NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A court has dismissed the claims of a couple who accused the Jehovah’s Witnesses of improperly ousting them from their congregation after the wife told NBC’s “Dateline” the denomination covers up child sexual abuse.
The denomination’s national organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., asked the court to dismiss a $20 million lawsuit brought by Barbara and Joseph Anderson, who claimed defamation, fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress in their ouster from their congregation.
On Monday, an appeals court ruled in favor of the defendants, saying the Andersons’ ouster involved internal denomination matters.
In dismissing the case, Judge Patricia Cottrell, with the Tennessee court of appeals, in Nashville, wrote the court did not have jurisdiction to hear it “based upon the First Amendment’s protection of decisions of church tribunals on religious questions.”
The lawsuit did not directly address the issue of sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Barbara Anderson said she had to talk with her attorneys before commenting on the decision.
According to the suit, Barbara Anderson was working as a volunteer researcher at the international headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the early 1990s when an official asked her to look into the handling of sexual abuse cases. She found hundreds of allegations that had been kept secret, and when she made those findings public she was ousted from the denomination.
“I went public about the fact that they were not reporting child abuse,” Anderson said Monday. “They punished me for something I was legally bound to do. I came forward and showed their policies protect pedophiles.”
Joseph Anderson was ousted shortly afterward.
As part of the ouster – called “disfellowshipping” – the couple said they were shunned by other members of the congregation. The Andersons’ only child refused to talk to them or let them see their grandson.
The denomination says disfellowshipped members are only to be avoided if they are unrepentant and don’t reject the conduct that led to their ouster.
“The retribution was quite difficult,” Barbara Anderson said. “We lost out on family and friends. My son shuns me.”
Barbara Anderson went on to join William Bowen – a former elder in Kentucky who quit the denomination after he said it took no action against a molester – in co-founding Silentlambs, a support group for followers who say they have been abused.