Now serving 15 years in prison, the husband admitted transgressions that he and his wife thought would be handled by the church internally, she alleges
An Oregon woman claims in a lawsuit that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owes her family millions of dollars after church clergy heard her husband’s private confession to sexual abuse of a minor, and then turned his name over to police for investigation, landing him behind bars for 15 years.
The man — who is not being named by PEOPLE to shield the identity of his victim — is currently serving time at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution for his resulting conviction on four counts of sexual abuse, with the earliest possible release date of January 3, 2033, according to jail records.
His wife’s lawsuit — in which four of the couple’s children are also listed as plaintiffs — seeks $9.5 million in emotional distress and lost income, plus another $40,000 to compensate for the cost of the man’s criminal defense.
At issue in the lawsuit, which names the Salt Lake City-based church as its sole defendant, is the church’s role in expecting its members to admit their transgressions in order to “get back in favor with the church,” and the members’ expectations that such confessions would be handled internally and kept confidential, Bill Brandt, an attorney for the wife, told The Oregonian.
If that were not the case, Brandt said, church leaders should have told the man, “‘Look, before you come in here and say this, we need to tell you … we’re going to report you.'”
The couple “followed the rules and scriptures of the church” when the man told church leaders in 2016 about his actions, as a way to “repent for his sins” and “bring peace within his life and family,” according to the lawsuit, which alleges the man’s church confession then led to his 2017 arrest and 2018 conviction.
Currently 28 states, including Oregon, consider clergy members to be required reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect, according to the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Protecting victims and ensuring proper reporting is a top priority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement to PEOPLE.
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Without addressing the specific case, the statement from Hawkins continued: “The Church teaches that leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities. In some circumstances, those obligations may be governed by their professional duty and in others by their role as clergy.”
“The Church has a 24-hour abuse help line to help leaders understand and meet both their professional and ecclesiastical obligations to report abuse,” he said in the statement. “We are grateful for the efforts of law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and pursue justice for those who were abused.”
The lawsuit filed Friday in Marion County, Oregon, circuit court, does not yet have a hearing date.
“If successful, this litigation would push courts and these religious organizations toward less transparency than more,” Christine Bartholomew, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law who studies lawsuits involving claims allegedly made in confidence to clergy, told The Oregonian. “And you have to wonder if that would create the environment where abuse can really fester.”