September 27, 2018
Nix Patterson, LLP obtains $35 million verdict for sex abuse survivor. Nix Patterson argued to a jury in Thomson Falls, Montana that the Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide organization values secrecy and its reputation over the safety of children.
Nix Patterson clients Holly McGowan and Alexis Nunez testified that they were sexually abused by a member of the Thompson Falls Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses over a period of years spanning from 1994-2007 and that the abuse was reported to the church leaders in 1998 and 2004. Nix Patterson uncovered documents that proved Defendants knew about the abuse in 2004 and that the abuser admitted to the abuse. However, the Jehovah’s Witness organization has a policy of keeping reports of child abuse internal and discouraging its members from reporting abuse to outside authorities. As a result, the abuser was allowed to remain in the congregation and the abuse continued.
Montana’s Mandatory Reporting law states that if clergy “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.” The defense argued that the organizations were exempt from the law because of an exception that allows clergy members to keep certain communications confidential.
At trial, Nix Patterson proved that the exception did not apply. Both the judge and the jury agreed that a child victim’s report of abuse was not confidential and that the Jehovah’s Witnesses policy of keeping reports of internal violated Montana law. Further, the jury awarded punitive damages finding that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to report the abuse to authorities intentionally disregarded the risk of having a known child abuser in their congregation.