Hearing slated for suit against church

The Telegraph of Nashua, May 11, 2003
http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/
By ANDREW WOLFE, Telegraph Staff

NASHUA – A hearing will be held this week in the case of two sisters who have sued the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their former congregation in Wilton, charging that church elders ignored complaints of sexual abuse.

Filed in August 2001 in Hillsborough County Superior Court, the case has spawned six files worth of court documents without coming close to being ready for trial.

On Monday and Tuesday, Judge William Groff is scheduled to hear evidence and arguments on whether Jehovah’s Witness elders are akin to ministers, so their communications would be covered by the state’s “religious privilege” confidentiality rule.

Groff previously ruled against the church on a number of requests for “summary judgment,” seeking to have the case thrown out on purely legal grounds.

The sisters’ suit stems from the case of Paul Berry, 46, formerly of Greenville, who was convicted of 17 counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault after a trial in 2000.

Berry was convicted of repeatedly assaulting his stepdaughter, Holly Brewer, 24, of Berkeley, Calif., while she was between 4 and 10. He was sentenced to serve 56 to 112 years in prison, one of the stiffest terms ever imposed for a sexual assault case in New Hampshire.

Berry also had been charged with assaulting his biological daughter, Heather Berry, 20, of Charlestown while she was between 3 and 6, but those charges were dropped after Berry was sentenced, in effect, to life in prison in the first case.

The Telegraph ordinarily doesn’t identify victims of sexual abuse, but the Berry sisters opted to go public when they filed the suit in 2001.

The sisters said they learned around the time of Berry’s trial that their mother had told church elders of the abuse while it was happening and asked for their help. Their mother testified that the elders told her to keep quiet, pray more and strive to be a better wife.

The sisters’ suit names Paul Berry, the Wilton congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the national organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Groff previously rejected the church’s arguments that the suit should be dismissed on constitutional and other legal grounds, finding the elders’ alleged failure to take action could be construed as negligence, given the risks and consequences of sexual abuse.

The church disputes the sisters’ claims, however, and its lawyer, Donald Gardner of Manchester, has said church elders didn’t know about the abuse until long after it had stopped and police were investigating.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses also argue the elders to whom Berry’s mother reported the abuse were ministers of the church, and thus her communications with them are confidential under state law.

Groff found that issue required further hearing. Groff has ruled in the church’s favor on a similar issue in a criminal sexual abuse case involving a Hollis man convicted of sexually assaulting several girls. In that case Groff found that elders in the man’s Jehovah’s Witness congregation couldn’t be forced to testify about disclosures the man made while the elders were investigating abuse charges.

The sisters argue their mother was trying to report the abuse and had no desire or intention that it remain confidential.

Another pending issue has been scheduled for a hearing in June. The church argues Heather Berry’s testimony of alleged abuse shouldn’t be allowed as evidence without a hearing to look into the reliability of her memories.

The sisters argue state law requires such hearings only in cases of “recovered memories,” retrieved through therapy, and not memories that were simply repressed and recalled independently.

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