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Court finds Jehovah’s Witnesses not liable for rape by an Elder

28 April 2023

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The Supreme Court in Parliament Square, Westminster

The Supreme Court in Parliament Square, Westminster

THE Supreme Court has ruled that the trustees of the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses were not vicariously liable for the rape of a female member of the congregation by one of their Elders at his own home.

By this unanimous decision, five justices of the Supreme Court, including the President, Lord Reed, and the Deputy President, Lord Hodge, have overruled a decision of a High Court judge who had held the trustees liable, and awarded the victim of the rape, identified only as Mrs B, damages of £62,000, as well as a decision of the Court of Appeal where three Lords Justices of Appeal had refused an appeal by the trustees and upheld the decision of the High Court judge.

At the relevant time, the Barry Congregation held three weekly religious services. Two were held at Kingdom Hall, its place of worship, and one was a small family service typically held in private homes. The services included reading and discussing the Bible and Bible-based literature. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a clergy-laity division. Two groups of men have congregational responsibilities: Ministerial Servants and, above them, Elders. Mark Sewell became a Ministerial Servant of the congregation, and then an Elder in 1989.

Mrs B and her husband started attending the services at the Barry Congregation and made several friends, including Mr Sewell, his wife, and their children. Mrs B developed a special friendship with Mr Sewell and considered him as her best friend.

Towards the end of 1989, Mr Sewell’s behaviour changed. He began abusing alcohol and appeared depressed. He also began flirting with Mrs B, and confiding in her.

On the morning of 30 April 1990, Mr and Mrs B and Mr and Mrs Sewell took part in a religious activity known as “auxiliary pioneering”, which consisted of door-to-door evangelising. Afterwards, they went to a pub for lunch and later returned to the home of Mr and Mrs Sewell. The rape occurred in a back room of the Sewells’ house when Mrs B went to speak to him about his depression.

Mrs B reported the rape to the Elders of the Barry Congregation, although not until 1993, after she heard of an allegation made against him by a minor, “CXC”. Mr Sewell was then removed as an Elder. Mrs B decided not to report the rape to the police. In 2013, however, after hearing of an additional allegation made against him, she went to the police.

A criminal trial took place at which Mrs B gave evidence. Mr Sewell was convicted of raping Mrs B, and of seven counts of indecent assault against CXC and another person. He was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment.

After the rape, Mrs B suffered episodes of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. She commenced an action for personal injury, including psychiatric harm, against the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania (the worldwide governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the trustees of the Barry Congregation. She alleged that they were vicariously liable for the rape, and had been negligent in failing adequately to investigate and conduct a proper inquiry into her allegation of rape, or take appropriate steps having done so.

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society agreed that it would satisfy any judgment against the Barry Congregation.

The Supreme Court said that the relationship between Mr Sewell, as an Elder, and the Jehovah’s Witness organisation, was akin to employment. That was because he was “carrying out work on behalf of, and assigned to him by, the Jehovah’s Witness organisation; that he was performing duties which were in furtherance of, and integral to, the aims and objectives of the . . . organisation; that there was an appointments process to be made an Elder and a process by which a person could be removed as an elder; and that there was a hierarchical structure into which the role of an elder fitted.”

The Supreme Court ruled, however, that the rape was not committed while Mr Sewell was carrying out any activities as an Elder on behalf of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was at his own home, and was not at the time engaged in performing any work connected with his work as an Elder. He was not conducting a Bible class, or evangelising, or giving pastoral care. He was not on Jehovah’s Witness premises, and the incident had nothing to do with any service or worship of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The lack of direct connection with the position assigned to him made this case different from other institutional sexual-abuse cases, the Supreme Court said, in which, as part of their jobs, those in charge of children groomed or abused them.

In contrast to child-abuse cases, at the time of the rape Mr Sewell was not exercising control over Mrs B because of his position as an Elder. It was because of their close friendship, and because she was seeking to provide emotional support, and not because he had control over her. The primary reason for the rape “was not because Mark Sewell was abusing his position as an Elder but because he was abusing his position as a close friend of Mrs B when she was trying to help him”. He was “not wearing his metaphorical uniform as an Elder” at the time the rape was committed.

The Supreme Court did not accept that what happened in Mrs B’s case was equivalent to the gradual grooming of a child for sexual gratification by a person in authority over that child. The rape of Mrs B was “a shocking one-off attack” which “owed more to their close friendship than to his role as an Elder”.

There was no justification, the Supreme Court said, for the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation to bear the cost or risk of the rape committed by Mr Sewell. Although the organisation had “deeper pockets than Mark Sewell . . . that [was] not a justification for extending vicarious liability beyond its principled boundaries.”

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