The Canadian Press, Sep. 24, 2002
TORONTO (CP) – A civil suit against the Canadian wing of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and three of its elders is based on petty grudges, dubious evidence and a loose interpretation of the law, a lawyer argued Tuesday.
“I imagine that going to a confessional in the Catholic church can be very traumatic, given the confession one needs to make,” Stevenson told Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy.
“But at the end of the day, it’s an issue of religious beliefs and religious principles, and if someone acts in accordance with that belief or principle, so be it.”
For two weeks, Molloy has been getting a crash course in the ways of the Witnesses as Boer squares off against the church that shaped her life for more than 20 years.
As she did Monday with Boer’s lawyer Charles Mark during his closing, Molloy sparred with Stevenson throughout his final arguments, posing what-if scenarios and debating the finer points of common law as it applies to the dealings of a religious body.
If the religious act in question is extreme, such as a rabbi urging someone to seek a divorce, she wondered aloud at one point, does that advice constitute negligence on the part of the rabbi?
“That would be an unreasonable intrusion into the religious offices of the church,” Stevenson replied. “The courts in the United States have said clergy malpractice suits cannot be maintained.”
Because they’re acting solely as spiritual counsellors, he continued, religious figures such as priests, rabbis or church elders have no duty of care to their congregation members.
Stevenson also pointed out for Molloy a litany of contradictions within the evidence heard over the course of the two-week trial.
He said Boer’s own recollections of the events were cloudy and often stood in contrast to the testimony of other witnesses. For example, several witnesses, including the defendants, told court they urged Boer to seek medical and psychological help, contrary to her claims.
Indeed, Frank Mott-Trille, one of several Witness elders who resigned over the case, made an appointment for Boer with a counsellor which she opted not to attend, much to Mott-Trille’s embarrassment, Stevenson said.
He also took issue with witness claims that Boer was suicidal when she first went to Mott-Trille with her story of abuse and her fears the church was going to force a “so-called” confrontation.
At one point during that conversation in 1988, Mott-Trille testified, he told Boer he was tired and asked her to come back the next night, and she agreed, Stevenson said.
“This is not the mark of a woman at serious risk of suicide or suicidal urges,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Stevenson also noted that Mott-Trille has been embroiled in a long-standing legal dispute with the church over Boer’s case and other matters and has an “axe to grind” as a result.
And he savaged the expert evidence of psychiatrist George Awad, a “hired gun” put on the stand by the plaintiff to bolster suggestions that her treatment at the hands of the church caused more damage than the abuse.
Stevenson has argued throughout the trial that it was the abuse, not the ways of her church, that sent Boer down a rocky path in her adult life, one rife with job insecurity, sexual dalliances and emotional turmoil.
At one point during his testimony, Awad told the court childhood sex abuse doesn’t always lead to traumatic disorders later in life, Stevenson noted.
But during cross-examination, he refused to concede that the trauma of confronting her father might have also had no impact.
“It’s an opinion that warrants little credence whatsoever,” Stevenson said. “It’s incredible.”
Eventually, some six weeks after the allegations first surfaced, the case was reported to Children’s Aid and the police, although no charges ever ensued.
Palmer, 58, continues to live in Shelburne.
While victims of sexual abuse normally aren’t identified in public, Boer has agreed to allow her name to be publicized as part of her effort to promote what she alleges in abuse within the confines of the church’s congregations.
As part of their beliefs in a strict interpretation of Bible teachings, Jehovah’s Witnesses reject anything political or “worldly” that distracts from their focus on Christ and the second coming, which they consider imminent.
Anyone who runs afoul of the religion’s strictest tenets will find themselves excommunicated, often to such an extent that they’re shunned by their own family.
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