In recent years, prominent religious institutions have been dogged with accusations that they persistently covered up sexual abuse and failed to report heinous crimes.
But a new lawsuit makes the opposite argument, claiming the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints violated a child molester’s confidentiality by turning his confession over to the authorities.
The $9.54 million suit was filed Friday by Kristine Johnson, whose husband, Timothy Samuel Johnson, is serving a 15-year prison sentence for sexually abusing a child. As the Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal first reported, the lawsuit alleges Johnson became aware of her husband’s misdeeds in 2016, but chose not to involve the police.
Instead, the couple went to the leaders of their church ward in Stayton, Oregon, so the matter could be handled through Mormon doctrine.
“The Mormon church is, for lack of a better word, a unique institution,” Bill Brandt, the attorney representing Kristine Johnson, told The Washington Post on Wednesday night. “They firmly believe that they can deal with their parishioners better than law enforcement.”
Timothy Johnson, now 47, went before a council of lay clergy and confessed to the abuse so he could begin the process of working toward absolution through “fairly intensive” spiritual counseling, Brandt said. But one member of the panel notified the authorities. In 2017, Johnson was arrested on charges of first-degree sodomy, sexual abuse and unlawful sexual penetration for sexually abusing a child under the age of 16. He pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree sexual abuse the following year.
“The impact has been devastating, emotionally and financially,” Brandt told The Post, noting Johnson had five children and was the main breadwinner for his family. Though the couple has remained devout Mormons, he said, they consider the decision to involve the police a “breach of trust.”
The lawsuit, filed in Marion County Circuit Court, argues the church wasn’t obligated to report the abuse, and in fact went against its own policy of holding confessions in strict confidence. But LDS officials say the church considers protecting victims to be a top priority, and clergy are expected to “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,” Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the Mormon church, wrote in an email to The Post. “The Church has a 24-hour abuse help line to help leaders understand and meet both their professional and ecclesiastical obligations to report abuse.”
Oregon is one of 28 states where church leaders are considered mandatory reporters and required by law to notify authorities about suspected abuse. But the statute makes an exception for any privileged communications. Brandt says a confession made to a priest falls into that category, unless a parishioner indicates the intention to do something illegal, like continuing to carry out the abuse.
As The Oregonian reported, Johnson’s lawsuit is complicated by the fact that the lay clergy member who reported him to police also works as a pharmacist as his day job. Under Oregon law, pharmacists are not only considered mandatory reporters but also obligated to tell authorities about any potential abuse that they learn about outside of work.
If the court doesn’t agree that Johnson’s confession to church leaders was a privileged communication, Brandt says, he plans to argue that clergy members erred by not warning him that they were obligated to report him to the authorities.
“The fellow had no history of this,” he told The Post. “There were no other victims. It was just a horrible thing.”
In recent years, the Mormon church has been hit with lawsuits accusing lay leaders of sexual abuse, as well as accusations that it helped protect the perpetrators from facing justice. One activist, Kristy Johnson, told KUER in 2018 that her father had molested her and her sisters when they were children, but church leaders saw it as a sin necessitating religious guidance, rather than the involvement of law enforcement.
“It never occurred to me to go to the police,” she told the station. “It never entered my mind because of being raised Mormon. These bishops and leaders are like God — they speak for God.”
Brandt told The Post that the Oregon case is different because it involves a parishioner admitting wrongdoing in a private setting similar to a Catholic church’s confession booth. When a clergy member is found to be sexually abusive, there isn’t the same expectation of confidentiality, and “obviously the church has an obligation to report that person,” he argued. If Timothy Johnson’s victim had come forward to church leaders, “that would be a whole different situation,” he said.
But some experts worry that the lawsuit could have a chilling effect, and that church leaders will be less likely to report suspected abuse if they fear getting hit with a pricey lawsuit.
“If successful, this litigation would push courts and these religious organizations toward less transparency than more,” Christine Bartholomew, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law, told The Oregonian. “And you have to wonder if that would create the environment where abuse can really fester.”