Montana Supreme Court Decides to Protect Church Officials over Children in Ruling for Jehovah’s Witnesses
In a blow to child protection efforts everywhere, the highest court in Montana today reversed a decision that held church officials from the Jehovah’s Witnesses responsible for failing to report child abuse to the authorities. We are dismayed by this ruling and hope that legislators in Montana will respond by passing new legislation eliminating the clergy-penitent privilege that allowed this case to be overturned in the first place.
This is an extremely disappointing ruling that will only embolden religious officials from every faith who believe that it is not their duty to report confessions of abuse to law enforcement. The fact remains, however, that children are best protected when crimes are reported to police and internal reporting only allows more children to be placed at risk and more abusers to walk free. We believe religious leaders should do what is morally right, not technically allowed, when it comes to these cases.
Rather than accept that they put children at risk with their ineffective internal disciplinary actions, with this appeal Jehovah’s Witnesses chose to pursue their right to cover-up abuse at the expense of the community. The case in question perfectly illustrates how church officials were content to allow more children to be abused rather than risk any challenge to their authority. Then, rather than accept that their policies and doctrines failed and taking steps to change them, Jehovah’s Witnesses chose to spend their money fighting a victim of sexual abuse. These actions are morally bankrupt behavior from church leaders, supposed arbiters of what is right and just. It is clear that their definition of what is right is in fact archaic and wrong.
It is time for clergy-penitent privilege to end. We hope that lawmakers in Montana will respond to this disappointing ruling by changing the laws in their state to eliminate this privilege so that church leaders of every faith tradition will be compelled to report abuse instead of sitting on allegations and allowing more children to be hurt.
CONTACT: Zach Hiner, Executive Director (517-974-9009, [email protected])
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)