The Oregon Supreme Court has apparently rejected an appeal of a trial court ruling on a very limited issue that the Church turn over financial information in a case that is scheduled to start in August on sexual molestation claims. Media reports are from OregonLive.com and from the Salt Lake Tribune, and a few other outlets, essentially carrying the same story.
From the Tribune:
The Oregon Supreme Court rejected an effort by the Mormon church to withhold financial information from the lawyers for a man who claims a “home teacher” frequently molested him about 20 years ago. Despite the legal defeat, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not immediately release the detailed financial information about its net worth, The Oregonian newspaper reported.
Kelly Clark, an attorney for the Oregon man suing the church, said it would be good for a jury to have the information before considering his request for $45 million in punitive damages. A trial is scheduled for Aug. 6. “A jury needs to know the entire financial context to know whether a punitive award is too much or sufficient or not enough,” Clark said.
Since the case has not yet even been tried, it seems premature to be discussing the possibility of punitive damages and forcing the Church to disclose its financial information. Mr. Clark’s suggestion that a jury needs to know the entire financial context of the Church’s financial matters to know whether a punitive award is too much or not enough is just nonsense.
First, the trial hasn’t even begun. So, clearly there is not any need to even consider a punitive damage award. Second, the plaintiff will likely have a greater evidentiary burden to establish conduct that would support a punitive damage award, as opposed to the very low evidentiary threshold of a mere preponderance of the evidence to establish negligence. We ought to have the jury hear the evidence to:
1. Establish liability in the first place;
2. Establish whether by clear and convincing evidence there was conduct sufficient to even warrant the consideration of punitive damages.
The media reports are that the Church appealed the trial court ruling that it must disclose its financial information. The Oregon Supreme Court rejected the Church’s appeal. I don’t know at this point whether that means the supreme court actually considered the appeal on its merits or just rejected the opportunity to hear it–probably the latter:
The LDS church sought emergency relief from a trial court order to turn over the financial information, but the Oregon Supreme Court late Monday rejected the appeal. The pretrial decision was reached on narrow pretrial grounds and doesn’t mean the court would not ultimately side with the church’s position that the Constitution protects its right to keep financial information private.
“The church is considering its position,” Stephen F. English, the LDS church’s lead Portland attorney, told the newspaper. “The church respects the rule of law but has profound constitutional concerns based on its constitutional right to protect the free expression of its religion.” The LDS church has not released financial information since 1959.
The Church is right to be concerned about its constitutional rights in this case. The First Amendment is at stake here, including the free expression of religion. Disclosing financial information without there even being a verdict poses a grave risk to First Amendment Religious freedoms.
The lawsuit apparently stems from allegations of sexual abuse from a home teacher. Of course, that is a far cry from the Church or any of its agents knowing about any alleged abuse, or having any responsibility for such abuse, even assuming that it occurred:
The latest bid to expose the church’s net worth stems from a lawsuit filed last year that accuses Kenneth I. Johnson Jr. of molesting a Beaverton youth as often as twice a week in the late 1980s. Johnson, who has denied the accusation, was the boy’s home teacher, a church-sanctioned lay official authorized to provide educational and religious guidance, according to the suit.
English said Johnson was acting as a family friend, not a church official, and LDS church officials did not know about the alleged abuse while it was happening.
I think the plaintiff here is going to have an uphill battle even establishing any liability by the Church. A home teacher is a far cry from a bishop or pastor or priest of another religion. The alleged activities could very well have taken place, as English points out while the accused was acting as a family friend and not on behalf of the Church. Regardless, it is way too soon to require the Church to disclose its financial information.
Update 7/13/07, Peggy Fletcher Stack, of the Tribune has an excellent follow up piece this morning:
An Oregon Supreme Court ruling ordering the LDS Church to release detailed financial information to an alleged abuse victim could have wide-ranging implications for the church, which has not disclosed its assets publicly since 1959.
The plaintiff in the Oregon case, who alleges repeated sexual abuse by his LDS “home teacher,” argues that knowing the church’s net worth is necessary to help a jury decide if $45 million in punitive damages is reasonable. The church counters revealing such information would violate its religious rights.
Again, there is a real problem with this argument that a jury needs to know the financial worth of the Church to determine whether $45 million is enough. The fact is that this plaintiff has so far proved nothing. There is no verdict. There is no finding of liability by any jury against the Church. There is no finding of any damages for which the Church is responsible. There is no finding by any evidence whatsoever that the Church or any of its agents acted with oppression, malice, fraud, or in conscious disregard, conduct which is usually required to support punitive damages.
I haven’t seen the ruling so it’s hard to determine exactly what the court ruled. The media stories don’t publish the ruling (which they may not have), and don’t state when the judge ordered the information turned over. It would be helpful to know this information. I would also point out that I disagree with Ms. Fletcher’s opening sentence. From what I have read, the Oregon Supreme did not order the Church to turn over financial information. This was a trial court order, that the Church appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, likely on an emergency appeal. The Oregon Supreme Court just declined to hear the appeal, which is a far cry from ordering the Church to turn over anything.
But the case has drawn renewed attention to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ insistence on keeping its assets confidential, although it certainly is not alone among churches in the practice.
The federal government does not require such disclosure and few religious groups do so voluntarily, said Dan Busby, vice president of the Evangelical Council for Financial in Winchester, Va.
Still, Mormonism is unique in the way it collects tithes and offerings from local church units into a common pool at its Salt Lake City headquarters, then disperses the money to areas as needed. An all-volunteer clergy governs the church, but chapels and temples, missionary allowances and educator salaries are paid out of general church funds.
Because LDS assets are listed together, rather than by region, financial disclosure of any part of the assets would reveal all the church’s holdings. To Mormon leaders, that’s an unfair expectation.
“I’m not aware of any group or denomination that would funnel all money into the central repository. That would be totally unheard of in Protestantism,” Busby said. “Most denominations require that local churches pay a percentage or per capita amount to headquarters, but usually only 10 or 15 percent used to fund headquarters operations.”
This is interesting. While I knew the Church funneled money to Salt Lake City, I did not know that it was mostly a unique practice among churches today. The article then points out another argument that I did not even consider:
Even the Catholic Church, which has a centralized leadership at the Vatican, is financed at the diocesan level. That’s why several U.S. dioceses have filed for bankruptcy after being hit with millions of dollars in abuse awards, but no one asked to see all the Vatican’s records.
It does seem a bit overreaching to require all the Church’s financial records, including its worldwide resources. If I can obtain any of the primary documents I will share them.
Update 7/13/07 8:30 am. Justin over at the Mormon Wasp has kindly provided me with some links that appear to relate to a prior Oregon case brought against the Church, which was ultimately settled for some $3 million. The other link is related to the case currently in litigation. Thanks Justin for the links:
Portland, Oregon — An man who claims he was abused by a home teacher from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is suing the church for at least five million dollars.
The unnamed plaintiff accused home teacher Ken Johnson of regular and repeated sexual abuse from 1986-1988 in Beaverton.
Mormon church spokeswoman Kim Farah, at church headquarters in Salt Lake City, says church leaders learned of the incident in 2001.
She says they reported it to authorities, who declined to prosecute because so much time had passed.
She said counseling was offered to the victim and Ken Johnson was excommunicated in January 2002. Excommunicated Mormons can attend services but are barred from church positions of responsibility and from the sacraments.
This last link is the one that appears to be directly related to the current case in litigation in Oregon. A couple of quick points:
1. The alleged abuse occurred in 1986 to 1988, yet the Church is not notified until 2001.
2. The abuse is alleged by a home teacher, not a bishop, stake president or other actual priesthood leader in authority over the alleged victim;
3. No underlying criminal prosecution or verdict against the alleged perpetrator because so much time had passed, yet he was apparently excommunicated.
For a rather extreme and opposite point of view, please see this post over at Loaded Orygun, where the author seems to think the Church would be civilly liable for any abuse by a home teacher if they failed to do a background check on each and every home teacher in the Church. It’s a bit far out; but, it does present a different point of view.