James Counsell and Ben Bradley succeed in landmark sex abuse case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses Organisation
In a landmark ruling, Mr Justice Globe has today imposed vicarious liability upon the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) organisation both for:
- the acts of sexual abuse committed by one of its ministerial servants, Peter Stewart (PS), upon the Claimant (“the abuse claim”); and;
- the failures, on the part of its Elders, to safeguard the Claimant from acts of further sexual abuse, in circumstances where they knew PS was a paedophile, but viewed him as being repentant for his sins, thereby permitting him to remain in the congregation (“the safeguarding claim”).
James Counsell and Ben Bradley (instructed by Kathleen Hallisey of AO Advocates) acted for the Claimant, in what is the first case of this nature to be brought against the JWs.
The trial judge heard extensive evidence over the course of 10 days, addressing issues pertaining to the location and nature of the abuse (the Defendant averring that it did not happen in connection with PS’ role as a Ministerial Servant); the structure and nature of the JWs generally (going to issues in relation to vicarious liability); and the events surrounding the safeguarding claim.
The Claimant (who was aged approximately 3 or 4 when the abuse started) was subjected to continuing abuse over a c.5 year period at the hands of Peter Stewart. The judge held that PS had used his role as a ministerial servant to facilitate his access to the Claimant (for example, by accompanying her on ‘field service, where JWs go from door to door to ‘spread the word’, and by leading bible study sessions).
In or around 1990 (about a year into the abuse), the Elders in the congregation became aware of allegations surrounding the sexual abuse of another child by PS. PS admitted that this abuse had occurred. The Elders in the local congregation duly assembled a judicial committee to consider PS’ actions. Having determined that he was repentant, PS was permitted to remain in the congregation.
It was the Claimant’s case that she was unaware that the Elders had known that PS was a paedophile until such time as they served witness evidence upon her in the abuse claim, confirming such knowledge. In turn, the Claimant argued that the safeguarding claim had been brought within the time limits as prescribed by ss. 11 and 14 Limitation Act 1980. The judge accepted this submission, and also extended time on the abuse claim pursuant to s.33 Limitation Act 1980.
The judge has found for the Claimant on all grounds. Damages were agreed in the sum of £275,000.
The identity of the Claimant (and indeed any person abused by PS) remains protected by reporting restrictions imposed by way of Court Order.
Barristers: Ben Bradley | James Counsell QC