CONCORD – The state Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on a clash between church and state, and the extent to which the rights of religion trump secular, legal obligations.
Two sisters sued the Wilton Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation and the national Watchtower Bible & Tract Society in 2001, charging church officials failed to notify authorities after the sisters’ mother spoke with them about concerns that her husband was physically and emotionally abusing the children.
Paul Berry, 48, formerly of Greenville, was convicted of sexually abusing his stepdaughter, Holly Brewer, 25, while she was 4 to 10 years old.
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Berry is serving 56 to 112 years in prison, one of the stiffest terms ever imposed for a sexual assault case in New Hampshire. The state Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 2002. Charges that Berry also assaulted his daughter, Heather Berry, 22, were dropped after his conviction and sentence in the first case.
The Telegraph ordinarily doesn’t identify victims of sexual abuse, but the sisters opted to go public with their case.
During the course of Paul Berry’s trial, the sisters learned that their mother, Sara Poisson, had spoken with church elders when the sisters were children, and asked for help for her family. Poisson didn’t suspect her husband was sexually abusing the girls, but sought the elders’ advice about his physical and emotional abuse. Poisson testified that church elders told her to keep quiet, pray more and strive to be a better wife.
The sisters charge that the elders should have relayed Poisson’s concerns to state authorities.
Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge William Groff dismissed their lawsuit in a series of rulings last year, however, and the sisters appealed to the Supreme Court.
Both the sisters and the church took issue with parts of Groff’s ruling, and agreed with other parts. Speaking before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, lawyers for the two sides could hardly agree on the questions at issue, never mind the answers.
State law (RSA 169-C:29) requires people to report suspected child abuse, and one of the sisters’ lawyers, Marci Hamilton of Pennsylvania, argued that law applied to the elders.
Laws obligating people to do (or not do) certain things don’t violate freedom of religion, she argued, and the law doesn’t let people claim their faith obliges them to violate the law.
“This isn’t a case about religious liberty,” Hamilton said. “All they (elders) had to do was pick up a phone and call (and report the alleged abuse).”
“There is no defense for religious motivation when conduct is required by law,” she added later.
Another state law (RSA 516:35 and court rule 505) holds that confessional communications between a person and a priest, ligious leader are confidential, however.
One of the lawyers for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Donald Gardner of Manchester, said Groff was right to rule that the church elders are covered by the religious privilege rule. That confidentiality barred the elders from reporting any allegations or even admissions of abuse, Groff ruled.
Hamilton disputes that church elders are covered by the religious privilege, because they are not trained as clergy. Even if so, she argued, the obligation to report child abuse should trump religious confidentiality, because it’s more important to protect children.
The sisters argue their mother was trying to report the abuse and had no desire or intention that her concerns about it remain confidential.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are baptized only after studying and practicing the faith for years, but once baptized, all members are considered ordained ministers of the faith. Congregations are led by small groups of elders, rather than clerics.
Gardner argued the law requiring people to report child abuse doesn’t even apply to the case. Failure to report child abuse is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail under state law, but the law doesn’t give people the right to sue for alleged violations, he said.
Gardner argued that the religious privilege is broad and absolute, and the courts and state ought not be invited to meddle in matters of individual faith and conscience.
“When you start cutting away at the margins of religious privilege,” and limiting what sort of things it covers, Gardner said, “you run a grave risk.”