Montreal

Quebec class action alleging sexual abuse in Jehovah's Witnesses can proceed

Quebec Superior Court has authorized a class action lawsuit against two Jehovah's Witnesses entities, alleging a culture of silence within the group led to the covering up of sexual abuse.

Lisa Blais says she was abused by her older brother for years, claims church failed to protect her

The action was approved for current or former Jehovah's Witnesses who allege they were sexually assaulted as minors in Quebec. (Radio-Canada)

Quebec Superior Court has authorized a class-action lawsuit against two Jehovah's Witnesses entities, alleging a culture of silence within the group led to the covering up of sexual abuse.

The action was approved for current or former Jehovah's Witnesses who allege they were sexually assaulted as minors in Quebec by either an elder of the religious group or a fellow member.

Lisa Blais, a former follower of the religion, filed the motion in September 2017, alleging she was sexually assaulted by a member of the group when she was a child.

The Feb. 27 ruling authorizing the lawsuit cites Blais's allegation that Jehovah's Witnesses leaders sought to discourage Blais from reporting her assailant to police because she would have risked tarnishing the image of Jehovah.

"The plaintiff wants to sue the defendants for their failures regarding her protection and the dissuasion from reporting sexual assaults to police authorities, given the culture of silence present in the Jehovah's Witnesses community,'' Justice Chantal Corriveau wrote.

Blais was expelled from the religious group in 1996.

In a written statement, the Jehovah's Witnesses public information desk said the class action was authorized on the basis of unproven allegations.

"We will consider our options for appeal but are certain if this matter proceeds to trial, the facts will clearly show Jehovah's Witnesses report allegations of abuse to the authorities, in line with the Youth Protection Act,'' the statement said. "The well-being of children is of utmost importance to Jehovah's Witnesses.''

The action seeks $150,000 in moral damages and $100,000 in punitive damages for each member of the class. It names the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, the religion's main legal entity, as well as the Canadian branch.

The judge notes in her decision that the purpose of a class action is not to put a religion on trial.

"The class action does not call into question the beliefs conveyed,'' she wrote. "However, it is possible to submit to the courts ways of doing things that may be faulty and cause harm to victims.''

Sarah Woods, a lawyer representing Blais, said she has been contacted by several other Jehovah's Witnesses but does not know how many people will ultimately be part of the class action. She also noted that the defendants have 30 days to appeal Corriveau's decision.

"I already have a lot of people who raised their hands, who want to be witnesses, who want to tell their stories, who know how it works.... The allegations will have to be supported with evidence, with questioning and a trial,'' Woods said, adding that the process will take a few years.