BELLOWS FALLS — Attorneys for the Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses are asking the United States District Court for the District of Vermont to dismiss a lawsuit alleging a congregation member committed sexual abuse 25 years ago.
The lawsuit, filed by Annessa Lewis, names congregation member Norton True and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York as co-defendants in the suit. The attorneys are asking that the congregation and Watchtower be dismissed from the suit. They do not represent True.
The abuse is alleged to have occurred in the early 1990s at True's home in Rockingham, while his adult daughter was babysitting Lewis, who is now 29 and lives in Texas. True's daughter was a friend of Lewis' mother.
"To be clear, the (Jehovah's Witnesses and Watchtower) do not concede that there was an incident of abuse," wrote attorneys from Downs Rachlin and Martin, which is representing the congregation and Watchtower.
Attorneys for Lewis allege that when Lewis was 5 years old, True molested her. Lewis did not reveal the alleged abuse until 1996, when she told a family member about it.
According to the motion for summary judgment, True was a "baptized publisher," but not an elder or a "ministerial servant" at the time of the alleged abuse, noted the attorneys.
"Although True had served as a ministerial servant in the late 1970s (Lewis) filed suit on October 1, 2014 when she was 27 years old. The six-year statute of limitations on Plaintiff's claims stemming from childhood sexual abuse began to run on January 9, 2005. She filed this action well over nine years later." True's duties as a ministerial servant ended in 1986, a year before Lewis' family began attending the congregation in Bellows Falls.
"As a matter of law, (Lewis) knew she had been abused and had connected her emotional injuries — depression, anxiety, flashbacks, etc. — to the abuse over a decade before she filed suit," noted the attorneys. "No reasonable jury could conclude that she was unaware of the connection until six years or less before filing suit on October 1, 2014. Accordingly, (Lewis') claims are legally barred by (Vermont statutes)."
In 1996, after Lewis told her mother about the alleged assault, "In accordance with the practices of Jehovah's Witnesses," a meeting was arranged between True, Lewis' mother, and two elders of the congregation, during which True denied the allegations. "(N)o further religious action could be taken against Mr. True, because (1) there was no confession, and (2) Marina refused to allow the elders to speak with her daughters," wrote the congregation's attorneys.
The allegations were also reported to the Vermont Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services Social Services Division in 1997, and True submitted to a polygraph test administered by a detective from the Vermont State Police, which True passed. As a result, no charges were filed.
"When Mr. True talked to the police in September 1996, he denied the abuse and told them that he was simply trying to get a bee out of Plaintiff's overalls," noted the attorneys.
In her suit filed in 2014, Lewis contended the congregation had breached its duties to "warn, control and protect" and to supervise True. "With his trusted status, Defendant True was able to have access to congregation children and to molest them ..." contended Lewis' suit.
But attorneys for the congregation and Watchtower noted that congregation leaders were not made aware of the babysitting arrangements, nor provided a reference for, sponsor or supervise the services. "This was an independent childcare arrangement between good friends ..."
And to claim that the congregation was required to "monitor" interactions in private homes between individuals who are not engaged in any religious activity "is beyond the legal or feasible scope of any possible undertaking. Because the specific 'service' for which (Lewis) claims protection in this case is beyond the scope of any 'monitoring' service the (congregation) could possibly or legally provide, (Lewis') claim fails as a matter of law."
The suit against the congregation and Watchtower should be dismissed, noted the attorneys, because "True was not an agent or employee of the (congregation) at the time of the abuse, (2) the abuse did not occur upon premises controlled by the (congregation); and (3) the abuse did not occur in connection with any religious activity or church-sanctioned event ..."
Even if the court agrees the suit against the Bellows Falls congregation and Watchtower should be dismissed, the suit against True could still go forward.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.