My name is Chessa Manion, most of you know me as a Ex-Jehovah’s Witness, an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, and a survivor of sexual abuse myself.
After going public with my story in 2017, I became very active in the activist community and began getting involved in legislation and policy changes that silence sexual abuse survivors, protect predators, and allow corporations like Watchtower to protect their rights and privileges through government policies over the human rights of their congregants.
So, I was understandably infuriated by the recent news that Montana Supreme Court reversed the previous 35 Mil lawsuit in Montana against Watchtower for not reporting a predator in their congregation, which enabled him to come back into the congregation and continue abusing children.
Shortly after reading that headline I stumbled upon another, a Mormon woman suing her local church for reporting her husband to the authorities for sexually abusing their daughter, who was a minor under the age of 16.
Both of these suits hinge on the same legislation: clergy penitent privilege, or confessional privilege.
The clergy–penitent privilege, clergy privilege, confessional privilege, priest–penitent privilege, clergyman–communicant privilege, or ecclesiastical privilege is a rule of evidence that forbids judicial inquiry into certain communications (spoken or otherwise) between clergy and members of their congregation.
The law recognises certain communication as privileged and not subject to otherwise obligatory disclosure; for example, this often applies to communications between lawyers and clients. In many jurisdictions certain communications between a member of the clergy of some or all religious faiths (e.g., a minister, priest, rabbi, imam) and a person consulting them in confidence are privileged in law. In particular, Catholics are required to confess sins to priests, who are unconditionally forbidden by Church canon law from making any disclosure, a position supported by the law of many countries, although in conflict with civil (secular) law in some jurisdictions. It is a distinct concept from that of confidentiality (see non-disclosure agreement).
The protection of the clergy–penitent privilege relationships rests on one of the more basic privileges as strong or stronger than the similar clauses to confidentiality between lawyer and client.[
To repeat, clergy penitent privilege can be upheld OVER attorney client privilege.
I posted about this earlier on Facebook today and received a well worded comment from someone on my friends list:
“Freedom of religion was never meant to take precedent over an individuals freedom. Nor was it designed to allow the clergy to cover up crime! The supreme court better get this one right or Corporate entities like the watchtower can hide a multitude of crimes behind clergy privilege. This is one thing Russia has correct. This cult should be banned.”
I want to make perfectly clear: I do not think that the Russians are correct in persecuting Jehovah’s Witnesses for following their faith. However I do believe that Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has dangerous policies that are not the fault of it’s parishioners, but rather of the heads of the Organization itself, and that the accountability for addressing and changing these policies rests on them alone.
The reason I previously mentioned the Mormon woman suing her church for reporting her husband’s sexual abuse is this: She believes that her husband should be held accountable to the Church, but not to the authorities.
This sets a dangerous precedent, because whether you want to look at the statistics of recidivism (re-offending) in sexual predators post incarceration, or the numerous cases where abuse was “dealt with” in the church, the member was expelled, and then once back in the congregation offended again, the answer is clear: You cannot use faith to reform sexual offenders.
You also cannot protect children from sexual offenders through the church, and although offenders re-offend after leaving incarceration, the responsibility of reforming policy and exploring other avenues of treatment and resolution rests on the Government.
Religion should be for nurturing and supporting a person spiritually. Religious clergy are NOT EQUIPPED NOR CAPABLE OF HANDLING CASES OF ABUSE. They must be turned over to the authorities, because that is the only way of truly protecting the community, and making the abuser known to the community and forcing them to register as known offenders is the only way to mark predators in our midst, and protect ourselves.
Religions will silence cases of abuse to protect their assets and their namesake, and they will do so at the expense of their flock. They have sent them to the slaughter to protect themselves time, and time again. Watchtower itself has been sued previously by California Supreme Court for refusing to produce it’s lists of sex abuse complaints. In Australia they were able to find 1,006 cases of sexual abuse that were reported to congregations in Australia, NONE of which were reported to local authorities.
Not only that, but they were also caught urging their members to destroy incriminating documents, because “Satan is coming after them.”
No, really. That happened.
These recent happenings only strengthen my resolve to fight penitent privilege, to enforce mandated reporting worldwide, and to remove the statutes of limitations so that all can report their abuse.
What is Mandated Reporting?
What are Statutes of Limitations?
I also would like to seek for improvement mental healthcare, social services, and assistance for survivors of assault and abuse. There is also a need to improve funding into studying these issues and navigating through sexual predatory behavior. The only way to find solutions, is to problem solve. We cannot do that without more extensive research, and that requires funding.
For now, I am going to be pursuing another Memorial on Memorial vigil this year on April 7th to honor those who have lost their lives due to Watchtower policies. There are also #AllReligionsMust protests being organized worldwide for this summer. You can find more information about that here.
I will also be organizing a letter writing campaign to continue all year long, and drafting different letters that can be edited and personalize to be sent to your local church, congressman, president, or other government officials in your locale to oppose clergy penitent privilege.
Montana may have been a loss in our battle (for now), but we have not lost the war, and I will continue to use my voice to fight for the sake of our children and the world’s future in an effort to stop these atrocities once and for all, and to enforce human rights over corporate rights.
No matter their amount of faith, dedication, spirit, or belief, there should never be tolerance or an advocacy for tolerance of abuse. Now is not the time to be paralyzed by policy.
Now is the time to Use Our Voice.
For more information, or to join us, please visit the links above or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.