Judge: Sisters May Pursue Church CaseFeb 26, 2003 | Nashua Telegraph
The sisters say that church elders failed to report their fatherâ€™s abuse or do anything to stop it. They also claim that church policy and practices shield abusers from prosecution.
The church disputes that the elders were made aware of the abuse at the time.
Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge William Groff rejected the churchâ€™s arguments that the suit should be dismissed on constitutional and other legal grounds in a series of rulings earlier this month.
Groff ruled, however, that the stateâ€™s three-year statute of limitation for lawsuits prevents the sisters from suing their father for the abuse.
One of the sistersâ€™ lawyers, Cynthia Waldt of St. Paul, Minn., declined to comment on Groffâ€™s rulings Tuesday.
The churchâ€™s lawyer said he will ask Groff to reconsider.
â€śObviously, we feel badly for the two plaintiffs, but neither Watchtower (the churchâ€™s national governing body) nor the congregation are responsible for what happened,â€ť Donald Gardner of Manchester said.
â€śWeâ€™re confident that when Watchtower and the elders present their evidence, the facts will clearly show that neither (the church nor its elders) . . . knew of any child abuse until years after it had stopped, by which time the authorities already were involved.â€ť
The sistersâ€™ suit stems from the case of Paul Berry, 46, formerly of Greenville, who was convicted of 17 counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault after a trial in 2000 in Hillsborough County Superior Court.
Berry was sentenced to serve 56 to 112 years in prison, one of the stiffest sentences ever imposed for a sexual assault case in New Hampshire. The state Supreme Court upheld his convictions in a ruling last year.
Berry was convicted of repeatedly assaulting his stepdaughter, Holly Berry, 24, of Berkeley, Calif., while she was between 4 and 10.
Berry also had been charged with assaulting his biological daughter, Heather Berry, 20, of Charlestown on several occasions while she was between 3 and 6. Prosecutors and Heather Berry dropped those charges after the conviction and sentence in her sisterâ€™s case.
The Telegraph ordinarily doesnâ€™t identify victims of sexual abuse, but the Berry sisters chose to go public when they filed the suit in 2001.
Their suit names Berry, the Wilton congregation of Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses and the national organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Around the time of Berryâ€™s trial, the sisters claim they learned their mother had told church elders of the abuse while it was happening, and asked for their help.
Their mother testified that the elders told her to keep quiet, pray more and strive to be a better wife.
Groff ruled that the girls canâ€™t sue the church for allegedly violating a state law that requires people to report suspected child abuse, because the law doesnâ€™t allow such claims. However, he ruled that the eldersâ€™ alleged failure to report the abuse or take other action on their motherâ€™s concerns can be used as evidence of negligence.
Groff ruled that â€śany reasonable personâ€ť would have understood â€śthe overwhelming risk of harmâ€ť from sexual abuse, and â€śthe magnitude of that potential harm.â€ť
â€śThis rendered the eldersâ€™ conduct unreasonably dangerous in view of the horrific consequences to the plaintiff by not taking steps to report the abuse or properly counsel the plaintiffâ€™s mother,â€ť Groff wrote, assuming for argumentâ€™s sake that the elders did conceal the abuse.
â€śThe prevention of sexual abuse of children is one of societyâ€™s greatest duties,â€ť he continued. â€śClearly the social importance of protecting the plaintiff from her fatherâ€™s continued brutal sexual abuse outweighs the importance of immunizing the defendants from extended liability.â€ť
The Watchtower Society had argued the church couldnâ€™t be held responsible for a failure to protect children from a parentâ€™s abuse. The society also argued that allowing the suit to proceed would violate the constitutional protection of freedom of worship.
Groff disagreed, finding that religious beliefs donâ€™t excuse people from obeying state laws, including the law requiring people to report suspected child abuse.
The Jehovahâ€™s Witnesses also claimed the elders to whom Berryâ€™s mother reported the abuse were ministers of the church, and that state law protects the confidentiality of communications between the elders and members of the church â€“ just as a priest canâ€™t be forced to testify about matters disclosed during confession.
Groff found that issue requires further hearing, to decide whether elders were, in fact, ministers and whether their conversations with Berryâ€™s mother should be considered confidential. A hearing on that matter is scheduled for March 17, but is expected to be postponed, Gardner said.
Groff ruled in the churchâ€™s favor on a similar issue in a criminal sexual abuse case involving a Hollis man convicted of sexually assaulting several girls. In that case, Groff found that elders in the manâ€™s congregation couldnâ€™t be forced to testify about disclosures the man made while the elders were investigating abuse charges