MARION COUNTY, O.R. — An Oregon woman whose husband is in prison for sexually abusing a child is suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for reporting his confession to state authorities.
In the lawsuit, Kristine Johnson said her husband confessed his sexual abuse to clergy as required by church rules. That confession was passed along to state authorities, forming the basis of their investigation, she says.
She filed the lawsuit in Marion County Circuit Court last week and seeks $9.5 million for loss of income, emotional distress and her family’s loss of her husband’s companionship. The lawsuit, which argues the church went against its own policy that considers confessions confidential, also seeks an additional $40,000 for his criminal defense.
Couple followed church rules, wife says
In 2016, the lawsuit states, plaintiff Kristine Johnson learned that her husband, Timothy Johnson, had engaged in inappropriate conduct with an underage girl.
“In response to that, plaintiff Kristine Johnson and Timothy Johnson followed the rules and scriptures of the church, which … requires and admonish church members to ‘confess their sins unto the brethren before the Lord,'” the lawsuit says.
But the church failed to advise the couple that if he followed the guidance and confessed his sins, it would report him to state authorities. The church should have warned her husband that his confession would not stay private, the lawsuit says.
Timothy Samuel Johnson, 47, was arrested in 2017 and is serving 15 years in prison in Pendleton, Oregon, for abusing an underage girl, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Church stands by its decision
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints said it considers protecting victims a top priority and has a 24-hour helpline to report abuse.
“The church teaches that leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement.
Oregon is one of 28 states that considers clergy among professionals mandated by law to report known or suspected instances of child abuse or neglect. But that law makes some exceptions, and statutes in some states specify circumstances under which a communication is “privileged” or allowed to remain confidential.
Christine Bartholomew, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law, told The Oregonian that the lawsuit could have dire consequences.
“If successful, this litigation would push courts and these religious organizations toward less transparency than more,” Bartholomew said. “And you have to wonder if that would create the environment where abuse can really fester.”