Mormons face $9.5 million lawsuit after reporting an abusive father

Mormons face $9.5 million lawsuit after reporting an abusive father January 9, 2020

DAVID Clohessy, who spent 30 years championing the rights of victims of clergy abuse, has criticised a lawsuit brought against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The lawsuit alleges that the church wrecked the life of a man who sexually abused his daughter by reporting the matter the the authorities in Oregon. As a consequence the man was convicted in 2018 on four counts of second-degree sexual abuse and sentenced to 15 years.

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Clohessy, above, former national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said that instead of being sued:

The church should be thanked for doing the right thing.

It’s not just a parent’s job to protect their kids from predators, it’s the job of every single adult. So adults who do put the safety of kids first should be applauded not penalized.

The lawsuit was launched by the abuser’s wife who alleges that a clergy member violated a promise of confidentiality by reporting her husband to the authorities.

The husband told a local church panel about the molestation in 2016 to “repent for his sins” under the eyes of God and to seek spiritual healing “to bring peace within his life and family.”

Instead, he was arrested and charged in 2017 and convicted in 2018.

In addition to the wife, the lawsuit lists four of her children as plaintiffs, saying they all have been deprived of her husband’s “companionship, society, love, affection” and financial support.

Not listed is the couple’s fifth child, who was molested by her father over four years when she was a pre-teen and teenager, according to criminal case records.

The lawsuit seeks $9.5 million for the family’s emotional distress and lost income and $40,000 for the money spent on a criminal defence lawyer to represent the husband on the child molestation charges.

Clohessy said he believes the woman has misplaced her blame.

She should be grateful to the church officials, rather than bitter.

The couple were part of a ward in the Marion County town of Stayton, home to about 8,100 residents 15 miles southeast of Salem. Neither the woman who filed the lawsuit nor her husband are being names in order to protect the identify their abused daughter.

A spokesman for the Utah-based Mormon church, which is listed as the sole defendant, said in a statement that one of its top priorities is:

Protecting victims and ensuring proper reporting. The Church teaches that leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins said:

In some circumstances, those obligations may be governed by their professional duty and in others by their role as clergy. The Church has a 24-hour abuse help line to help leaders understand and meet both their professional and ecclesiastical obligations to report abuse. We are grateful for the efforts of law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and pursue justice for those who were abused.

Bill Brandt, the Salem attorney representing the woman and her four children, said the lawsuit isn’t basing its claims on Oregon’s mandatory reporting law. Rather, it faults the church for a breach of confidentiality, he said.

Brandt said the church teaches members that they must confess their transgressions “to get back in good favor with the church.” After they do, the church will offer counseling and set requirements that must be met to address the transgressions. That all is supposed to happen within the confines of the church, which assured the family that the confession would remain private, he said.

Brandt said church leaders had an obligation to warn the husband that he would likely be reported, and  claimed the family has struggled financially since the husband was sent to prison. Now 47, he resides at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton.

Legal experts said the Oregon lawsuit is rare because it faults a clergy member for reporting a crime.

Christine Bartholomew, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law, said while it might be surprising, many clergy do want to testify about supposedly privileged communications, especially if the information they have to share is about violent crimes that have been committed.

Bartholomew said the lawsuit against the Mormon church could discourage clergy members from reporting child abuse out of concern that they’ll be sued.

If successful, this litigation would push courts and these religious organizations toward less transparency than more. And you have to wonder if that would create the environment where abuse can really fester.

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  • Graham Martin-Royle

    I wouldn’t normally be supportive of any religious organisation but in this case I’m 100% behind the church, they did the right thing. If only the rest could learn from them, but I won5 hold my breath.

  • Erp

    It is actually a bit unclear whether the church directly reported him or whether a particular church member who was a mandatory reporter because he was a pharmacist learned about it (Oregon’s mandatory reporting law includes reporting suspected child abuse even if learned while outside the role that makes one a mandatory reporter).

  • Raging Bee

    Don’t the Mormons have some policy of helping in-church families in need? Isn’t what that all-but-explicitly-mandatory tithing is for? Do the family of a breadwinner jailed for a serious crime qualify for such assistance? Maybe they don’t, and this suit is their way of getting back some of that money they’ve tithed over the years.

  • As far as I can tell, this lawsuit is completely baseless.

  • RainbowPhoenix

    As if it wasn’t hard enough to get churches to obey mandatory reporting laws.

  • Michael Neville

    The lawyer may claim that the lawsuit isn’t about mandatory reporting laws but I suspect he’ll have a hard time selling that to a judge.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    Actually, I’m not convinced. We know that mandatory reporting laws have exemptions for religions (most notably the RCC confessional), and I don’t know how it applies to the Mormons. If the Mormon policy is equivalent to the RCC that confessions are considered confidential, then it depends on what the law has for exemptions.

    If this lawsuit is successful, either the church is going to have to come out and change their rules that says that the confessed crimes are not confidential or it is going to have to decide to not report confessed crimes, which is inconsistent with it’s stated preferred policy.

    My thinking is that it would change the policy to make it clear that the church will not hide criminal acts.

    That’s all assuming that it doesn’t actually already do that. I honestly don’t know enough about the Mormon policy and the law to know if there is merit here.

    If it is in the Mormon handbook (and it is allowed – again, I don’t know the extent to which exemptions apply), the people have the right to expect the church to uphold it.

  • digital bookworm

    …if the church wants to get away from mandatory reporting, (and let’s face it, most of them do) this is one church that can afford to quietly settle this case. $10 million is a drop in their bucket of $100 billion.

  • barriejohn

    How awful that this poor man’s life has been ruined! (Irony)

  • Raging Bee

    Even if there’s a valid case here, I think (hope?) that the plaintiffs would have a hard time getting a jury to punish someone for reporting a serious crime against a child and getting the perp locked up. I’d have a hard time doing that if I was on that jury. I might go along if there was a condition that total damages awarded would not exceed, say, $10?

  • Raging Bee

    Also, I’d love/hate to see how the plaintiffs get cross-examined over this — especially on the matter of what, if anything, either of them had done to protect the youngest daughter and keep poor dad out of trouble. Did any of them know about this before it was reported to police? If not, why not? Etc. etc…

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    I’d have a hard time doing that if I was on that jury. I might go along if there was a condition that total damages awarded would not exceed, say, $10?

    That is an option, yes.

    It would be curious if the jury could make a $10 award contingent on the church making the “not confidential” policy explicit. But they probably couldn’t do that. That would be neat – “if your response is to insist on not having to report in the future, pay $10 mil. If you agree that you will always report them, pay $10”

  • Raymond Metcalfe

    I cant remember where in the US but an appeal as found in favour of JW not reporting abuse because of there teachings. It overturned an earlier court that awarded $35 million against the JW.

  • Raging Bee
  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    In my state, everyone (young and old) are mandatory reporters of child abuse, and, as far as I can tell, there are no exceptions. Therefore, if I know my spouse is abusing our kids, I am required to report it. I cannot just tell them to stop, or to seek counseling.

    (I looked – I don’t see any exceptions for spouses and found no information suggesting it).

    Therefore, in this scenario, if the husband told the wife about it, and she went to the church but did NOT report him to child services, she could be charged with a class B misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1000 and 180 days in jail.

    My state is not Oregon, however.

  • Raging Bee

    Because of their TEACHINGS? Or because of a rule/promise of confidentiality?

  • Raymond Metcalfe

    I think it said because of their teachings about confidentiality I will try and find the article later

  • argyranthemum

    The Montana Supreme Court overturned the award just yesterday. Jehovah’s Witnesses are told to report anything to their elders, not the police, because police are part of Satan’s system, i.e., anything not part of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

  • Raging Bee

    So the JWs are above the law ‘cuz “religious freedom?” That’s the official line now?

  • argyranthemum

    I don’t like it any more than you do. I am totally not a lawyer, but I think this flies in the face of many awards that have been made in the US to victims of similar acts by the Catholic Church.

  • Jim Jones

    > The lawsuit alleges that the church wrecked the life of a man who sexually abused his daughter by reporting the matter the the authorities in Oregon.

    Can’t argue with that. His life has been wrecked by this. Also, Ted Bundy’s life was wrecked when he was convicted of multiple murders. And Jeffrey Dahmer’s life was wrecked when he was convicted of the same.

    Can I sue on their behalf?

  • Jim Jones
  • jhardy355

    The family can be helped with what are called fast offering funds that are separate donations from tithing. Bishops can provide food and payments for mortgage, rent, and utilities etc. if needed from those funds.

  • Raymond Metcalfe
  • Erp

    Oregon is more limited on who are mandatory reporters but those who are have to report incidents learned on or off the job; it does include clergy (outside penitent/confessor role) as well as pharmacists. Though in the case of the LDS where almost every male who is at least a teen is ordained would make deciding who is clergy for reporting and for the exemption a bit tricky; I suspect legally only LDS bishops in bishop conferences with a member could possibly count. However since the LDS requires bishops encountering a report of abuse to call a 24-hour church hotline (as of December 2017), I strongly suspect this voids any legal exemption for the confession (Catholic confessions, which is the reason for this exemption, prohibit revealing the contents under any circumstance even if, for instance, the penitent confessed to murdering the priest’s mother and father). Since there was a larger meeting (?LDS “disciplinary council”) for the abuser which would mean many others were told within the ward or even stake and one of those was a mandatory reporter as a pharmacist so he reported it to the state authorities. It is not clear this is what the LDS wanted, and, I suspect the pharmacist received some major criticism from his fellow Mormons. However Oregon law protects him from being sued for doing a good faith report of child abuse based on reasonable grounds.

  • This woman is just another female victim of a church that makes women accept being devalued.

  • persephone

    I think the pharmacist reported it. However, Oregon law also requires, I believe, that clergy must report abuse if they believe it will continue or recur. The man apparently confessed, then asked for help. It’s not clear if he would have stopped or not, or if he might continue, despite the church involvement. I guess it’s going to depend on the judge.

  • persephone

    I don’t think the church will continue to support the family past a certain period of time, especially since their loss of income is due to the man’s sin.

  • persephone

    The victim was her own child. She’s suing because they lost the husband’s income because he was raping their child.

  • persephone

    I believe the Oregon law still requires clergy to report if they believe the crime will continue. That’s part of the issue. The other part is the person who reported it was part of the meeting, but was not actually clergy. He’s a pharmacist, which is a job that requires mandatory reporting.

  • Wow, thanks for clarifying all that for me, persephone. She is suing people who reported a crime against her daughter. A terrible crime. To damage someone who reported this crime makes me suspicious, thinking they should investigate how long the mom knew the abuse was going on before the dad went to the church.

  • Jim X

    No good deed goes unpunished. –God

  • Judy Thompson

    I’m trying very hard to see the man who’s life has been wrecked, considering his daughter was physically sexually abused by him for YEARS, yet no one involved seems to realize that whether he confessed or not, he is still a pederast and will always be a pederast. There’s no cure for that. And his daughter has to live with those memories for the rest of her life.

    As you say, confessing to a crime does not exonerate him. It just makes it a bit easier to put him in prison. And there is one thing: pederasts do not fare well in prison. They often end up hanging from a rope that has mysteriously appeared overnight…

  • Judy Thompson

    something tells me the girl who was abused is now the chicken with the red spot in that family…

  • Judy Thompson

    there are a lot of women who have let the abuse happen, knowing exactly what’s going on, but they refuse to acknowledge it, or to say anything to anyone. If the child ever complained she got spanked for lying, or told to just keep still about it. Think what that must do to a kid.

  • Jim Jones

    Only if they know too much about too many rich and powerful people.

  • towercam

    Oh boy…the mormon church protects abusers.
    Way to go latter day conspirators! Protect those dirty beeps!

  • RMS

    This can’t possibly go anywhere, not if the church fights it. If it settles the case just to shut her up, it would be a really bad idea both short- and long-term.

  • laura1919

    “clergy member violated a promise”

    A clergy member violating a promise? Surely not. Next you’ll be telling me that some politicians are less than 100% honest.