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BELLOWS FALLS — A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed against the Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses and Norton True, a former baptized minister of the church. The church and True had been sued by Annessa Lewis, who contended she was sexually abused by True sometime between 1991 and 1993 and elders of the church, who were told about the alleged abuse in 1996, failed to do anything about it. The alleged abuse was reported to the Vermont State Police, which concluded there wasn't enough evidence to charge True. The court's decision hinged on a reading of Vermont's statute of limitations and previous rulings that defined how an organization can be held liable for crimes committed by a person it had control over. Vermont has a six-year statute of limitations for actions based on "childhood sexual abuse," starting from either the date "of the act alleged to have caused the injury or condition" or "the time the victim discovered that the injury or condition was caused by that act." According to the court ruling, because Lewis turned 18 in 2005, the statute of limitations ran out in 2011, and she did not file her lawsuit until 2014. "Lewis does not refer to specific dates she sustained or discovered her injuries in her complaint and does not allege how she discovered her injuries. She merely alleges that 'prior to [her] fifth birthday ... Defendant True ... touched [her] ...' [w]ithin the six years predating the filing of this Complaint, [she] discovered that the injuries and conditions as to which she complains herein were caused by the childhood sexual abuse . . . and that Defendants were responsible for the injuries and conditions," wrote Judge J. Garvan Murtha. According to documents presented in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont, Lewis had made comments to family and friends and had written about True's alleged abuse before she turned 18, noting the "abuse could have caused her emotional distress and physical manifestations of emotional distress ..." The Vermont law does not provide limitless causes of action, accruing every time a new condition is discovered, wrote Murtha. "Normally, a plaintiff cannot claim that an additional limitations period is inaugurated when additional injuries arising from the same incident are discovered later. A cause of action is generally deemed to accrue at the earliest point at which a plaintiff discovers an injury and its possible cause." Murtha noted that "a reasonable factfinder," such as a juror, could conclude that the statute of limitations began ticking when she was 9, when she first revealed the alleged abuse to a family member, or even in her teens, when she told friends about it. "Lewis had sufficient information to put a reasonable person on notice that True may have been liable for her injuries: she knew she was sexually abused by True and she knew she suffered flashbacks of the abuse during sexual activity during her teens," wrote Murtha. "Lewis does not allege suppression of the memory of the abuse, and admits she suffered intense depression during her teen years, but asserts she did not receive effective counseling to help her understand that she had been impacted. The law, however, does not require absolute knowledge of a link to trigger accrual of the statute of limitations." Because Lewis waited until she was in her late 20s to file a civil suit against True, the statute of limitations had run out, noted Murtha, therefore the case against True was dismissed. Lewis also claimed the Bellows Falls Jehovah's Witnesses Congregation and its national organization, Watchtower, were negligent in supervising True. However, wrote Murtha, her claim that the church could held negligent had to pass three elements to prevent dismissal, including "whether the Congregation ... undertook to provide protective monitoring services; failed to so monitor True; and the failure increased the risk of harm to Plaintiff. ... The Congregation argued that Lewis's claim fails as a matter of law because they did not undertake to provide protective monitoring services, did not breach any duty, and there was no increased risk of harm." "The fatal flaw in Plaintiff's argument," wrote Murtha, "is that Lewis's mother's friend ... took Lewis to her father True's home while she was babysitting Lewis on the day the abuse occurred. Lewis's mother was not aware (her friend) sometimes took the Lewis children to True's home or that she did so on the day the abuse occurred. Even assuming the Congregation and Watchtower had a duty to vigilantly monitor True in the congregation setting and they breached that duty thereby increasing the risk of harm to Lewis, no reasonable factfinder could conclude that breach was the cause of Lewis's sexual abuse because a third party provided True access to Lewis at True's home." However, Lewis provided no evidence that True was subject to the Congregation's control. Murtha dismissed the suit against True, the congregation and Watchtower "with prejudice," which means she is barred from bringing an action on the same claim. However, Lewis could appeal his decision to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Guest posted a topic in Jehovah’s Witnesses's TopicsBELLOWS FALLS >> Attorneys for the Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses are asking the United States District Court for the District of Vermont to dismiss a lawsuit alleging a congregation member committed sexual abuse 25 years ago. The lawsuit, filed by Annessa Lewis, names congregation member Norton True and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York as co-defendants in the suit. The attorneys are asking that the congregation and Watchtower be dismissed from the suit. They do not represent True. The abuse is alleged to have occurred in the early 1990s at True's home in Rockingham, while his adult daughter was babysitting Lewis, who is now 29 and lives in Texas. True's daughter was a friend of Lewis' mother. "To be clear, the (Jehovah's Witnesses and Watchtower) do not concede that there was an incident of abuse," wrote attorneys from Downs Rachlin and Martin, which is representing the congregation and Watchtower. Attorneys for Lewis allege that when Lewis was 5 years old, True molested her. Lewis did not reveal the alleged abuse until 1996, when she told a family member about it. According to the motion for summary judgment, True was a "baptized publisher," but not an elder or a "ministerial servant" at the time of the alleged abuse, noted the attorneys. "Although True had served as a ministerial servant in the late 1970s (Lewis) filed suit on October 1, 2014 when she was 27 years old. The six-year statute of limitations on Plaintiff's claims stemming from childhood sexual abuse began to run on January 9, 2005. She filed this action well over nine years later." True's duties as a ministerial servant ended in 1986, a year before Lewis' family began attending the congregation in Bellows Falls. "As a matter of law, (Lewis) knew she had been abused and had connected her emotional injuries — depression, anxiety, flashbacks, etc. — to the abuse over a decade before she filed suit," noted the attorneys. "No reasonable jury could conclude that she was unaware of the connection until six years or less before filing suit on October 1, 2014. Accordingly, (Lewis') claims are legally barred by (Vermont statutes)." In 1996, after Lewis told her mother about the alleged assault, "In accordance with the practices of Jehovah's Witnesses," a meeting was arranged between True, Lewis' mother, and two elders of the congregation, during which True denied the allegations. "(N)o further religious action could be taken against Mr. True, because (1) there was no confession, and (2) Marina refused to allow the elders to speak with her daughters," wrote the congregation's attorneys. The allegations were also reported to the Vermont Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services Social Services Division in 1997, and True submitted to a polygraph test administered by a detective from the Vermont State Police, which True passed. As a result, no charges were filed. "When Mr. True talked to the police in September 1996, he denied the abuse and told them that he was simply trying to get a bee out of Plaintiff's overalls," noted the attorneys. In her suit filed in 2014, Lewis contended the congregation had breached its duties to "warn, control and protect" and to supervise True. "With his trusted status, Defendant True was able to have access to congregation children and to molest them ..." contended Lewis' suit. But attorneys for the congregation and Watchtower noted that congregation leaders were not made aware of the babysitting arrangements, nor provided a reference for, sponsor or supervise the services. "This was an independent childcare arrangement between good friends ..." And to claim that the congregation was required to "monitor" interactions in private homes between individuals who are not engaged in any religious activity "is beyond the legal or feasible scope of any possible undertaking. Because the specific 'service' for which (Lewis) claims protection in this case is beyond the scope of any 'monitoring' service the (congregation) could possibly or legally provide, (Lewis') claim fails as a matter of law." The suit against the congregation and Watchtower should be dismissed, noted the attorneys, because "True was not an agent or employee of the (congregation) at the time of the abuse, (2) the abuse did not occur upon premises controlled by the (congregation); and (3) the abuse did not occur in connection with any religious activity or church-sanctioned event ..." Even if the court agrees the suit against the Bellows Falls congregation and Watchtower should be dismissed, the suit against True could still go forward. Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.