Jehovah's Witness sex abuse claim sounds warning note for Churches

Jehovah's Witnesses have been ordered by the High Court to pay compensation in a sexual abuse case.

Religious and other institutions are increasingly being held vicariously liable for historic sexual abuse committed not only by their employees but also by laity and other non-employees linked to the institutions, according to an academic lawyer specialising in issues of law and religion.

Frank Cranmer, author of the Law and Religion blog, spoke after a woman abused for five years by a Jehovah's Witness won £275,000 damages at the high court.

The sexual abuse of "A", aged 29, began when she was just four. Her abuser was Peter Stewart, not an employee of the church but a ministerial servant at Limehurst Congregation in Loughborough. The abuse took place at least once a week during Bible study in the victim's living room or the perpetrator's loft.

It came to an end when Stewart was jailed on other child abuse charges at the Limehouse church.

"A" told her mother about the abuse shortly before Stewart was due to be released after serving his sentence. She spoke to an elder in the congregation but no action was taken so she went to the police. Stewart died in 2001, a month after he was interviewed by police. "A" went to the high court seeking vicarious damages from the Jehovah's Witnesses and from two congregations, Blackbrook and Southwood, that succeeded Limehurst. She claimed successfully that they negligently failed to take reasonable steps to protect her from Stewart once they knew he had sexually assaulted another child in the congregation.

Mr Justice Globe said last Friday: "In my judgment the relationship between elders and ministerial servants and the Jehovah's Witnesses is sufficiently close in character to one of employer/employee that it is just and fair to impose vicarious liability."

He added: "Throughout, he told the claimant it was their secret and that she should say nothing about what was happening. He told her that she would be damned as a sinner if she said anything to anyone."

Franks Cranmer, a fellow at St Chad's College, Durham, and secretary of the churches' legislation advisory service, told Christian Today: "In cases, particularly sexual abuse, the courts seem to be taking the view that if someone was abused as a child and the abuser is dead or without means then there ought to be compensation. The organisation with which the abuser was associated is held vicariously liable."

On his blog he wrote that A v Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is the latest in a line of recent cases in which religious organisations have been held vicariously liable for historic sexual abuse.

He wrote: "Increasingly (and, in my view, rightly) the courts are taking the view that sexual abuse is such a serious matter that where the abuser has disappeared or died, the institution with which he was associated – even if not as an employee (which Stewart was not) – should compensate the victim. A v Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is in line with that way of thinking."