Often, history does not flow like a river. Rather it erupts like a geyser, spewing hot, toxic water and fumes all over the place, until it settles back into the earth only to heat up and explode again.
We’re in the aftermath of one such eruption now. We’re demanding that law enforcement officers who abuse, assault, and even murder people in their custody should be held to account. No person is above the law — especially those sworn to enforce it.
Still, we continue to ignore another group of abusers who hold themselves to be above the law; those nobody dare touch. These are men and women of the collar and the cloth. These are the preacher-predators, the sectarian pedophiles that sexually abuse and forever ruin the lives and psyches of their child victims.
Yet, unbelievably, these, the Lord’s stewards, commit their heinous acts under the protection of man-made laws designed to enforce man-made religious doctrines and practices.
The Montana Supreme Court decided just such a case in January — Nunez v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Soc’y of N.Y., Inc. 2020 MT 3. Google it and read the Court’s opinion. Basically, the Court overturned a very substantial Sanders County jury trial civil verdict against the Jehovah’s Witnesses church involving the church hierarchy’s failure to report and address the serial sexual abuse of several child/members of the church by one of the church’s elders.
Why? The Jehovah’s Witnesses are excepted from Montana’s mandatory reporting statute § 41-3-201(6)(e), MCA, because their church canon law, doctrine, or established practice requires that the reports of abuse be kept confidential. To put it bluntly, Montana law gives sectarian pedophiles a stay-out-of-jail card, a free pass.
And, I’m not picking on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Every religion has one sort or another law, doctrine or practice requiring confidentiality. Indeed, Montana churches have gone bankrupt paying hundreds of civil settlements occasioned by the misconduct of pedophile priests, nuns and preachers — only one of whom, to my knowledge, was ever reported or convicted of a sexual crime.
As a matter of moral principle, no person should be allowed to sexually abuse another person and then be protected from the consequences of that felony by a shape-shifting religious law, doctrine or practice. Constitutional freedom of religion does not protect criminal conduct perpetrated by a religion’s ministers. The right to freely exercise religion does not encompass a right to freely sexually abuse other human beings.
The perpetrators and the facilitators of such abuse must be held accountable to the criminal laws. That means simply that perpetrators must be timely reported and criminally prosecuted. And, just as important, those who facilitate or cover-up the perpetrator’s criminal conduct—no matter how high up in church hierarchy--must also be held accountable under the criminal law for aiding and abetting the perpetrator. Those who perpetrate and facilitate sexual abuse should not get a free pass under the law simply because the abuse takes place within the context of a sectarian setting or venue.
This Country and our State have witnessed far too many instances of sexual assaults and abuse by religious ministers (not to mention trusted adults in athletics, scouting organizations, and other institutions). Indeed, recognizing this societal malignancy, our Legislature has gone to some lengths to extend statutes of limitations to afford relief in our civil courts to the thousands of Montanans victimized.
All that is for naught, however, if the statutory policy enacted by the Legislature permits the ministers and hierarchy of sectarian organizations to effectively violate the reporting statute and the criminal sexual assault laws with impunity.
Justice is long overdue. The 2021 Legislature must remedy this situation. Sectarian abusers and their facilitators must not get a free pass. Just like bad cops, pedophile-preachers are not above the law.
James C. Nelson, a retired Montana Supreme Court justice, lives in Helena.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!