An attorney for Kristine Johnson says the conviction was a “devastating” “breach of trust” because there was only one victim.
In an unusual deviation from scores of stories reporting clergy abuse and church-sanctioned cover-ups, an Oregon woman is suing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for reporting her husband’s confession.
The Washington Post reports that the $9.54 million lawsuit was filed by Kristine Johnson, whose husband, Timothy Samuel Johnson, is serving a 15-year sentence for molestation.
Johnson allegedly first learned of her husband’s crimes in 2016. But instead of going to the police, she convinced her partner to approach the leaders of their local church ward in Stayton, Oregon. Their hope was to somehow resolve Timothy’s misdeeds in accordance with Mormon doctrine.
Bill Brandt, an attorney representing Kristine Johnson, told the Post that the Mormon Church tends to view criminal justice in a rather different light than other religious institutions.
“The Mormon Church is, for lack of a better word, a unique institutions,” Brandt said. “They firmly believe they can deal with their parishioners better than law enforcement.”
To that end, Timothy Johnson went before a council of lay clergy and confessed his abuse, hoping to attain absolution through a “fairly intensive” process of spiritual counseling and cleansing. However, one member of the panel went off-script: instead of covering up Timothy Johnson’s self-confessed crimes against children, the clergyman told real-world authorities.
Shortly thereafter, Johnson was arrested and charged with first-degree sodomy, sexual abuse and unlawful sexual penetration of a child under 16. Johnson, says the Washington Post, pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree sexual abuse in 2018.
Brandt told the Post that the impact has been “devastating” to the Johnson family.
“It’s been devastating on the family,” Brandt told the Oregon Statesman, focusing on Johnson rather than his underage victim. “They lost a husband and father.”
“The impact has been devastating, emotionally and financially,” Brandt said, explaining that Johnson was the sole provider for his wife and five children.
A spokesperson for the Mormon Church told the Post that, while the organization prefers to address matters of sin and morality internally, clergy members have some leeway regarding “legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities.”
“In some circumstances, those obligations may be governed by their professional duty and in others by their role as clergy,” said Mormon spokesperson Eric Hawkins. “The Church has a 24-hour abuse help line to help leaders understand and meet both their professional and ecclesiastical obligations to report abuse.”
Oregon, notes the Post, is one of 28 states wherein priests and other clergy members are considered mandatory reporters—required by law to inform law enforcement of any suspected child abuse.
But Johnson’s lawsuit maintains that that same mandatory reporting law makes an exception for “privileged communications.” Brandt says a confession to a priest should fall into that category, unless an abuser states they’re either planning to carry out a crime or are continuing abuse.
In an e-mail to the Post, Brandt continued to posit Johnson as a victim, going so far as to say his arrest and imprisonment was “terrible.”
“The fellow had no history of this,” Brandt said. “There were no other victims. It was just a horrible thing.”
Kristine Johnson, for her part, said she’d never considered going to the police because her strong religious faith compelled her to protect her pedophile spouse.
Editor’s note: Legal Reader apologizes for the error in attributing the following quote to *Kristine* Johnson. The quote is from activist *Kristy* Johnson in reference to her own lawsuit – different from the suit covered here – regarding abuse she suffered at the hands of her father.
“It never occurred to me to go the police,” Kristy Johnson told KUER in 2018. “It never entered my mind because of being raised Mormon. These bishops and leaders are like God—they speak for God.”