Religious Group Invokes Rights in Abuse Case
By Steven G. Vegh
© Copyright 1998 Guy Gannett Communications
The Jehovah's Witnesses are invoking their constitutional right to religious freedom as a defense in a lawsuit that blames the church for sexual abuse by a member.
The lawsuit, filed by Bryan Rees in Cumberland County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages for abuse that Rees says he endured between 1989 and 1992. It names Larry Baker as the man who abused him.
The lawsuit also names the denomination, known formally as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc.; Alan Ayers, Rees's stepfather and a church leader; and Patrick LaBreck and Robert Wells, who Rees says were leaders in his congregation.
Rees claims that leaders in the Augusta church he attended as a teen-ager knew that Baker had molested a child in the past but did not warn church members or expel Baker. That failure left Rees vulnerable to abuse, the lawsuit says. Rees is now 23 and lives in Portland.
The First Amendment to the Constitution provides several protections, one of which prevents Congress from prohibiting the free practice of religion.
The way in which the Watchtower Society chooses leaders and disciplines church members is part of its practice of religion, says Bruce Mallonee, the attorney representing Wells, LaBreck and the Society.
''If they can be required to go to trial and defend their actions . . . they'll have to base their decisions not on what their prayers and Bible tell them, but on what they think a jury would require of them,'' Mallonee said.
Mallonee has asked the court to dismiss the case. A ruling on that request is expected this summer.
Rees's attorney says that churches and church leaders should be held accountable for leaders' mistakes.
''It's disgusting to think their interest in governing their own people somehow surpasses the state's and our own interest in making sure (abuse) doesn't happen,'' Michael J. Waxman said.
According to the lawsuit, Baker was Rees's next-door neighbor in the Lincoln County town of Jefferson and a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses congregation to which Rees's family belonged.
The lawsuit says that Ayers, Wells and LaBreck were elders in the congregation who served on a church panel that disciplined Baker before 1989 for molesting a boy. The panel forbade Baker from having contact with children in the church and demoted him from his position as an elder.
The lawsuit says the congregation was never told about Baker's acts, leaving Rees vulnerable to abuse.
According to Rees, Baker started abusing him in 1989 and continued until 1992. The lawsuit says that during that time, Baker regained his leadership post as an elder.
Rees later told a counselor about the abuse, and the case was reported to police. Baker was convicted in 1993 of unlawful sexual contact and sexual abuse of a minor.
Court papers filed by attorney M. Michaela Murphy on behalf of Baker deny the bulk of Rees's allegations. Murphy had no comment when contacted Monday.
According to Waxman, the Jehovah's Witnesses dodged their responsibility to protect children when the elders kept their discipline against Baker confidential.
But Mallonee says that if the case goes to trial, ''(that) puts the court in the position of telling the religious organization how to run its affairs.''
Attorneys disagree on whether churches can cite the First Amendment in a case like this one.
''To say this (case) should be dismissed . . . because they're a church
and immune from civil liability because of the First Amendment seems
a creative argument,'' said Cabanne Howard, who teaches at the University
of Maine School of Law.
A Jehovah's Witness Lawyer from the Watchtower's Patterson,
NY branch writes a rebuttal:
Published on Saturday, May 23, 1998
© 1998 Guy Gannett Communications
Church has no control over its members
It is not my practice to litigate a matter outside of the courtroom, but as an attorney involved in representing the interests of Jehovah's Witnesses, I must respond to the false allegations that sexual abuse was perpetrated by an elder, contained in Mr. Vegh's article of May 12.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe they have a responsibility before God to protect the children in the congregation.
The Watchtower Society has stated its official position in the Jan. 1, 1997, ``Watchtower.'' ``For the protection of our children, a man known to have been a child molester does not qualify for a responsible position in the congregation.''
The perpetrator at no time held a leadership position in the church - not before the wrongdoing, not at the time of the wrongdoing, not after the wrongdoing. The May 12 article is wrong when it says he ``regained his leadership post as an elder.'' He was a next-door neighbor of the plaintiff and a fellow parishioner.
The plaintiff is seeking to hold the church responsible for activities
that took place in a private setting, between neighbors.
The plaintiff's counsel seeks to strip a church of the sanctity and complete confidentiality of the confession and impose upon it liability for the wrongdoing of its members.
When all the facts have been developed, in a court of law rather than the court of public opinion, it will be clear that the Watchtower Society and church elders did all that was possible to safeguard the plaintiff.
Paul D. Polidoro