When churches get in trouble for sexual abuse, it’s usually about a cover-up.
A new lawsuit in Oregon, however, is making the opposite claim. A woman is suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for not keeping her husband’s history of child molestation secret.
The woman, Kristine Johnson, is seeking $9.54 million in damages from the church for turning over her husband’s confession of child molestation to authorities. The church’s action, she claims in the suit, violated church doctrine that allows members to confess transgressions and repent before clergy and the official church court.
In the suit, Johnson says that she became aware in 2016 that her husband, Timothy Samuel Johnson, had molested one of their five children, an underage daughter. Instead of involving the police, the couple chose to handle the matter through Mormon doctrine and told leaders of their church ward in Stayton, Oregon, about it.
The Johnsons believed the matter would remain confidential, but one of the Stayton church leaders reported it to authorities and in 2017, Johnson was arrested on charges of sexual abuse. He later pleaded guilty and is serving a 15-year prison sentence.
How Privileged Is Clergy-Parishioner Conversation?
The lawsuit is unusual because it is the exact opposite of many other cases where churches are accused of covering up sexual abuse and handling it as a sin instead of a crime. But it’s also noteworthy because it sheds light on questions of churches’ obligations to report sexual abuse.
The Johnsons believed that by reporting it to church officials, the matter would remain confidential. In doing so, they were relying on a legal concept called “clergy-penitent privilege” or “priest-penitent privilege,” which refers to a rule of evidence that prohibits lawyers or courts from inquiring about certain communications between clergy and members of their congregations. Exchanges between priests and parishioners in Catholic confession booths are classic examples.
In the Johnsons’ case, however, the Mormon Church has responded by saying that it provides no such refuge to parishioners — or at least to those that commit child abuse. Church spokesman Eric Hawkins told Time magazine that “protecting victims and ensuring proper reporting is a top priority. … The Church teaches that leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities.”
Clergy as Mandatory Reporters
Oregon is one of 28 states where clergy are included among the professions that are “mandatory reporters” of sexual abuse. It is also among the majority of states that recognize clergy-penitent privilege.
Since it is both, it seems to suggest that confidentiality between parishioner and clergy goes only so far — if a transgression is serious enough, clergy must report.
The U.S. Children’s Bureau, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, agrees with that assessment. “While clergy-penitent privilege is frequently recognized within the reporting laws,” the agency says, “it is typically interpreted narrowly in the context of child abuse or neglect.”
Johnson’s lawyer, Bill Brandt, told the Washington Post that if the court rules that Timothy Johnson’s confession was not privileged communication, he intends to argue that the church leaders should have warned him that they were obligated to report.
In other words, he and his client seem to be saying that the church should have been more sensitive to the molester.