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  1. Church ‘shuns‘ 15-year-old, then father – ends up in court Posted by SDD Contributor on November 9, 2019 at 4:20 am The Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments Thursday in a lawsuit against a religious congregation’s “shunning” practice, but the congregation and several other groups contend the justices had no right to even take part in the case. Randy Wall, a real estate agent, filed the suit against the Highwood congregation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Calgary, Alberta. Wall was expelled from the congregation for getting drunk and not be properly repentant, court records said. He pursued an appeals process through the Jehovah’s Witnesses then went to court because he said the Witnesses’ “shunning” — the practice of not associating with him in any way — hurt his business. He explained his two occasions of drunkenness related to “the previous expulsion by the congregation of his 15-year-old daughter.” A lower court opinion said: “Even though the daughter was a dependent child living at home, it was a mandatory church edict that the entire family shun aspects of their relationship with her. The respondent said the edicts of the church pressured the family to evict their daughter from the family home. This led to … much distress in the family.” The “distress” eventually resulted in his drunkenness, Wall said. Wall submitted to the court arguments that about half his client base, members of various Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations, then refused to conduct business with him. He alleged the “disfellowship had an economic impact on the respondent.” During high court arguments Thursday, the congregation asked the justices to rule that religious congregations are immune to such claims in the judicial system. The lower courts had ruled that the courts could play a role in determining whether or not such circumstances rise to the level of violating civil rights or injuring a “disfellowshipped” party. The rulings from the Court of Queen’s Bench and the Alberta Court of Appeals said Wall’s case was subject to secular court jurisdiction. A multitude of religious and political organizations joined with the congregation in arguing that Canada’s courts should not be involved. The Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms said in a filing: “The wish or desire of one person to associate with an unwilling person (or an unwilling group) is not a legal right of any kind. For a court, or the government, to support such a ‘right’ violates the right of self-determination of the unwilling parties.” Previous case law has confirmed the right of religious or private voluntary groups to govern themselves and dictate who can be a member. But previously rulings also reveal there is room for the court system to intervene when the question centers on property or civil rights. The Association for Reformed Political Action described the case as having “profound implications for the separation of church and state.” It contends the court should keep its hands off the argument. “Secular judges have no authority and no expertise to review a church membership decision,” said a statement from Andre Schutten, a spokesman for the group. “Church discipline is a spiritual matter falling within spiritual jurisdiction, not a legal matter falling within the courts’ civil jurisdiction. The courts should not interfere.” John Sikkema, staff lawyer for ARPA, said: “The issue in this appeal is jurisdiction. A state actor, including a court, must never go beyond its jurisdiction. The Supreme Court must consider what kind of authority the courts can or cannot legitimately claim. We argue that the civil government and churches each have limited and distinct spheres of authority. This basic distinction between civil and spiritual jurisdiction is a source of freedom and religious pluralism and a guard against civic totalism.” He continued: “Should the judiciary have the authority to decide who gets to become or remain a church member? Does the judiciary have the authority to decide who does or does not get to participate in the sacraments? Church discipline is a spiritual matter falling within spiritual jurisdiction, not a legal matter falling within the courts’ civil jurisdiction. The courts should not interfere. Here we need separation of church and state.” The Alberta Court of Appeal, however, suggested the case was about more than ecclesiastical rules. “Because Jehovah’s Witnesses shun disfellowshipped members, his wife, other children and other Jehovah’s Witnesses were compelled to shun him,” that lower court decision said. “The respondent asked the appeal committee to consider the mental and emotional distress he and his family were under as a result of his duaghter’s disfellowship.” The church committee concluded he was “not sufficiently repentant.” The ruling said “the only basis for establishing jurisdiction over a decision of the church is when the complaint involves property and civil rights,” and that is what Wall alleged. “Accordingly, a court has jurisdiction to review the decision of a religious organization when a breach of the rules of natural justice is alleged.”
  2. The Supreme Court Rejected a Case About the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Sex Abuse By Hemant Mehta October 8, 2019 Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced that it would not take up a wild case concerning the organization that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We can breathe a huge sigh of relief that the case won’t be overturned. (In that link, it’s case 19-40 on page 42.) The case, which involved child molestation and religious secrecy, centered around an incident that took place on July 15, 2006. J.W., a nine-year-old girl with Jehovah’s Witness parents, was invited to her first slumber party at the home of Gilbert Simental. He had a daughter her age, so that wasn’t too weird. Two other girls (sisters) were also at the party. These families all knew and trusted Simental because, while he was no longer a local Witness leader, he had spent more than a decade as an elder in the faith. He was a religious leader who stepped down, he said, to spend more time with his son. They believed him. They all respected him. It’s why they allowed their girls into his home. During that party, everyone got into a pool in the backyard… including Simental. And he proceeded to molest J.W. and the sisters. He did it again later that night. The sisters eventually told their parents, who reported Simental to local Witness elders (which is what they’re taught to do in these situations). Simental confessed to some of the allegations, and the elders basically gave him a faith-based slap on the wrist: a reprimand that had no meaning outside church circles. Things changed only when the sisters’ school principal learned about what happened and, as required by law, reported the abuse to local law enforcement. Police soon contacted J.W.’s family asking for their story, but after consulting with the Witnesses, her father chose not to speak with the cops. It was a year later when J.W., then 10 years old, told her parents what Simental did to her in the pool. It infuriated them, and they told the Witness elders that they wanted a restraining order against him. The elders told him not to do that since it would require informing the police about what Simental did — and they preferred to keep his actions private. Here’s the bigger problem: There’s reason to believe the Witnesses were aware that Simental was a child molester… and they kept it from the families. Simental was allowed to be a religious leader — earning respect from the community — even though higher-ups in the religion knew that he shouldn’t be around children. It raised an important question: How much blame did the Witnesses deserve for what happened at that pool party? J.W.’s family eventually filed a criminal lawsuit against Simental and a separate civil suit against the Watchtower Society (the Witnesses’ governing organization). They basically said the Witnesses should have informed congregation members about Simental and stopped him from being around children. They never should have allowed him to be a religious leader. The Watchtower Society’s argument? They didn’t know Simental was a child molester, and the pool party occurred after he was no longer a religious leader, and the slumber party wasn’t a church-sponsored event, so leave them out of this. (To be clear, I’m simplifying the details of this case and the legal journey quite a bit.) When this case went to trial in California, J.W.’s family demanded that the Watchtower Society produce documents relating to what they knew about child molesters within the faith. The Witnesses had already admitted to keeping lists of problematic leaders along with their specific “crimes” — similar to the Catholic Church. If Simental was on that list — from 1997, nearly a decade before the pool incident — it would essentially be a smoking gun showing the Witnesses knew he was a threat to kids but did nothing about it. But the Witnesses refused to hand over that material. They treated it like Catholics treat confession: It’s private information, they argued, and to reveal what was said internally would violate their religious beliefs. J.W.’s family didn’t buy that argument. The information they wanted wasn’t bound by clergy-penitent confessional privilege. It’s not like Simental told the elders what he had done in order to confess his sins. He was caught. The Witnesses were merely shielding him from legal punishment. In the criminal trial, Witnesses elders were forced to admit their practices and that the private discussions they had about abusive clergy members were not considered confidential under the law. Mark O’Donnell, writing at JWSurvey, explained what happened next: Gilbert Simental was found guilty of three counts of lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under the age of 14. In 2008 he was sentenced to 45 years to life for his crimes. At his sentencing hearing, a sizable group of Jehovah’s Witnesses demonstrated solidarity with Simental, appealing for a more lenient sentence. JW and her parents were treated as if they broke the congregation code of silence. Simental’s appeal got him nowhere. He’s in prison today. But there were still so many questions about what responsibility the Witnesses had in this whole matter. J.W.’s family wanted to know why Simental, a known pedophile, was promoted within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why did they allow him to be around children? Why didn’t they warn families? Why did they just give him a slap on the wrist? In 2013, the civil trial began against the Watchtower Society, but again, the Witnesses didn’t want to provide necessary documents. They eventually lost the case. In 2015, the Riverside Superior Court of California awarded J.W. a judgment of $4,016,152.39. This past December, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in California upheld that decision. The plaintiff [J.W.] contended that the 1997 documents [the internal ones about known molesters in the church] were needed both [to] show negligence and basis for punitive damages. Under Code of Civil Procedure §425.14, a claim against a religious corporation for punitive damages requires leave from the trial court, and such leave may be granted only upon an affidavit showing clear and convincing evidence establishing such damages. [A judge] found unavailing Watchtower’s argument that it would take 19 years to sort through them, and also rejected the notion that they were covered by the clergy-penitent privilege. Despite the court’s order, Watchtower continuously ignored meet-and-confer requests by the plaintiff. J.W. asked the court for terminating sanctions, which Riverside Superior Court Judge Raquel A. Marquez granted after giving the church another four days to produce the documents, which it declined to do. You get the idea: The Witnesses refused to hand over internal data, presumably because it would’ve been like handing over a loaded gun. So the courts had no choice but to assume the plaintiff was telling the truth and the Watchtower Society was negligent in their handling of Simental. Earlier this year, in a Hail Mary attempt to reverse their punishment, the Watchtower Society appealed to the Supreme Court. They wanted the justices to say that documents relating to child abuse within a religious group can be kept confidential. Here’s how the Witnesses’ attorney introduced his case to the justices. (You don’t need a law degree to see how he just completely dismissed the molestation.) Here, Petitioner Watchtower sought to protect confidential, intra-faith communications among clergy (elders) regarding Bible-based religious appointment processes, some of which included congregants’ penitential confessions and all of which impacted privacy rights of non-parties. California targeted the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses and impermissibly intruded upon matters of church governance, religious doctrine, and religious practice when it ordered Watchtower to produce these intra-faith communications. Without a trial, California imposed on Watchtower an unprecedented theory of liability for a congregant’s criminal conduct during nonchurch activity (a Saturday afternoon pool party at a private home). Watchtower attorney Paul Polidoro said the Supreme Court needed to consider whether California violated the Constitution when it held the Jehovah’s Witnesses responsible for what Simental did “during non-church activity,” forced them to hand over internal communications, and punished them for protecting everyone’s “privacy rights.” J.W.’s attorney responded to that brief asking the Court to flat-out reject this case. Given Watchtower’s disrespect for the legal system, penchant for violating court orders and habitual disregard for the rules of the court from which it is begging for mercy, it is not the litigant to champion any allegedly important issue before this Court. This is not a case that warrants this Court’s time. Indeed, that’s what the Court decided. When the first set of orders in the new term was released yesterday, there was this case among many many others, in the list of those which would not get heard this term. It was the right move. There’s nothing further to debate here. Finally, this case has been put to rest. (Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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