The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Tuesday it plans to appeal a $4.2 million award decided on by a Washington jury in a case alleging an LDS bishop failed to report to law enforcement the sex abuse of two teenage girls at the hands of their stepfather.
A jury last Friday found the LDS Church liable for misconduct and negligence in the case of Jessica Cavalieri, 24, and her younger sister, Ashley, 19.
Attorney for the girls, Timothy Kosnoff, said at trial that the girls were abused in their home from 1988 to approximately 1994 and that Jessica Cavalieri told her bishop, Bruce Hatch, in 1994 about the alleged abuse and that Hatch did not report the abuse to law enforcement.
However, LDS officials dispute the story, saying that Jessica Cavalieri did not tell Hatch about the abuse until approximately 1998 or 1999 and that Hatch then reported the abuse to police within weeks. They point to testimony from Jessica Cavalieri's best friend, who said the victim confided to her that she couldn't bring herself to tell her bishop about the abuse.
Kosnoff did not return calls to the Deseret Morning News seeking comment Tuesday.
In an Associated Press story, he was quoted as saying: "The size of the verdict is particularly newsworthy. I think the jury is making a statement."
He said that verdict is the first sex-abuse ruling in a lawsuit against a church in Washington state and could affect settlements in other abuse cases, including those against the Roman Catholic Church.
LDS Church attorney Von Keetch called the jury ruling a "miscarriage of justice on the grandest terms" and said the church plans to appeal on several points of "clear legal error."
Among those points, Keetch said the trial judge allowed the jury to consider Hatch as acting in a social worker capacity when he was told of the abuse. Under Washington law, a member of the clergy is not required to report sexual abuse but a social services counselor is.
"He's an engineer for Boeing," Keetch said, adding Hatch had no training or license as a social worker. Bishops in the LDS Church are considered "lay clergy" in that they are chosen from among the members of their community to serve for approximately five years.
"We believe this is an extremely strong appeal point," Keetch said.
Both Keetch and Kosnoff agreed the Washington verdict is a first. It is the first verdict in the United States in which a jury is willing to hold a church responsible for the abuse of one member by another nonclergy church member, Keetch said.
The sisters, both enrolled in college, told The Seattle Times on Monday they feel vindicated by the verdict but remain troubled by the abuse.
Jessica Cavalieri said she hoped the case would help the church deal better with such situations.
"They don't know how to handle abuse victims and pedophiles," she said. "They're just completely naive."
Stepfather Peter Taylor pleaded guilty to child molestation in 2001 and was sentenced to more than four years in prison. The jury found the LDS Church liable for $2.5 million and Taylor for $1.7 million. Keetch said the trial judge may soon rule that the LDS Church can be held liable for all of the amounts.
Church officials take issue with the assertion that they have not taken steps to prevent child sex abuse among its membership — as in that church President Gordon B. Hinckley called it a "sin of the darkest hue."
"The training is ongoing," LDS spokesman Dale Bills said, adding the church is confident that its lay bishops are prepared. Church officials acknowledged that isolated mistakes in failing to report sex abuse have happened in the past by bishops who misunderstood the law or what the LDS Church expected of them. But steps have been taken to make sure child abuse is handled appropriately, officials said.
Since 1995, the LDS Church have had a campaign to train its bishops in how to handle sex abuse, including offering a 24-hour help line staffed by a psychologist or psychiatrist trained in sex abuse as well as access to church attorneys.
Since the help line was established, Keetch said, there have been no lawsuits filed claiming abuse.
Bishops are given at least three general rules in dealing with child abuse, according to the church's training literature. The first is to protect the safety of the child; second is to comply with the law, and third is to call the help line.
What makes the issue difficult, Keetch said, is that reporting requirements for clergy are different in many states. Twenty-three states, including Utah, have laws that require clergy to report abuse only when the information is not privileged. This means that if a clergyman learns the abuse as confession, it is protected under law.
However, if a clergyman is told by a victim or learns of the abuse firsthand, then it must be reported. Nine other states require clergy to report abuse no matter what and 18 states do not require reporting abuse at all.
Keetch acknowledges that although bishops are required to follow the law, there are instances bishops have reported abuse to law enforcement in states where the information was considered privileged. In North Carolina, the LDS Church was sued by a sex abuse suspect, who said his LDS bishop violated the law in reporting information he considered confessional.
Currently, the LDS Church faces another sex abuse suit in Washington by a person who alleges the sexual abuse as a child was not reported to authorities by the bishop in the 1970s and another suit in Oregon by a 45-year-old who also says the abuse was not reported.
Keetch pointed out that the LDS Church does not suffer from the sex abuse problem the Catholic Church has experienced, with clergy being the abuser. In his 15 years representing attorney, Keetch said the LDS Church has been sued only once under allegations that a bishop himself allegedly abused a child. Keetch could not comment on the case, citing confidentiality issues.
The LDS Church in past years has settled several other cases out of court. Church officials say the settlements in no way should be construed as culpability. "In virtually all cases, the church offers counseling for the victim," a church statement reads.
Keetch said he plans to filed a motion to have the trial judge reconsider the verdict, which could take up to two months. The case would then be taken to the Washington Court of Appeals, which could take more than a year for a ruling.