- Darren Staples/Reuters
Kristine Johnson filed a lawsuit in Oregon against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for reporting her husband to local law enforcement after he confessed to church leaders that he had sexually abused a minor.
The lawsuit claims the Utah-based Mormon church violated “priest-penitent privilege” and seeks nearly $9.6 million in damages.
The lawsuit is a stark contrast to criticism of other religious institutions for covering up or remaining silent about cases of child molestation.
In 2016, after Kristine Johnson discovered her husband had sexually abused their underage daughter, Timothy Samuel Johnson followed the Mormon church doctrine and confessed his sins before the official church court and clergymen. The Oregon couple believed this act of contrition was confidential – until Timothy, now 47, found himself arrested, convicted and imprisoned on charges of child sex abuse.
Now, Kristine is suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for $9.54 million for reporting her husband’s transgressions to local law enforcement, according to a lawsuit seen by Insider – a stark contrast to the silence of church leadership in cases of child molestation at other religious institutions, namely the Catholic Church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has 16.3 million members and over 30,00 congregations worldwide, according to the church’s website. The Johnsons were members of a congregation, also known as a ward, outside of Salem, Oregon.
The lawsuit claims that the Johnsons were told that “that whatever the scope of Mr. Johnson’s evil transgressions, the Church and its clergy will spiritually counsel Mr. Johnson to bring peace within his life and family.” However, Bill Brandt, the couple’s attorney, claims the clergy knowingly brought emotional distress and financial burden instead.
“It’s been devastating on the family,” Brandt told the Statesman Journal. “They lost a husband and a father.”
The lawsuit seeks $5.5 million for Kristine’s emotional distress and loss of income with an additional $1 million for the emotional distress for each of their four children, who are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. (The Salt Lake City-based church is the sole defendant, but the lawsuit points to the bishop of their ward.) The Johnsons also hope to secure $40,000 for the cost of a criminal defense lawyer to represent Timothy, who pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree sexual abuse and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
“The plaintiffs hope to receive compensation for the family’s loss of support and loss of the societal companionship of Mr. Johnson,” Brandt added.
The lawsuit claims church leaders failed to notify the Johnsons that Samuel’s confession would be reported to local law enforcement, breaking “priest-penitent privilege” in the process, also citing a Mormon scripture that says “he who repents his sins” would be forgiven and that the “Lord [will] remember them no more.”
“Church doctrine requires that a member confess his wrongdoing and then go through what I would call a rigorous rehabilitation program. The priest-penitent privilege has been around for decades, if not centuries,” Brandt told Insider. “There is no doubt that in following Church doctrine, Mr. Johnson made his statements regarding his wrongdoing in confidence consistent with Church doctrine.”
While Oregon law requires clergy and other “mandatory reporters” to notify authorities about known or suspected instances of child abuse or neglect, the Statesman Journal points out that “confessional-style ‘clergy-penitent privilege’ are exempt to mandatory reporting laws.”
Eric Hawkins, a spokesperson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, explained to Insider 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. In some circumstances, those obligations may be governed by their professional duty and in others by their role as clergy. We are grateful for the efforts of law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and pursue justice for those who were abused,” Hawkins said. The church also has a 24-hour hotline to answer questions from clergy or leadership about how to handle cases of possible sexual abuse.
In response to the reckoning of child sexual abuse cases in churches across the world, the Mormon church explicitly instructed clergy to “fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities” in 2018.
“No Church leader should ever dismiss a report of abuse or counsel a member not to report criminal activity,” read a statement on the Latter-Day Saint website.
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