CONCORD, N.H. – The state Supreme Court has ruled that a Wilton church cannot be sued for failing to protect two young sisters from sexual abuse.
The two sisters, now 26 and 23, sued the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Wilton and the national Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in 2003, charging local church elders did not notify civil authorities about the abuse Paul Berry had inflicted on them as children. But the state’s highest court on Friday sided with a lower court in dismissing their suit.
Berry is serving 56 to 112 years in prison for sexually abusing his stepdaughter. Charges that he also abused his biological daughter were dropped after his conviction in the first case in 2000.
During his trial, the sisters’ mother testified that she had confided numerous times to church elders that Berry was physically and emotionally abusing the girls but was told to remain quiet, pray more and try to be a better spouse.
The court ruled that though church elders had a moral obligation to intervene, they had no legal duty to do so.
“Unfortunately the church has been told it is not responsible,” said attorney Marci Hamilton, who represented the sisters.
The court echoed the lower court’s ruling that even if someone violates the state law requiring an individual _ regardless of profession or clerical duty_ to report suspected child abuse, the violation does not allow a civil remedy.
The sisters also claimed they had a special relationship with the Wilton congregation and the Watchtower body, and thus the church had a duty to protect them. But the court majority ruled that no such relationship existed because church attendance is not compulsory, the sisters were not under the custody of the church, and the abuse did not occur on church property.
“Although their positions in the Wilton Congregation invested them with a strong moral obligation to do all reasonably possible to stop the abuse, it would be inappropriate to transform a moral obligation into a common law duty,” Chief Justice John Broderick wrote for the majority.
The majority, though, placed fault on Poisson. “She had her own independent and overarching duty to protect her children from abuse perpetrated by her husband and had a common law obligation to intervene regardless of any advice she received,” Broderick wrote.
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