Woman sues LDS church for reporting husband's confession of committing child sex abuse

An Oregon woman is suing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) for reporting her husband’s confession of committing child sex abuse. 

Kristine Johnson is suing the church for $9.54 million after her husband, Timothy Johnson, 47, confessed to church leaders that he's had multiple sexual interactions with a girl under the age of 16 and was subsequently arrested and convicted of sexual abuse, the Statesman Journal reported. The suit was filed in Marion County Circuit Court. 

Timothy Johnson, a member of the church in Stayton, Ore., was encouraged by his wife to confess and repent his sins in front of clergy and the official church court after she learned he “engaged in inappropriate conduct” with a minor, the lawsuit said, according to the newspaper.

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But he was not told in advance that if he confessed, the clergy would report the incident to authorities.

Bill Brandt, the family’s attorney, told The Hill that the church’s clergy violated the “long-established privilege” between it and church members. He criticized the church for not informing Timothy Johnson that such a confession would be reported and added that confidentiality is key in confessionals, comparing it to the Catholic Church’s practice.

"The priest can’t say, 'Boy, that’s terrible. I’m going to go tell the police,'" he said.

"It would shut down their system," he added, saying the church tends to handle issues internally.

Timothy Johnson was arrested in 2017 on charges of sodomy, sexual abuse and unlawful sexual penetration and pleaded guilty to four counts of second-degree sexual abuse, leading to a 15-year prison sentence.

The attorney said the incident has “devastated the family,” with the lawsuit saying the clergy caused the family to be deprived of his companionship, society, love and income, according to the newspaper.

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Kristine Johnson is requesting $5.5 million for emotional distress and the loss of his income and $1 million for each child. She asked for another $40,000 to pay for her husband's defense attorney, the Statesman Journal reported. 

The lawsuit reportedly quoted the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the works of scripture in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as saying, "Behold he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins-behold, he will confess them and forsake them."

Eric Hawkins, a spokesperson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told The Hill in a statement that protecting victims is a "top priority" for the church.

"The Church teaches that leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities," he said. "In some circumstances, those obligations may be governed by their professional duty and in others by their role as clergy."

Hawkins added that the church has a 24-hour abuse help line.

"We are grateful for the efforts of law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and pursue justice for those who were abused," he said in the statement.

--This report was updated on Jan. 9 at 10:06 a.m.