An Oregon woman, Kristine Johnson, is suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (that’s the Mormon church) for $9.54 million because Timothy Samuel Johnson, her husband, confessed to church leaders that he had sexually molested a child, and he was reported to law enforcement authorities, leading to his arrest, conviction and imprisonment. The lawsuit alleges that local church leaders breached confidentiality and the “priest-penitent privilege. Timothy Johnson had confessed to clergy that he had repeated sexual contact with a minor. Local clergy’s actions “totally violated church policy,” says the woman’s lawyers. “It’s been devastating on the family,” plaintiff’s counsel told the press. “They lost a husband and a father, and local girls lost a reliable source of gifts, friendship, and excitement.”
OK, I’m kidding about the part after “father.”
Johnson, 47, pleaded guilty in 2017 to charges of first-degree sodomy, sexual abuse and unlawful sexual penetration for sexually abusing a girl under the age of 16, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Oregon and 28 other states that specifically include the clergy on its list of mandatory reporters when they become aware of incidents of child abuse. Confessions that trigger the “clergy-penitent privilege” are exempted, however.
A bill proposed in the Utah’s 2020 session would require Mormon and other clergy to report all allegations of child abuse, even those made during religious confessional. This problem has, of course, become radioactive since the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandal.
The Church now claims that reporting Johnson was consistent with current policy, saying,
“Protecting victims and ensuring proper reporting is a top priority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church teaches that leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities … We are grateful for the efforts of law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and pursue justice for those who were abused.”
But was that policy made clear to Johnson? You can’t change a policy that significant and not reveal it to affected “penitents.” If it was not made clear, Mrs. Johnson has a good chance of winning the lawsuit, despite the fact that a strong ethical argument can be made that the officials who reported Johnson did the right thing, even if they end up being defrocked, or whatever it is that the Mormons would do.
The legal ethics privilege changed about a decade ago, when almost ever state bar added an exception to the confidentiality rules that allowed lawyers to report a client they believed was going to commit a crime in involving death or serious harm to a third party, though the rule is seldom invoked. I have also held that this requires lawyers to inform clients of the exception at the beginning of each representation.
Do they? Almost never.
Even if Mr. Johnson was misled and his wife wins her suit, I won’t have any sympathy for him. Will you? I’m not sure what to make of Mrs. Johnson.
Twitter link to use on Facebook because Facebook finds my ethics commentary unpleasant, or something: https://twitter.com/CaptCompliance/status/1216068057921134592