BILLINGS — An attorney for the Jehovah's Witnesses asked the Montana Supreme Court on Friday to reverse a $35 million verdict against the church for not reporting a girl's sexual abuse to authorities.
Last year, a jury awarded $4 million in compensatory damages and $31 million in punitive damages to a woman who said she was abused as a child in the mid-2000s by a member of the Thompson Falls Jehovah's Witness congregation.
The abuse came after the congregation's elders disciplined the man over allegations of abusing two other family members in the 1990s and early 2000s, the woman's lawsuit said.
The Jehovah's Witnesses' appealed the jury's verdict, and attorney Joel Taylor said during arguments Friday that church elders handled the allegations internally in accordance with church practices. State law exempts clergy from reporting if church doctrine or practice requires confidentiality, he said.
The church has been painted as lawbreakers who are callous toward child abuse, Taylor said.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "All Christians, all people, abhor child abuse and our sympathies lie with the victim in this case."
But the large jury award trampled on the constitutionally protected beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses, he said.
The woman's attorney, Jim Molloy, says the church doesn't qualify for the clergy exemption to the state reporting law because Jehovah's Witness officials testified that an elder can choose to report a child abuser to authorities under church practice.
"Local authorities are instructed to contact the national organization when they learn about a child abuser," Molloy said. "That's what they did. They were instructed not to report, and (the girl) continued to be abused."
The jury's $35 million verdict goes against a Montana law that caps punitive damage awards at $10 million or 3% of a company's net worth, whichever is less. Molloy is asking the state Supreme Court to strike down that cap as unconstitutional.
The court did not make an immediate ruling.
The lawsuit claims the man sexually abused three family members in Thompson Falls in the 1990s and 2000s. Two of the victims say they reported the abuse to church elders, who handled the matter internally after consulting with the national organization.
The elders expelled the abuser from the congregation in 2004 then reinstated him the next year, the lawsuit states, and the abuse of the younger victim continued.
The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse.