Judge awards woman $5K in civil suit against Jehovah's Witnesses

Canadian Press/June 30, 2003
By Mike Olivetra

Toronto -- A woman who accused the Canadian wing of the Jehovah's Witnesses of negligence over their handling of allegations of sexual abuse has received $5,000 in damages, an award she calls a "bittersweet" conclusion to the case.

"The penalty was very little and that was very, very upsetting for us," Vicki Boer said Monday from her home in Fredericton. Boer, 32, said it is "really, really important" that the court recognized her suffering and that "there was a penalty they had to pay."

Boer, who says she suffered sexual assaults between ages 11 and 14, sought $700,000 from the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada and three of its elders in a 1998 civil suit that claimed they were negligent and breached their duty.

No criminal charges were ever laid in the assault allegations but Justice Anne Molloy's written civil judgment says "there is no material dispute as to the general background leading up to . . . this matter" and "the plaintiff was sexually assaulted by her father."

In the civil suit, Boer claimed that rather than immediately notify the Children's Aid Society, elders told her not to seek outside help or report the alleged abuse. She also said they made her confront her father to allow him to repent his sins in accordance with biblical principles, outlined in Matthew 18:15-18.

Boer said the confrontation was traumatizing and led to a rocky path in her adult life, which included a nervous breakdown and being ostracized by family, friends and people in her southern Ontario community of Shelburne, about 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

But Molloy ruled that while Boer was certainly put through a traumatic experience, the church was ultimately not responsible for all of her pain and suffering.

"That one session, while traumatic, played only a minor role in creating the situation in which (Boer) now finds herself," Molloy wrote in her decision.

Molloy cleared the three elders of wrongdoing, but ruled that the church pay Boer $5,000 because one of its elders - who was not named in the suit - talked her into the confrontation with her father, which was an inaccurate application of their faith.

"Putting a dollar figure on psychological harm is always a nearly impossible task, and one which is inherently arbitrary," she wrote.

Molloy added that she considered the typical range of damages issued to victims of severe childhood incest and physical assault - around $75,000 to $150,000.

Molloy ruled the church never told Boer not to seek medical help, nor was she told the alleged abuse should not have been reported.

Watch Tower, the Canadian wing of the church, said the group was happy the three elders were exonerated.

"The elders and their families are glad to be able to put this behind them," spokesman Clive Thomas said in a release.

While victims of sexual abuse normally aren't identified in public, Boer agreed to allow her name to be publicized as part of her effort to promote what she has alleged was abuse within the confines of the church's congregations.

As part of their beliefs in a strict interpretation of Bible teachings, Jehovah's Witnesses reject anything political or "worldly" that distracts from their focus on Christ and the second coming, which they consider imminent.

Anyone who runs afoul of the religion's strictest tenets find themselves excommunicated, often to such an extent that they're shunned by even family.

When Boer left the faith and married outside the religion, she lost contact with her mother. Even as her mother was dying in hospital of cancer, she was not allowed to visit and never was not able to reconcile with her before she passed away, the judge noted.

But Boer said she was still happy she took on the five-year fight, now that other people have come forward with allegations of abuse.

"There were so many children coming out of the woodwork saying, 'The same thing happened to me,' " she said.

Still, she said she can't put the past entirely behind her, because she was waiting to find out if the judgment will include payment for her court fees, well in excess of $5,000.

"Hopefully this doesn't bankrupt us, which is what I'm terrified of. It's the one big thing that we're panicking about right now," she said. "I just don't want my own family suffering because of something the church did to me."

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