A Montana jury slapped the Jehovah’s Witnesses church with a $35 million penalty. Two women filed a lawsuit against Max Reyes, an elder of the church, for sex abuse but the financial compensation was awarded to only one of the women. The monetary relief is awarded against the local congregation in Thompson Falls and the church’s operational headquarters in New York.

The Thompson Falls congregation together with the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to pay $4 million in compensation and $31 in punitive damages. Reyes is an elder with the Thompson Falls congregation. The jury gave the ruling after a 3-day trial for a lawsuit first filed in 2016.

According to the women, Reyes raped and sexually molested them over 13 years. The church elder sexually assaulted them both from the early 1990s to late 2000s. When Reyes’ sordid activities became known to the local church leadership, they relieved him of his position and excommunicated him. However, the church reinstated Reyes again after 14 years away from the church.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters was found culpable in Elder Reyes’ sexual offenses, just as the local Thompson Falls congregation. Judge James Manley found the local and headquarters church guilty of Reyes misdemeanors in two areas. The church reinstated him to his position when they could reasonably foresee he would continue to sexually harass women; and they failed to hand him over to law enforcement in accordance with Montana’s mandatory reporting law.

Few weeks before the jury gave the verdict, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s lawyers requested the Montana Supreme Court to overrule Judge Manley’s rulings and even keep the trial stalled. But the Supreme Court failed to accede to this request.

The Australian Royal Commission, which conducted a comprehensive investigation into the church,  published several reports condemning the Jehovah’s Witnesses for church policies that state offensive issues must be resolved internally by local congregational elders. The commission said it is better to report offensive issues to law enforcement instead of having local church elders handle it within themselves. The commission also condemns policies that require aggrieved members of the church to produce two witnesses to any offense before the leadership can initiate proceedings against the accused.

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