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SALEM, Ore. – An Oregon woman is suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for $9.54 million after her husband's confession to church leaders led to his arrest, conviction and imprisonment on child sexual abuse charges.
The lawsuit, which accuses local church leaders of violating confidentiality and the "priest-penitent privilege," contrasts sharply with other cases accusing the church claiming the exact opposite – failing to report abuse to authorities and treating sex abuse like a sin instead of a crime.
The lawsuit, filed in Marion County Circuit Court, involves a Turner, Oregon, man convicted of abuse after he confessed to clergy that he had repeated sexual contact with a minor.
Church officials did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment on whether the actions of local leaders were sanctioned by the church.
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The man's confession was meant to be confidential, said the family's attorney Bill Brandt. He said local clergy's actions "totally violated church policy."
"It's been devastating on the family," Brandt said. "They lost a husband and a father."
The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has about 16.3 million members worldwide and about 153,300 members and 300 congregations, also known as wards, in Oregon. The wards are led by unpaid, laymen clergy.
Timothy Samuel Johnson and his wife Kristine Johnson were members of a ward when his wife learned he had "engaged in inappropriate conduct" with a minor known to him, according to the lawsuit.
After learning of the sexual abuse, the couple followed church doctrine by having Johnson confess and repent of his sins before church clergy and the official church court.
The clergy portrayed that such a confession and repentance was dictated by church doctrine, and church doctrine required strict confidence of such confessions, according to the lawsuit.
Brandt also said church leaders represented "that whatever the scope of Mr. Johnson's evil transgressions, the Church and its clergy will spiritually counsel Mr. Johnson to bring peace within his life and family."
Johnson confessed to local leaders and members of the church court that he had sexually abused a minor.
But what leaders failed to advise Johnson of is that if he confessed to the abuse, they would report his actions to local law enforcement, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed in Oregon singled out a man who served as a counselor to Johnson's bishop, claiming the church failed to properly supervise him and train him of his obligations as a member of the clergy.
Guilty plea, 15-year sentence
Johnson, 47, was arrested in 2017 on charges of first-degree sodomy, sexual abuse and unlawful sexual penetration for sexually abusing a girl under the age of 16.
He later pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree sexual abuse and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Two years later, his wife filed the lawsuit against the church accusing the clergy of breach of fiduciary duty, negligence and interference with prospective economic advantage. Four of his children are also named as plaintiffs.
Church leaders' actions deprived Johnson's wife and children of his companionship, society, love and income, according to the lawsuit.
"(Clergy) knew or should have known that violating the doctrine of confidentiality under the circumstances alleged in this complaint would most certainly injure (his wife and children) financially," Brandt said.
Before being arrested, Johnson had a successful career as a sculptor.
The lawsuit requests $5.5 million for his wife for loss of his income and for extreme emotional distress and $1 million for each of his four children.
The lawsuit also requests $40,000 to pay for Johnson's criminal defense attorney.
Church doctrine requires disclosure and repentance. The lawsuit quoted Latter-day Saints' scripture Doctrine and Covenants 58:42-43:
"Behold he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins-behold, he will confess them and forsake them."
Brandt said church leaders violated Johnson's trust when they failed to "disclose that despite the express doctrine of confidentially intended to assist the family through difficult times," leaders would report the abuse to law enforcement.
Brandt said he's not aware of any other case in Oregon involving the breach of clergy confidentiality. He added that many members of the church were "appalled" by the actions of the church leader who allegedly violated this confidentiality and reported the abuse.
Mandatory reporting laws change
Oregon is one of the 28 states that specifically includes clergy on its list of mandatory reporters required to report known or suspected incidents of child abuse or neglect. But what is sometimes referred to as a confessional-style "clergy-penitent privilege" is an exemption to mandatory reporting laws.
Such laws are constantly evolving. In Utah, a bill proposed in the state's 2020 session would require clergy to report all allegations of child abuse – even those made during religious confessional, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Recent lawsuits and reports have brought to light previous church practices of handling abuse within the church and not reporting sexual abuse to law enforcement.
A lawyer for a woman who reported being abused as child by her Latter-day Saint father to her bishop only to have the matter go unreported to law enforcement told NPR-affiliate KUER that the main problem was that the church treated the abuse as simply a sin, not a crime.
Law enforcement in other cases accused leaders of being uncooperative with investigators.
Church officials in Utah did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit and did not reply to inquiries on how church leaders are instructed to respond to sexual abuse disclosures.
The official church website instructs leaders to "fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities."
Leaders are told to call the church's ecclesiastical helpline immediately after learning of abuse for assistance in helping victims and meeting reporting requirements.
Reporting laws vary from state to state.
The first responsibility of the church in abuse cases is to help those who have been abused and to protect those who may be vulnerable to future abuse, officials said.
A 2018 letter from top church leadership – the First Presidency – stated:
“This global issue continues to be of great concern to us today. Our hearts and prayers go out to all those who are affected by this serious problem.
“To help ensure the safety and protection of children, youth, and adults, we ask that all priesthood and auxiliary leaders become familiar with existing Church policies and guidelines on preventing and responding to abuse."
Follow reporter Whitney Woodworth on Twitter @wmwoodworth
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This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Oregon wife sues Mormon church for revealing husband's child sex abuse