Two sisters are suing the national organization of the Jehovah's Witnesses over a policy they claim shields child molesters. The suit, filed in New Hampshire, also sparks concerns that other religious groups might face similar legal action.

The women have charged three entities—their stepfather, their former Jehovah's Witness congregation in Wilton, New Hampshire, and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (wbts), the group's international headquarters in Brooklyn, New York—with failing to report sexual-abuse incidents to proper authorities. New Hampshire requires that all cases of suspected child abuse be reported to law enforcement.

In a settled criminal case, Heather Berry, now 19, and her stepsister Holly Berry, now 22, accused their father, Paul Berry, of continual sexual and physical abuse during their childhood. The suit says that when the girls' mother, Sarah Poisson, reported the situation to three elders, they told her to "pray more about the situation" and "be a better wife."

Paul Berry was convicted last year of 17 counts of aggravated sexual assault against Holly, between the years she was 4 and 10. Berry received a sentence of 56 to 112 years in prison. Charges related to any abuse against Heather from age 3 to age 6 were dropped.

In the pending civil suit, filed in August, the Berry sisters now seek unspecified financial compensation and changes in wbts operating procedures. The suit, says Poisson, concerns a Jehovah's Witness policy that instructs members to keep suspicions of abuse within the church. In recent years, several former Witnesses have brought criminal suits against elders or members for failing to act on abuse charges.

"This case is about the shared responsibility of the Watchtower organization," says Jeff Anderson, the attorney representing the Berry sisters. "They gave refuge to [Berry] and molesters like him. They are not free to disregard the law."

Anderson has served as legal counsel in 500 suits against religious organizations or clergy in cases of child molestation. In September, he was part of a four-person team of attorneys who won a $3 million out-of-court settlement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a similar case in Oregon.

Some observers, though lauding the intent to catch child molesters, believe that success for the Berry sisters could bring trouble to other religious congregations. "There will be copycat cases all over the country," says Richard Hammer, editor of Church Law and Tax Report. Hammer also says a favorable ruling would impair the confidential nature of pastoral counseling sessions. Although nearly 40 states require clergy and other professionals to report suspicions of physical or sexual abuse to local authorities, 33 states excuse church leaders from reporting abuse when they receive information in privileged conversations.

"It sets up a classic conflict," says Colorado Springs attorney Martin Nussbaum. "These laws create a crisis of conscience where the pastor has to decide, 'Who am I going to obey, Caesar or God?'

"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment says there are some things a government can't touch inside a church—like the church-minister relationship," says Nussbaum. "We can't have our courts telling us how to counsel other individuals. The majority rule in these cases is that church autonomy is respected."

Plaintiff Heather Berry of Charlestown, New Hampshire, says she hopes the silence will end.

Related Elsewhere:

In February, Christianity Today reported that many former and current Jehovah Witnesses are questioning a policy they say discourages leaders from reporting abuse.

The Watchtower Society has an official site.

The Watchman Expositor, a publication of a Christian group that researches and evangelizes cults, profiles Jehovah's Witnesses' beliefs and contrasts them to evangelical doctrines about scripture.

Religious also has substantial information and resources on the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

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