POLITICS

Child Abuser's Wife Sues Mormon Church For Reporting Him To Police

The church violated her husband's confidentiality and deprived her family of his income, Kristine Johnson claims in a $9.54 million lawsuit.

An Oregon woman is suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church, for alerting police that her husband had confessed to child abuse.

Kristine Johnson is seeking $9.54 million for emotional distress and loss of her husband’s income, among other damages, claiming that the church violated the couple’s trust and the “priest-penitent privilege,” the Statesman Journal reported.

Her husband, Timothy Johnson, is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for sexual abuse of a minor.

“It’s been devastating on the family,” Johnson’s attorney Bill Brandt told the Journal. “They lost a husband and a father.” Brandt did not return a request for comment from HuffPost.

Church spokesman Eric Hawkins told the Oregonian that “protecting victims and ensuring proper reporting” is a top priority for the church.

Kristine Johnson learned of her husband’s abuse of an underage girl in 2016, according to the Oregonian. The couple decided to address the matter through a local church panel in Marion County, which the lawsuit claims is the response required by church doctrine.

Brandt told the Oregonian that the church tells members to confess sins “to get back in good favor with the church.” Afterward, the church offers counseling and lays out other requirements to address the sins.

The whole process was supposed to remain confidential, Brandt told The Washington Post, similar to the practice of confession in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Portland Oregon Temple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pictured.
The Portland Oregon Temple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is pictured.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ local congregations, known as wards, are led by unpaid lay members who take on the role of clergy. Each ward has a bishop and two counselors ― always men ― who oversee members’ spiritual and social needs.

Timothy Johnson confessed and repented for the abuse in front of a church panel in 2016. One of the bishop’s counselors, a pharmacist, reportedly reported the abuse to authorities, per The Oregonian

Many states have laws designating people in certain professions as mandatory reporters, which means they required to make a report to authorities if they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect.

In Oregon, pharmacists are required to report suspected abuse of a child regardless of whether they found out about the abuse on the job. 

Clergy are also mandatory reporters in Oregon, but there are exceptions. Clergy are not required to report child abuse if they learn about it through a “privileged” conversation that church doctrine requires clergy members to keep confidential. 

The Johnsons’ religious leaders failed to tell Timothy Johnson that if he confessed abuse, it would be reported to law enforcement, the lawsuit claims.

Timothy Johnson was arrested in 2017 and pleaded guilty the following year to four counts of second-degree sexual abuse, The Oregonian reported.

The husband, a sculptor, was the family’s primary breadwinner. Kristine Johnson claims that church leaders’ actions deprived the family of her husband’s income, as well as his “companionship, society, love, affection.” 

“(Clergy) knew or should have known that violating the doctrine of confidentiality under the circumstances alleged in this complaint would most certainly injure (his wife and children) financially,” Brandt told the Journal. 

The lawsuit filed in Marion County Circuit Court last Friday lists Johnson and four of her children as plaintiffs. 

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is based, lawmakers have proposed a bill that would remove the “priest-penitent” privilege in abuse cases and institute penalties for clergy who fail to report. A similar bill in California was dropped last year after strong opposition from Catholic groups.

The Catholic Church in particular has been resistant to efforts to break the seal of the confessional in cases of sexual abuse. Last year, the Vatican defended Catholic teaching that priests can’t reveal what they have learned in the confession booth.

Hawkins, the spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said his church teaches leaders and members to fulfill their legal obligations regarding reporting abuse to authorities.

“In some circumstances, those obligations may be governed by their professional duty and in others by their role as clergy,” he said.

Some experts say that if Kristine Johnson’s lawsuit is successful, it could have a chilling effect on churches’ willingness to report suspected abuse.

David Clohessy, former national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told The Oregonian that he thinks Kristine Johnson “should be grateful to the church officials, rather than bitter.”

“It’s not just a parent’s job to protect their kids from predators, it’s the job of every single adult,” Clohessy said. “So adults who do put the safety of kids first should be applauded, not penalized.”

HuffPost

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