There is an interesting case out of Oregon where the wife of a convicted child sex offender is suing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for contacting police after he confessed to sexually abusing the couple’s daughter. Timothy Samuel Johnson and his wife Kristine Johnson were members of a Stayton “ward” and his wife prompted his going to the church after learning that he had “engaged in inappropriate conduct” with a minor known to him. Kristine Johnson is seeking $9.5 million for the breach of promised confidentiality by a clergy member. It is a fascinating twist on the usual challenge to evidence obtained by police in such clergy cases. Here the defendant is the church itself in a civil action for inducing the disclosure of incriminating information under allegedly false representations of confidentiality. The case could prompt churches and religious organizations to post warnings about their intention to go to police with any allegation of criminal conduct — a notice that could have an impact on the willingness of the faithful to be forthcoming in such confessional settings.
The church requires such confessions and Brandt alleges that church leaders represented “that whatever the scope of Mr. Johnson’s evil transgressions, the Church and its clergy will spiritually counsel Mr. Johnson to bring peace within his life and family.” The complaint identifies a counselor to the local bishop as the source of the police report and says that he was improperly trained and supervised in the matter. The result was that Johnson received a 15 year prison sentence for four counts of second-degree sexual abuse.
The complaint is alleging that the disclosure was made under an assurance of confidentiality. There is also the interesting twist that Oregon has a mandatory reporting law requiring disclosure of such cases — one of 28 states with such laws. The law states in pertinent party.
According to Oregon Revised Statute 419B010,
“Any public or private official having reasonable cause to believe that any child with whom the official comes in contact has suffered abuse, or that any person with whom the official comes in contact has abused a child shall report or cause a report to be made…”
However, the law also states:
“Nothing contained in ORS 40.225 (Rule 503. Lawyer-client privilege) to 40.295 (Rule 514. Effect on existing privileges) or 419B.234 (Qualifications) (6) affects the duty to report imposed by this section, except that a psychiatrist, psychologist, member of the clergy, attorney or guardian ad litem appointed under ORS 419B.231 (Appointment) is not required to report such information communicated by a person if the communication is privileged under ORS 40.225 (Rule 503. Lawyer-client privilege) to 40.295 (Rule 514. Effect on existing privileges) or 419B.234 (Qualifications).”
Now here is another twist. Pharmacists are included in mandatory reporters and this allegation was reported to police by Brian Saari, a pharmacist.
The odds still favor the church even without a warning. A person seeking redemption is not necessarily depending on confidentiality and, if no such promise was made, a jury could decline to presume that confidentiality was the overriding precondition for disclosure. The Latter-day Saint’s scripture Doctrine and Covenants 58:42-43:
“Behold he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins-behold, he will confess them and forsake them.”
The lawsuit alleges breach of fiduciary duty, negligence and interference with prospective economic advantage. It seeks $5.5 million for his wife for loss of his income and for extreme emotional distress and $1 million for each of his four children. It also seeks reimbursement for the criminal defense attorney. Notably, the four children of the couple are also plaintiffs in the action. However, the fifth child, the victim, is not included.
The case also comes at a time when California is considering an controversial law that would require priests and other church employees to inform authorities if they learn of a case of child sex abuse during the sacrament of confession.