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Montana Jehovah's Witness sex abuse case underscores church's worldwide reckoning
THOMPSON FALLS — Perhaps the largest jury award ever to a single person claiming the Jehovah's Witnesses church failed to protect her from a sexual predator came Wednesday in Thompson Falls, a 1,300-person town peeking out from the pines along Highway 200 in northwest Montana.
The jury's award, $35 million in punitive and compensatory damages to one woman, is more than financial relief, the woman's attorneys say. It's a message to the church: If leadership won't amend their policies in handling child sex abuse, they're going to pay for it.
In 2012, a California jury awarded one woman $28 million for her own claims against the Witnesses. Her attorney said it was the largest jury verdict for a single victim in a religious abuse case in the entire country at that time. The payout is a direct reflection of the church’s enormous and — most importantly — centralized wealth at the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, located in Pennsylvania and New York.
The Montana case is the most recent in a global reckoning for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, not unlike the ones seen with the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America. The number of cases filed against the church has accelerated in local and federal courts across the United States, alleging that church leadership stifled child sexual abuse allegations and returned known predators to congregations without warning other Witnesses.
The Australian Royal Commission conducted its own probe into the church’s practices regarding the handling of abuse and known predators, finding more than 1,000 allegations were never turned over to authorities.
The bedrock policies revealed by these public proceedings come in two steps:
Reports of abuse are to be forwarded to the legal department in the church’s highest offices, which in turn direct congregation elders to conduct proceedings internally and not report these crimes to authorities.
The other part — the first part, technically — is what’s known as the “two-witness rule,” which requires an allegation of abuse to be bolstered by two witnesses before leadership takes any action.
Barbara Anderson, once a Jehovah’s Witness herself, said that rule is borrowed literally from the Scripture.
“They're literalists," she said, "and that's a very, very old command."
Anderson now lives in Tennessee, but she once lived in New York, where she wasn’t just a Witness, but a researcher in the church’s headquarters there. She told the Missoulian this week she left the church in 1997, after more than 40 years as a dedicated Witness, in protest of the policies that facilitate the cover-ups like the one in Thompson Falls.
And she’s been sharing the church’s internal documents online ever since, helping propel cases like this one toward justice.
In 2016, two women sued Watchtower and the Thompson Falls congregation alleging they were abused, molested and raped by member Maximo Reyes, both before the elders "disfellowshipped" him from the membership and after they reinstated him about a year later.
The first woman, Holly McGowan, said Reyes abused her for several years, when she was as young as 9, and reported it to church leadership in 1998. She alleged they did nothing because of the second-witness rule.
The Missoulian typically does not name victims of sexual assault. Both women named in this story agreed to allow the Missoulian to use their names.
There were only five exhibits entered during trial, but prosecutors really only needed four to prove the Thompson Falls elders knew Reyes had molested multiple children, including by Reyes’ own admission, in 2004.
After McGowan submitted a two-page letter on March 19, 2004, outlining Reyes’ assaults on her and another girl, the elders notified the high levels of the church and requested documents in order to officially sever Reyes from the congregation.
When the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a high-ranking church office in New York, issued the disfellowship papers and typed a letter to the Thompson Falls elders, they requested that the elders follow up with a letter containing more details: How long did the abuse go on? How old were the victims? Are members of the congregation aware of what took place?
“The community nor the authorities are aware of this matter,” the elders replied on April 21, 2004. “The members of the congregation are also at this time unaware of what took place. The only ones that we are aware of that know are Maximo, his wife and mother of the children. … The victims feel disgust toward Maximo.”
On June 16, 2005, the elders reinstated Reyes in the congregation at his request. Alexis Nunez, then an 8-year-old girl, would later tell the elders he sexually assaulted her on a near-weekly basis for the next two years.
Before the trial, attorneys for Watchtower requested Judge James Manley, the District Court judge for Sanders and Lake counties, order that a number of these exhibits remain confidential through the process.
They gave several reasons, including assertions the victim's attorneys wanted them so they could release them to the media and in turn “harass/embarass” the church.
Manley denied the request the seal the documents. The Missoulian obtained and paid for copies of them from the District Court clerk’s office.
Neil Smith, a Texas attorney who represented McGowan and Nunez, said litigating the case was difficult because he also had to bat away claims that certain documents were to be confidential because of religious protections.
"This is such an extremely secretive organization that refuses to provide honest answers," he said.
Attorneys for Watchtower did not return emails seeking comment for this story.
“This case was about exposing a system that protects the Jehovah’s Witness organization by keeping its victims quiet," said McGowan and Nunez in a statement emailed Friday night.
"We were taught at a young age not to talk to secular authorities and to trust the elders to handle any issues — even child abuse. That system took our voice away from us. This case was about getting our voice back and being heard. We feel like we accomplished that. However, we know one case won’t be enough to make the Jehovah’s Witnesses change their policies. We hope that other victims will hear our story and feel the strength to speak up and fight as well.”
Because the church said it had no documentation of McGowan’s 1998 report to the elders, the jury said in its verdict that the plaintiffs’ attorneys had not proved McGowan had made that report at all, and therefore couldn’t prove her allegations had been tossed aside.
Montana's mandatory reporter statute made a big difference in this case, attorneys said. Certain exceptions exist for clergy. For example, the revelation of abuse or neglect made during a confession or in a statement that's meant to be confidential can be withheld by clergy.
But Jim Molloy, a Bozeman attorney who joined Smith in representing the plaintiffs, said those loopholes couldn't apply here. Reyes admitted the abuse to the elders when they approached him about it, not in confession. What's more, they spread that information to others, including up the Witness chain to Watchtower.
"This is not a case where the Thompson Falls congregation went rogue," Smith said. "This isn't about them. It's the puppet masters in New York who issued orders by the threat of punishment from God."
The same policies and procedures have been aired out in proceedings against the Jehovah's Witnesses around the world. Yet the church remains set in its ways, Anderson said, because of how the religious leaders hold their beliefs above the law. Romans 13 in the Bible that says "Let every person be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God."
"I left the organization over this issue," she said. "No one appointed them as magistrates, they're spiritual judges. If they want to judge someone on this matter, they'll take action against them in a religious sense."
Anderson herself was born Catholic but her family joined the Witnesses when she was 14. She married a Witness, and eventually found herself working as a researcher for the congregation's magazine, Awake!, and living in the Watchtower's home base, a 4,000-person complex once located in Brooklyn, New York.
While at the magazine, she learned about the church's process of internalizing matters of child abuse, and found leadership reluctant to publish anything notifying its members of the emerging numbers of accused.