TThe victim was 15 when she said church elders called her into a room with her mother and stepfather, sat her down and played a recording of her own rape. A lifelong Jehovah’s Witness, the young girl – who we’ll call Anna – says she has been sexually assaulted by an older church member on several occasions. But when the church learned of this, they decided to investigate not her attacker, but her – for the crime of having sex outside of marriage. And now it’s up to the Utah Supreme Court to decide if they should get away with it.
Court cases hinge on the question of church abstention, or whether the court can intervene in matters of religion. The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Roy, Utah, says she was engaged in regular religious practice when she forced the teenager to relive her own rape. And so far the courts have accepted. But the woman’s lawyers, now in their late twenties, argue that their conduct is so “utterly intolerable” that it transcends that rule.
“Whatever ‘autonomy’ the establishment clause confers on religious authorities,” the lawyers wrote in a brief to the court, “it does not give them the constitutional right to subject a minor to an audio recording of her. own rape. “
Anna says she first met her 18-year-old abuser through a mutual friend, and they all decided to go to the movies together one night in 2007. But on the day of the movie, the friend did not show up, leaving. Anna to go home with her attacker. In the car, she says, he stole her phone and refused to return it until she kissed him on the cheek. When she refused, he kicked her out of the car and drove off, only to return later to look for her. When he dropped it off at his house, he made the same request again. This time, when she refused, he left with his phone in hand, leaving it at the restaurant where his sister worked for Anna to pick him up on foot.
What happened next looks like something out of a horror movie. Anna claims that her attacker, with the help of their mutual friend, repeatedly kidnapped her and drove for hours with her tied up, gagged and blindfolded in the back seat of her car. He later showed up to her house late that night and ordered her to get into her car, threatening to harm her friends and family if she didn’t.
Several times – sometimes while armed – he drove her to a parking lot and forcefully kissed her, groped her and finally raped her at the sound of her protests, she claims. The climax of the abuse came when her attacker twice drove to her home, climbed out the window and raped her on her bed, court documents show. According to his complaint, the latest assault lasted between an hour and a half and two hours.
“To call this extreme is to understand what it is. It goes beyond the extreme.“
– Frank Ravitch, Michigan State University
Congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are overseen by elders, who are responsible for adjudicating any fault complaints. When news of what happened to Anna reached elders in her congregation, they formed a four-person judicial committee to investigate not her attacker, but her, for possible immoral sexual acts. According to her complaint, they questioned her for 45 minutes about the encounters, including whether they were consensual or not. Then they turned to more aggressive techniques. With her mother and stepfather present, the older four began playing a recording of one of the encounters her attacker had unwittingly made, pausing him at random to sprinkle her with questions.
Hearing the recording, her attorneys wrote: Anna was “physically shaking and begging the elders to stop forcing her to relive the healing experience. They didn’t stop. The interrogation lasted more than four hours.
A South Ogden Police employee confirmed that Anna filed a sexual assault complaint in 2008, although the employee has not confirmed the name of the alleged assailant. The resolution of this complaint is not clear. According to Anna’s Supreme Court brief, the Utah Division of Child and Family Services also filed a complaint against the elders in June 2009 over the questioning. An administrative hearing with the Department of Human Services reportedly revealed that the men had engaged in “emotional abuse” or subjecting a child to psychologically destructive behavior, “the brief said.
According to Anna’s former lawyer Alexander Zalkin, she was removed from the fraternity following the church’s investigation. She was officially reinstated a year later but never returned to church, Zalkin told the Daily Beast. Anna’s current lawyer has declined an interview request on her behalf.
Anna sued the church in 2016 for more than $ 300,000, alleging, among other things, emotional suffering. Almost eight years later, she said, she still suffered from humiliation, anxiety, nightmares, loss of appetite and poor school performance. After hearing the case, a district court called the allegations “disturbing” and the behavior of the elders “reprehensible”. If this had happened in a secular setting, they wrote, they would have “no hesitation in sending e[e] protest to the jury. “
In court records, the church disputes Anna’s factual allegations and denies mistreating her “in any way”, while describing her questioning as “common and accepted religious practice.” Anna, she claims, “voluntarily associated with the religious organization and chose to participate in court with her parents” – something that they said “would not ordinarily cause serious mental distress. and unmanageable ”. In a hearing last week, a Supreme Court judge described the practice as “emotional waterboarding”. An attorney for the church said she would draw the line on anything physical.
Strange as it sounds, the church’s argument rests on painting this behavior as normal religious practice. This is because of the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention, according to which the courts cannot decide a religious question or make a religious proclamation. In one famous case, a student at an episcopal school sued after being kicked out for smoking marijuana outside of school. The court refused to hear the case, ruling that the expulsion was linked to the school’s religious doctrines and that they could not intervene.
Lawyers for the Church say this case is also a case of purely religious decision-making; that the church was simply performing normal protocol to determine if any of its devotees had sinned. And so far the courts have accepted. Allowing Anna’s claims to be challenged, an appeals court wrote last year, “would force the district court to unconstitutionally inject itself into substantive church matters.”
It’s a defense the church has used before. Dozens of lawsuits have been brought against various congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses and its governing body, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, for failing to report child sexual abuse in the community – in part because of a rule stating that two eyewitnesses are required to accuse any member of any sin, however extreme. In many cases, the church has invoked the ecclesiastical privilege to defend its process and its inability to report such complaints to the appropriate authorities. The approach was not always successful; the church has paid multi-million dollar settlements in recent years.
Lawyers for the plaintiff and experts interviewed by The Daily Beast say the argument should not apply in this case either. No one questions whether the interrogation was a religious act, they say; everyone agrees that was the case. Either way, the displayed behavior was so blatant that it must violate even neutral principles of law – secular rules that transcend the case at hand and apply uniformly to all.
“No one is required to say, ‘Oh, you’re bad, your religion is wrong,’” said Frank Ravitch, director of the law and religion department at Michigan State University. “They just say, ‘Look, whatever the reason you’re doing this religion is not going to give you a defense because it was so extreme and outrageous.’
“To call this extreme is to understand what it is,” he added. “It goes beyond the extreme.”
“I have been a judge for a long time and a lawyer for a long time. I’ve never seen anything like it in court.“
– Judge Deno Himonas
By presenting their case to the Supreme Court, Anna’s lawyers took the argument even further. If the church is allowed to subject a 15-year-old to this type of treatment without punishment, they asked, what would stop churches from blackmailing members, torturing them, or worse? If the court sides with the church, they wrote in a brief, religious leaders would be “exempt from all liability for any damage caused by the sentence they decide to impose for a violation of religious law.” .
The court heard arguments on Monday and has yet to render a final decision. But many judges appeared frustrated with church lawyer Karra Porter’s refusal to draw a line on which courts would be allowed to interfere in religious matters. Was it torture? Murder? Porter said she spent a “whole weekend” looking for an answer and came back empty-handed. “I actually looked for this, I promise, and I couldn’t find anything,” she says.
At one point, Judge Deno Himonas asked repeatedly whether she believed the allegations constituted improper behavior.
“You mean for the purposes of a [intentional infliction of emotional distress] pretend? ”Porter asked.
“For the sake of general human decency,” Himonas replied.
In the end, the judge appeared to answer his own question.
“I have been a judge for a long time and a lawyer for a long time,” he said. “I have never seen anything like this in court.
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