on the standard "Church (could be any church not just ours) covers up abuse when they should have reported" narrative, I came across this article* today where an Oregon woman is suing the Church for violating the "priest-penitent" privilege (that makes clergy exceptions to most mandatory reporting laws) by reporting her husband's sexual abuse to police. I'm not sure what to make of it, but I expect that the case will ultimately hinge on exactly how the court will interpret the priest penitent privilege in a church with a lay leadership. I see some interesting implications for future cases either way the court chooses to rule. I will need to think on this, but would also appreciate reading any of your thoughts.

I have also seen a statement released today by Eric Hawkins of Church PR that basically reiterates the Church's standard position on abuse and does not make any comments regarding this specific case.

*-- If the USA Today link fails, the article is authored by Whitney Woodworth of the Salem Statesman Journal and published Jan 8 2020 and seems to be showing up in multiple news outlets. Hopefully you can find the article even if the USA Today link fails or ends up behind a paywall or something.

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If the bishop/Church did not report this type of crime the bishop would have been held accountable if it did come to light later on. Anyone who doesn't report this type of abuse is held accountable if it is ever revealed that they knew and did not report. In this case priest-penitent becomes void, because the priest will be held accountable if he did not report it. In some states it is a felony, and others a misdemeanor.

Oregon Law:

A person who violates the reporting laws commits a class A violation. Prosecution under this law shall be commenced at any time within 18 months after the commission of the offense

Edited by Anddenex

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Quote

Church leaders' actions deprived Johnson's wife and children of his companionship, society, love and income, according to the lawsuit. 

"(Clergy) knew or should have known that violating the doctrine of confidentiality under the circumstances alleged in this complaint would most certainly injure (his wife and children) financially," Brandt said. 

Before being arrested, Johnson had a successful career as a sculptor.

The lawsuit requests $5.5 million for his wife for loss of his income and for extreme emotional distress and $1 million for each of his four children.

What an evil woman (the wife who is behind the lawsuit).

Her husband molested the daughter and she is pretending like her and her husband are the victims and the Bishop is the bad guy?  It's too bad she can't be charged criminally as a co-conspirator.

What an evil thing to do from the wife who is behind the lawsuit.

Her husband molested the minor and she is pretending like her and her husband are the victims and the Bishop's counselor is the bad guy?  It's too bad she can't be charged criminally as a co-conspirator.

Edited by Scott
fixed error; made less harsh

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1 hour ago, Anddenex said:

In this case priest-penitent becomes void, because the priest will be held accountable if he did not report it.

I have not expertise in the legalities here, so I will have to take your word for it. You are the first to assert that priest-penitent privilege would be void in this case -- the newspaper columnist and others I have seen comment on it have not made this same assertion. From what I can gather, most states have exceptions to mandatory reporting laws for clergy confessions. In many ways, I think it will be interesting to see how the courts interpret the clergy privilege in this case -- Does it apply to churches with a lay clergy or only professional clergy? Does it apply to the clerics assistants (counselors in a bishopric in this case)?

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1 hour ago, Anddenex said:

If the bishop/Church did not report this type of crime the bishop would have been held accountable if it did come to light later on. Anyone who doesn't report this type of abuse is held accountable if it is ever revealed that they knew and did not report. In this case priest-penitent becomes void, because the priest will be held accountable if he did not report it. In some states it is a felony, and others a misdemeanor.

Oregon Law:

A person who violates the reporting laws commits a class A violation. Prosecution under this law shall be commenced at any time within 18 months after the commission of the offense

It isn't clear to me that not reporting in this instance would have made the bishop liable. Some jurisdictions require reporting a potential or suspected abuser when evidence indicates abuse, but do not necessarily require reporting when the abuser confesses. From the sound of it, Oregon is one such state.

This is the crux of the lawsuit, that the man came forward to confess to the bishop and therefore the bishop(ric) shouldn't have reported him without first advising him that they would not honor the priest-penitent privilege.

It's a thornier ethical question than it seems on the surface. The exemption from reporting requirements is intended to encourage people to seek help that might help them reform. If the man had known he would be reported, would he still have come forward of his own volition? Would he still have pursued repentance? (A similar debate is had about pregnant women admitting drug use to health care providers. The industry wants to be exempt from reporting to encourage users to admit their use and receive treatment. Others want admitted users to be reported.)

Had the abuse been reported by any person other than himself, this wouldn't be an issue, because at that point, priest-penitent privilege wouldn't apply.

25 minutes ago, Scott said:

 

What an evil woman (the wife who is behind the lawsuit).

Her husband molested the daughter and she is pretending like her and her husband are the victims and the Bishop is the bad guy?  It's too bad she can't be charged criminally as a co-conspirator.

I haven't seen the original arrest report, but the reporting I've read isn't clear that it was his daughter. It was a minor "known to him," so perhaps a babysitter, or something of the sort.

I don't know that the woman is evil. Quite possibly she is desperate. Her family has likely been stigmatized, it's definitely been torn apart. And I imagine she feels their trust has been violated by those she felt were supposed to help them heal their wounds. If she has struggled the past two years to cope with all of the changes and to keep her family afloat financially, I can understand why she would choose to file this lawsuit.

(That isn't to say I agree, but I can sympathize with her)

 

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7 minutes ago, MrShorty said:

I have not expertise in the legalities here, so I will have to take your word for it. You are the first to assert that priest-penitent privilege would be void in this case -- the newspaper columnist and others I have seen comment on it have not made this same assertion. From what I can gather, most states have exceptions to mandatory reporting laws for clergy confessions. In many ways, I think it will be interesting to see how the courts interpret the clergy privilege in this case -- Does it apply to churches with a lay clergy or only professional clergy? Does it apply to the clerics assistants (counselors in a bishopric in this case)?

I would be really surprised if the courts decided that privilege did not exist for lay clergy. And I struggle to see a framework where thever courts could even justify it.

It probably varies by jurisdiction, but I suspect most jurisdictions will extend privilege to the bishop's counselors. I does in my location.

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My understanding (I have not read the applicable statutes) is that the bishopric counselor who made the report is a pharmacist by trade, and subject to specific reporting requirements by the regulations/associations that govern his profession.  

There are folks—including, IIRC, a few members of this forum—who have decried the Church’s policy of instructing bishops who hear disclosures like this seek legal advice before going to the authorities; but this case illustrates why the Church’s hotline to Kirton-McConkie exists.  Depending on state law and the day-job of the church leader, the leader might be civilly liable for doing in one state, the exact same thing that he’d be criminally liable for not doing in another.  

Edited by Just_A_Guy

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1 hour ago, MarginOfError said:

It probably varies by jurisdiction

Interestingly, the article mentioned a bill going before the Utah legislature that would essentially remove the clergy-confession privilege in the state of Utah -- making all clergy mandatory reporters even if they learn of the abuse as part of "confession" (there is a link within my link that goes to the Tribune's coverage of this bill, if you feel so inclined). It looks like the Utah state legislature will get an opportunity to debate the issues you mention.

28 minutes ago, Just_A_Guy said:

the bishopric counselor who made the report is a pharmacist by trade, and subject to specific reporting requirements by the regulations/associations that govern his profession.

This seemed like a part of how having a lay ministry might play into this. As I understand the story, man confesses to bishop. Bishop convenes a disciplinary council which brings in several other members of the Church's lay clergy (including the counselor in question). Are these additional council members acting in the capacity of their regular day jobs and not clergy, or are they acting as clergy in this case? Is the disciplinary council still part of the confessional, or is it something different? Considering the lay nature of our clergy, how do the rules that govern our day jobs impact our church service? Extending to religious liberty, how much do we want the government and courts deciding these things for us?

As I said, I have no legal expertise to understand all of the legal ins and outs. But it seems that there may be some interesting aspects to this case.

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Unless I'm misreading this, it was not the bishop who reported the man to the police, but the bishop's counselor who was present at "the church court":

Johnson confessed to local leaders and members of the church court that he had sexually abused a minor.

I assume this refers to a ward-level disciplinary council, which would be the bishop and his counselors. The point of contention seems to be that the plaintiffs think the bishopric should have, in effect, read them their Miranda rights before counseling with them. I can't see how their case can possibly advance, but then, this is Oregon we're talking about.

EDIT: I should have read all the comments first. It looks like people who know more than I do have already commented on the various legalities I was wondering about.

Edited by Vort

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15 hours ago, MarginOfError said:

Her family has likely been stigmatized, it's definitely been torn apart.

This may be true, but the situation is her husband's fault, not the counselor's.    It was her husand who tore the family apart and violated trust.

Quote

And I imagine she feels their trust has been violated by those she felt were supposed to help them heal their wounds.

As far as healing wounds goes, part of repentance is supposed to be making restitution and facing the legal consequences of your actions.   Confessing to the bishop  or couselors does not nullify having to face the legal consequences of your actions.

Edited by Scott

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I could be wrong, but my understanding is that only the Roman Catholic Church has the rite of Confession, which does involve a sacred veil of secrecy and privacy. Protestant clergy would generally report such matters to authorities. On the other hand, if we could tell a conversation was going in this direction we might remind the counselee that incidents of criminal behavior--especially involving minors--must be reported.

Edited by prisonchaplain

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2 minutes ago, prisonchaplain said:

I could be wrong, but my understanding is that only the Roman Catholic Church has the rite of Confession, which does involve a sacred veil of secrecy and privacy. Protestant clergy would generally report such matters to authorities. On the other hand, if we could tell a conversation was going in this direction we might remind the counselee that incidents of criminal behavior--especially involving minors--must be reported.

High church Anglicans and Lutherans also have private confession.  

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29 minutes ago, prisonchaplain said:

my understanding is that only the Roman Catholic Church has the rite of Confession, which does involve a sacred veil of secrecy and privacy.

 

25 minutes ago, MormonGator said:

High church Anglicans and Lutherans also have private confession.  

One of the concerns I would have is that I don't think we want the state(s) to maintain a list of "approved" churches/denominations that believe in clergy-penitent privilege. One of the things that I am uncomfortable with is that some of the allegations here about the counselor "violating" church policy potentially puts the court in the position of interpreting the Church handbook for us. I am extremely uncomfortable with this idea, though I am also reasonably confident that the judges and lawyers will be able to recognize the danger in setting the state up to interpret religious belief/practice and it won't come to that.

 

1 hour ago, Scott said:

part of repentance is supposed to be making restitution and facing the legal consequences of your actions.   Confessing to the bishop  or couselors does not nullify having to face the legal consequences of your actions.

While I might agree with you, I see nothing in what little information has come out that suggests that the Bishop or the disciplinary council told him that submitting to the law would be a requirement of his repentance. Granted we know nothing more than the existence of these councils and know nothing about what was said and not said, but I see no indication that the he was ever told to report to law enforcement. I wonder if we believe that facing legal consequences is a universal truth, or one that is applied on a case by case basis at the discretion of the bishop/disciplinary council.

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2 hours ago, prisonchaplain said:

I could be wrong, but my understanding is that only the Roman Catholic Church has the rite of Confession, which does involve a sacred veil of secrecy and privacy. Protestant clergy would generally report such matters to authorities. On the other hand, if we could tell a conversation was going in this direction we might remind the counselee that incidents of criminal behavior--especially involving minors--must be reported.

You're right that the LDS Church doesn't have a Rite of Confession, and the veil of secrecy is not like it is in Catholicism (or some others)

Legally this is, again, a jurisdictional thing as far as reporting goes. In my state, all adults are mandated reporters. But clergy (including bishops and their counselors) have an exception and are not required to report abusive situations*.

* Though I imagine that exception is only one particularly ugly case away from being erased.

Edited by MarginOfError

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3 hours ago, Scott said:

This may be true, but the situation is her husband's fault, not the counselor's.    It was her husand who tore the family apart and violated trust.

As far as healing wounds goes, part of repentance is supposed to be making restitution and facing the legal consequences of your actions.   Confessing to the bishop  or couselors does not nullify having to face the legal consequences of your actions.

I'm not disputing any of this. I only contested the characterization of her as "evil."

To do so is only a different shade of calling a thief "evil" because he chooses to steal a loaf of bread rather than submit to starvation. Desperation drives people to extreme actions.

If anything, what I'm trying to convey is that justice and compassion are not mutually exclusive.

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18 hours ago, MrShorty said:

I have not expertise in the legalities here, so I will have to take your word for it. You are the first to assert that priest-penitent privilege would be void in this case -- the newspaper columnist and others I have seen comment on it have not made this same assertion. From what I can gather, most states have exceptions to mandatory reporting laws for clergy confessions. In many ways, I think it will be interesting to see how the courts interpret the clergy privilege in this case -- Does it apply to churches with a lay clergy or only professional clergy? Does it apply to the clerics assistants (counselors in a bishopric in this case)?

When I was a missionary, in Texas, I was informed when I reported an abuse case that if I had known, or had it told to me, and I didn't report that I would have been held accountable.

The same goes for any ecclesiastic leader. The priest-privilege would not apply especially if the person acted once again and you could have potentially prevented it by reporting it.

Honestly though, if we simply view in light of how some people view the Church and bishops, if it came to light that a bishop new of a sex offender, didn't report, and the sex offender abused another child -- what would happen? I personally see it very obvious.

Edited by Anddenex

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5 minutes ago, MarginOfError said:

I'm not disputing any of this. I only contested the characterization of her as "evil."

To do so is only a different shade of calling a thief "evil" because he chooses to steal a loaf of bread rather than submit to starvation. Desperation drives people to extreme actions.

If anything, what I'm trying to convey is that justice and compassion are not mutually exclusive.

In exactly the same vein, characterizing the husband as "evil" is a step too far. I will never cease to be amazed that many of the very same people who weep and howl so loudly for the unkind accusations of evil hurled at their homosexual brother or sister will happily join in the lynching of a brother or sister struggling with pedophilic impulses. The hypocrisy is overwhelming.

Sure, we're all repulsed by the idea of pedophilia. But if simply being repulsive is sufficient excuse for public condemnation, then how can anyone complain about deprecations toward homosexuals? It's a clear double standard. And we're all scared by the idea of a predatory pedophile targetting children, especially  our own children. But this guy was looking to repent. Why doesn't that count for anything in the sympathy department?

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18 hours ago, MarginOfError said:

It isn't clear to me that not reporting in this instance would have made the bishop liable. Some jurisdictions require reporting a potential or suspected abuser when evidence indicates abuse, but do not necessarily require reporting when the abuser confesses. From the sound of it, Oregon is one such state.

It is clear he would have been liable in Utah and Oregon. Being an ecclesiastic/priest leader doesn't bypass the law. If it were to come to light later on that a bishop, priest, pastor, or any other leader had know and did not report, and the person abused again the religious leader would be held accountable.

Also, the Handbook specifically states what a bishop should do in accordance with known laws. In court, if a bishop didn't report it, the opposing lawyer could use the Handbook to incriminate the bishop (who didn't report it) as the bishop didn't follow Church policy.

It does not matter if the confession is voluntary or forced.

Quote

This is the crux of the lawsuit, that the man came forward to confess to the bishop and therefore the bishop(ric) shouldn't have reported him without first advising him that they would not honor the priest-penitent privilege.

It's a thornier ethical question than it seems on the surface. The exemption from reporting requirements is intended to encourage people to seek help that might help them reform. If the man had known he would be reported, would he still have come forward of his own volition? Would he still have pursued repentance? (A similar debate is had about pregnant women admitting drug use to health care providers. The industry wants to be exempt from reporting to encourage users to admit their use and receive treatment. Others want admitted users to be reported.)

There isn't any exemption when it comes to reporting child abuse. If you know about it you report it -- that is the law. We honor the law when it comes to reporting child abuse.

True, and that is the crux of child abuse and priest confidentiality. The moment anyone knows about child abuse you better report it, otherwise by law, you will be held accountable even if you are a religious leader. Read the law, there is no exemption to anyone when it comes to reporting sexual abuse of a minor (I would think even with adults).

Drug use and sexual child abuse I am not sure is a good comparison to the priest confidentiality privilege.

So, I will quote myself from my response to MrShorty, "Honestly though, if we simply view in light of how some people view the Church and bishops, if it came to light that a bishop new of a sex offender, didn't report, and the sex offender abused another child -- what would happen? I personally see it very obvious."

1) The Church would be sued because of not reporting it

2) The bishop would be held accountable.

Unless you can find in the Oregon law any exemption I couldn't find regarding reporting child abuse.

Edited by Anddenex

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6 minutes ago, MormonGator said:

Don't we always honor the law? Not arguing, honest question.

That's the point right? The law is that we report child abuse. If we don't (even if a priest/bishop/etc.) we aren't honoring the law of reporting.

<sarcasm>

If we all honored the law, would this even be a discussion? ;)

Did the wife honor the law by reporting her husband (as she should have) to the right authorities?

</sarcasm>

Edited by Anddenex

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19 hours ago, MarginOfError said:

 

I haven't seen the original arrest report, but the reporting I've read isn't clear that it was his daughter. It was a minor "known to him," so perhaps a babysitter, or something of the sort.

There is an article from the Oregonian that talks about it being the youngest daughter and that the abuse happened while she was a preteen and teen.  The abuse happened for about four years.  I am sure you can find it on Oregonian website. I can't figure out how to link it. 

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2 hours ago, MarginOfError said:

I'm not disputing any of this. I only contested the characterization of her as "evil."

To do so is only a different shade of calling a thief "evil" because he chooses to steal a loaf of bread rather than submit to starvation. Desperation drives people to extreme actions.

If anything, what I'm trying to convey is that justice and compassion are not mutually exclusive.

She's not asking for a loaf of bread; she as asking for $10 million dollars.  I would bet that if she was in a desperate situation the church welfare system would have helped her out.

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FWIW, Utah’s child abuse reporting statute is online at https://le.utah.gov/xcode/Title62A/Chapter4A/62A-4a-S403.html?v=C62A-4a-S403_1800010118000101.  There is a specific exception for clergy members who hear a confession of child abuse from the perpetrator herself—if they hear about it from any other source, they have to report it.

It actually puts defense lawyers in kind of a weird situation, because AFAIK there’s no Utah case law explicitly carving out an exception to the statute for attorney-client privilege.  When I did defense work, I got around the statute by telling my clients to tell me their story “as a hypothetical”.  Other defense attorneys, I think, just choose not to think about it too much.

By the way, I have seen child abuse cases where the referral was initially called in by a lawyer representing a clergyman who had found out about the abuse directly from the victim.

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4 hours ago, Vort said:

Why doesn't that count for anything in the sympathy department?

It does and the husband confessed.

The wife however is blaming the Church for the counselor telling the authorities of the abuse and blaming her situation on the Church.

It is not the Church's fault that her husband molested someone and went to jail, and if the husband was guilty he should have served time (facing legal actions is part of repentance).

Instead of acknowledging the sin and consequences or going to the authorities herself, she blames the Church for her situation and then sues them for $10 million.

If she hadn't done this, I would be more sympathetic towards her.

Instead of blaming the Church for her situation, she should acknowledge that her husband committed a crime and should do the time.  I'm sure it has been hard on her,  but that her husband's doing,  even if he is 100% repentant.

If I robbed a bank last weekend and went to the Bishop and said that I was the one that robbed the bank, I doubt he would say "thanks for confessing; now you're off the hook".    I would expect that he would turn me in if I didn't turn myself in.    And I certainly wouldn't think it would be fair if my wife sued the Church for $10 million because of my own actions.

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5 hours ago, Vort said:

But this guy was looking to repent. 

I love everything you wrote, but I’m not sure anyone alive (other than the perp himself) (maybe) can really speak definitively on this part.

Isn’t it kind of a fundamental notion within the church, that repenting of gravely illegal activity entails making yourself right before the law, making restitution to the victim(s), and paying any debts to society that may be owing? 

Why hadn’t he confessed already?  Did he really think that he’d be able to jerry-rig the repentance process—which logically should have included apologizing to his victim and her family, getting her whatever mental health counseling she needed, coming clean to his own wife, etc—in such a way that this sordid affair would never the radar of law enforcement/child protection authorities?

The more I think about this, the more questions I have . . .

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