Establishing Duty in Child Sex Abuse Cases Against the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Winter 2021

The Robins Kaplan Justice Report

In 2019, 13 states and the District of Columbia amended civil statutes to enlarge statutes of limitations for child sex abuse claims.1 Eight of these jurisdictions enacted revival statutes allowing previously time-barred child sex abuse claims to proceed: New York, the District of Columbia, Montana, New Jersey, Arizona, Vermont, Rhode Island, and North Carolina.2

Since implementation of these statutes, survivors of child sex abuse have filed complaints against many different institutions—not just against individual perpetrators of abuse—including, the Roman Catholic Church, various independent schools, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses parent-organization, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. (“Watchtower”). Institutions may be directly liable for sex abuse committed by their agents through negligencebased claims, such as, negligent supervision, hiring/ retention, and failure to warn.

In Jehovah’s Witnesses cases, perpetrators of sex abuse commonly hold the position of church “elder” or “ministerial servant.” In those cases, attorneys for the Jehovah’s Witnesses typically argue that elders and ministerial servants are unpaid volunteers, not employees or agents of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and, thus, the organization has no duty to protect one congregant from abuse by another congregant, especially if the abuse occurred off congregation premises.3 Below are some examples of evidence that Plaintiffs’ attorneys have successfully marshaled to counter this argument.

First, the Jehovah’s Witnesses organizational structure shows that elders and ministerial servants are indeed agents of the Church. In J.W. v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.,4 California’s appeals court provides a generally accurate description of the Jehovah’s Witnesses hierarchy. The relevant upshot is that, “[e]lders are the highest authority at the congregational level,” and, thus, are the Jehovah’s Witnesses equivalent of Roman Catholic priests.5 In order to be appointed an elder, a person must first be a ministerial servant in good standing.6 Top-down, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or, “Watchtower,” as the parent-organization is known, is controlled by the Governing Body of eight elders, essentially the board of directors for Watchtower.7 Below the Governing Body are circuits generally comprised of 20 to 22 congregations.8 Below the circuit-level are local congregations, each managed by a body of elders, who select candidates for becoming elders and ministerial servants.9

Watchtower’s own documents and policies elucidate the institution’s agency relationship with its elders and ministerial servants, and reveal the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ own perception that a duty arises from those relationships. For example, in another California child sex abuse case,10 Watchtower produced a July 20, 1998 letter in which the organization admonishes All Bodies of Elders against appointing child sex abusers as elders or ministerial servants because, “this could result in costly lawsuits. . . . [C]ourt officials and lawyers will hold responsible any organization that knowingly appoints former child abusers to positions of trust, if one of these, thereafter, commits a further act of child abuse.”11 The letter concedes, “[t]hose who are appointed to privileges of services, such as elders and ministerial servants, are put in a position of trust. . . .this includes being more liberal in leaving children in their care and oversight.” As for any attempt to mitigate the role of ministerial servants as compared to elders, the Watchtower policy manual, “Organized to do Jehovah’s Will,” instructs that ministerial servants are authorized to perform tasks otherwise reserved for elders, when an elder is unavailable, such as: (1) conduct Congregation Book Study; (2) handle Service Meetings; (3) handle parts of the Theocratic Ministry School; and (4) deliver public talks in the local congregation.12

Based on the above, courts have been persuaded that Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations are liable for “violat[ing] [a] duty,” when a clergy sex abuse victim’s parents were “congregants, who in deciding to permit [the perpetrator] into their home reasonably relied on his status as an appointed ministerial servant as well as on his good standing and reputation within the congregation. . . .”13 In addition to the above, the California Court of Appeal rejected the notion that a plaintiff failed to sufficiently allege proximate cause when the sexual abuse had occurred off congregation premises, mainly relying on a respondeat superior discussion in Comment C to the Restatement (3d) of Agency § 7.05: “causation may not be present when the harm occurs outside the work environment. It does not reflect that causation cannot be found when the harm occurs outside the work environment.”14

Understanding the structure, history, and policies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is important for proving the parent-institution’s liability in a child sex abuse case; but this is just a start. Even if duty is established, other case-specific issues, such as, foreseeability of the abuse (or lack thereof), may warrant dismissal for failure to prove proximate causation.15

The attorneys at Robins Kaplan LLP understand child sex abuse cases against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and are currently representing several survivors seeking to hold Watchtower accountable. If you or someone you know has a similar claim, we are available to discuss confidentially on the phone, by email, or in person. Please contact Ian Millican or Rayna Kessler directly, or by dialing 212.980.2334 or emailing CSAIntakeTeam@ RobinsKaplan.com.

1 See Michael L. Zigelman and Rita Y. Wang, INSIGHT: Are Insurers Collaterally Damaged by the New State ‘Child Victim’s Acts’?, BLOOMBERG LAW, March 30, 2020, available at https://news.bloomberglaw.com/us-law-week/insight-are-insurers-collaterally-damaged-by-new-state-child-victims-acts (last visited: Jan. 15, 2021).
2 Id.
3 See, e.g., Def.’s Mtn. to Dismiss, NYSCEF Doc. No. 11, Ewing v. The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, et al., Index No. 517900/2019 (Sup. Ct. Kings Cnty., NY).
4 J.W. v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Soc’y of NY, Inc., 29 Cal. App. 5th 1142, 1147–48 (2018)
5 See id. at 1148.
6 Id.
7 See id. at 1147–48.
8 Id.
9 Id.
10 Lopez v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, et al., No. 37-2012-00099849-CU-PO-CTL (Sup. Ct. San Diego Cnty., Cal.).
11 On July 20, 1998, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Britain sent a nearly identical letter to All Bodies of Elders. This letter contains the same section, verbatim, concerning child sex abuse by elders and ministerial servants and is publicly available at https://jw2go.org/php/letter/1990.php?view=19980720LTE_ bi.pdf (last visited: Jan. 15, 2021).
12 Organized to do Jehovah’s Will at 58.
13 Beal v. Broadard, et al., No. SUCV200205765C, 2005 WL 1009632 at *4 (in denying partial summary judgment the court also found, per Restatement (Second) of Torts § 323, that when “a church or its agent assumes the care and control of an individual for Bible study or other ministerial or religious purposes that individual relies on the instructor’s status of good standing within her church. . . .”).
14 J.W., 29 Cal. App. 5th at 1165 (emphasis in original).
15 Beal, 2005 WL 1009632 at *4–5.

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Ian S. Millican

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