Jury: Jehovah's Witnesses must pay $35M to abuse survivor

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Jehovah's Witnesses must pay $35 million to a woman who says the church's national organization ordered Montana clergy members not to report her sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a congregation member, a jury ruled in a verdict.

A judge must review the penalty, and the Jehovah's Witnesses' national organization — Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York — plans to appeal.

Still, the 21-year-old woman's attorneys say Wednesday's verdict sends a message to the church to report child abuse to outside authorities.

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History of Jehovah's Witnesses
Jehovah's Witness children reading books outdoors.
6th July 1966: A man is baptised in a small pool, during the Jehovah's Witness Convention in Ninian Park, Cardiff. (Photo by Laister/Express/Getty Images)
Jehovah's Witness selling CD's at Book fair. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)
CANADA - JULY 25: Jehovah's Witness Judy Snow; a 25-year-old paraplegic; is baptized in a wheelchair today during a public baptism for Witnesses at their 1975 assembly at Woodbine Racetrack. About 300 persons; ranging in age from 11 to 77; were baptized in the portable swimming pool outside the stands. Water was heated to 91 degrees Fahrenheit. About 13;500 Witnesses are attending the assembly from Metro; Burlington; Hamilton and Oshawa. A second session starts next week. (Photo by Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Jehovah's Witness volunteers from across Southern California and beyond build a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall in Camarillo. 'This is just part of our worship,'' said Camarillo resident Kim Arther, a soft�spoken church elder and a building inspector for the city of Los Angeles. ''Those that worship God always build.'' (Photo by Bryan Chan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Jehovah's Witness volunteers Linda Evans (stripe apron), left, Barbara Frisk and Patti Kutch install ceiling tiles as they build a Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall in Camarillo. 'This is just part of our worship,'' said Camarillo resident Kim Arther, a soft�spoken church elder and a building inspector for the city of Los Angeles. ''Those that worship God always build.'' (Photo by Bryan Chan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Jehovah's Witness followers worshipping under big tene. (Photo by Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Audience members sing from hymnals during a Jehovah's Witness Convention at Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, California, August 1947. The stadium was owned by William Wrigley, who also owned the Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
HENNIGSDORF, GERMANY - MARCH 24: Members of the Jehova's Witnesses Church gather for a religious service March 24, 2005 in Hennigsdorf, Germany, just outside of Berlin, under a sign that reads 'My Help Comes from Jehova.' A Berlin court ruled earlier in the day that the German government must officially recognize Jehova's Witnesses as a religious body, which will afford the group tax breaks and other privileges. Jehova's Witnesses has approximately 200,000 members in Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Several thousands of the Jehovah's Witnesses including families from Central and Eastern Europe take part in the gathering 20 July 2003 at Prague stadium of Eugeune Rosicki prior to be baptized in a pool. Jehova's Witnesses are the fourth largest religious community recognized by the Czech Republic. In 2002, 23,000 Czechs declared they belonged to Jehova's Witnesses. AFP PHOTO-MAFA/NGUYEN PHUONG THAO (Photo credit should read NGUYEN PHUONG THAO/AFP/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 17: (AUSTRALIA OUT) The International Convention of Jehovahs Witnesses is held at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, October 17, 2014. The four-day event has attracted more than 60,000 delegates from 60 countries. (Photo by Angela Wylie/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
HENNIGSDORF, GERMANY - MARCH 24: Members of the Jehova's Witnesses Church pray during a religious service March 24, 2005 in Hennigsdorf, Germany, just outside of Berlin. A Berlin court ruled earlier in the day that the German government must officially recognize Jehova's Witnesses as a religious body, which will afford the group tax breaks and other privileges. Jehova's Witnesses has approximately 200,000 members in Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 17: (AUSTRALIA OUT) The International Convention of Jehovahs Witnesses is held at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, October 17, 2014. The four-day event has attracted more than 60,000 delegates from 60 countries. (Photo by Angela Wylie/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: (AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND OUT) A mass baptism is held at the International Convention of Jehovahs Witnesses at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, October 18, 2014. The event attracted delegates from more than 60 countries. (Photo by Angela Wylie/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 18: (AUSTRALIA OUT) The International Convention of Jehovahs Witnesses is held at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, October 19, 2014. The four-day event has attracted more than 60,000 delegates from 60 countries. (Photo by Angela Wylie/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 19, 2017: A view of the Kingdom Hall [a place of worship] in the Russian administrative centre of Jehovah's Witnesses based in the town of Solnechnoye. Russia's Justice Ministry has filed a lawsuit against Jehovah's Witnesses to declare it an extremist organisation, a hearing of Russia's Supreme Court scheduled for April 5, 2017. Alexander Demianchuk/TASS (Photo by Alexander Demianchuk\TASS via Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - MARCH 19, 2017: A view of the Kingdom Hall [a place of worship] in the Russian administrative centre of Jehovah's Witnesses based in the town of Solnechnoye. Russia's Justice Ministry has filed a lawsuit against Jehovah's Witnesses to declare it an extremist organisation, a hearing of Russia's Supreme Court scheduled for April 5, 2017. Alexander Demianchuk/TASS (Photo by Alexander Demianchuk\TASS via Getty Images)
Believers are are baptised in the pool during "Be Courageous!" Convention of Jehovahs Witnesses in Tauron Arena in Krakow, Poland on 11 August, 2018. About 7,650 worshippers attended the convention and 49 believers were baptised. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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"Hopefully that message is loud enough that this will cause the organization to change its priorities in a way that they will begin prioritizing the safety of children so that other children aren't abused in the future," attorney Neil Smith said Thursday.

The Office of Public Information at the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses responded to the verdict with an unsigned statement.

"Jehovah's Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts. Watchtower is pursuing appellate review," it said.

The Montana case is one of dozens that have been filed nationwide over the past decade alleging Jehovah's Witnesses mismanaged or covered up the sexual abuse of children.

The case that prompted Wednesday's ruling involved two women, now 32 and 21, who allege a family member sexually abused them and a third family member in Thompson Falls in the 1990s and 2000s.

The women 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 girl who is now 21 continued.

The lawsuit claimed the local and national Jehovah's Witnesses organizations were negligent and violated a Montana law that requires them to report abuse to outside authorities.

"Their national headquarters, called Watchtower, they control when and if anyone within their organization reports child abuse," Smith said. "Watchtower instructed everyone involved that they were not to report the matter to authorities."

Attorneys for the Jehovah's Witnesses said in court filings that Montana law exempts elders from reporting "internal ecclesiastical proceedings on a congregation member's serious sin."

The church also contended that the national organization isn't liable for the actions by Thompson Falls elders, and that too much time has passed for the women to sue.

The jury awarded the 21-year-old woman $4 million for her injuries, plus $30 million in punitive damages against Watchtower and $1 million in punitive damages against the Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, another Jehovah's Witness corporation that communicates with congregations across the U.S.

The monetary award must be reviewed by the trial judge and could be reduced. A Montana law caps punitive damage awards at 3 percent of a company's net worth or $10 million, whichever is less. A legal challenge to that law is pending before the Montana Supreme Court.

The jury dismissed claims that the church should have reported the second woman's abuse by the same congregation member. Jurors concluded church elders did not receive notice of the 32-year-old woman's abuse in 1998 as she said they did, and therefore did not have a duty to tell authorities.

The third family member who claimed abuse was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The Associated Press generally does not name people who say they are a victim of a sex crime.

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