Suit resolved against Jehovah’s Witnesses church, Roy elders
OGDEN — The lawsuit filed by a woman against four elders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses church in Roy over their handling of allegations a church member raped and abused her as a teen has been settled.
Details of the out-of-court settlement stemming from the charges of emotional distress outlined in the suit, however, have not been disclosed.
“I really can’t disclose any of the case details except that the case has been resolved,” said Mark Carlson. He’s a Syracuse attorney and part of the team of lawyers who represented the woman, 14 when the alleged abuse, sexual assaults and rapes at the center of the suit occurred.
Attorneys from the San Diego-based Zalkin Law Firm, which advocates for sexual abuse survivors and also represented the woman, didn’t respond to queries seeking comment.
Likewise, attorneys from Christensen & Jensen, the Salt Lake City law firm representing the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, didn’t respond to queries seeking comment. Watchtower is the parent organization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses church and another defendant in the case, in addition to the four church elders and the accused perpetrator of the alleged abuse.
The events at the center of the circuitous case — which made its way to the Utah Supreme Court — occurred in late 2007 and early 2008. The victim, as an adult, initially filed suit in 2015 in 2nd District Court in Ogden. That case was dismissed later that year and she filed another suit in 2nd District Court in late 2016.
According to the suit, the plaintiff met the alleged perpetrator of the abuse — active in the Jehovah’s Witnesses church, like her — in the summer of 2007, when he was 18 and she was 14. “So began a course of (the 18-year-old) abusing (the younger teen), bullying her, making sexual demands and, eventually, raping her,” reads the amended suit in the case, filed on April 14, 2022, according to court records.
The abuse extended into early 2018 when the girl’s mother learned of it. As a “devout” Jehovah’s Witnesses church member, the suit reads, the mom sought the advice of elders of the congregation. Their subsequent handling of the matter is at the center of the lawsuit and the charges of emotional distress.
Among other things, the elders made the 14-year-old repeatedly listen to an audio recording the 18-year-old had surreptitiously made while he abused her, the suit reads. They also questioned her at length about the events and the recording.
“The Elders inflicted this psychological abuse in an effort to cause (the teen) emotional pain so that they could extract a confession from (her), at that time 14 years old, that the sexual abuse and rape (the) 18-year-old (perpetrator) inflicted on her was actually consensual. It was not,” reads the suit.
She had managed in the immediate aftermath of the abuse, but after her dealings with the elders, the suit reads, her life deteriorated. “She struggled to fall asleep and to get out of bed in the morning. She stopped attending school for days at a time. Her grades plummeted. She grew depressed and was no longer able to engage in activities normal for a young girl her age,” it reads.
Second District Court Judge Mark DeCaria dismissed the suit on Aug. 17, 2017. The encounter between the elders and the young girl occurred in a religious setting — a hearing to determine if she had committed “a serious sexual sin,” he wrote — and he was hesitant to meddle given 1st Amendment religious protections.
“Despite this Court’s revulsion at the allegations, it cannot hear this case without excessively entangling itself in religion, and thus declines to do so,” DeCaria wrote in his decision.
The case ultimately went to the Utah Supreme Court and the justices overturned the dismissal in 2021, keeping the lawsuit alive. The high court argued, in part, that DeCaria relied on a case-law test that had been discarded by the U.S. Supreme Court in reviving the lawsuit.