SEATTLE – Part of a landmark $4.2 million award in a sexual abuse-related lawsuit against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been overturned on appeal.
A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Tuesday that the church still owed slightly more than $1.2 million to two sisters who said a Mormon bishop, Bruce Randall Hatch, had kept one of them from reporting sexual abuse by their stepfather, Peter N. Taylor, a Mormon high priest in suburban Federal Way.
However, the panel also ruled that the church was not financially responsible for Taylor’s liability and returned the case to King County Superior Court for a decision on liability beyond the $1.2 million.
Thomas D. Frey, a lawyer for the church, said church leaders were pleased with the legal clarification.
The sisters agreed to let their names be used in news reports in the hopes it would help other abused children after they brought the case in 2002.
In late 2005, a jury in Seattle awarded $4.2 million to Jessica and Ashley Cavalieri, now 26 and 21, for abuse that occurred in the 1990s. Timothy D. Kosnoff, a lawyer for the sisters, said at the time it was the first jury verdict in a sexual abuse lawsuit against a church in Washington.
Of the total, $1.7 million was assessed against Taylor, slightly more than $1.1 million against the church for outrageous infliction of emotional distress because Hatch prevented the older daughter from reporting abuse, and $1.4 million against the church for negligence because Hatch did not report the abuse to civil authorities.
The appeals ruling held that the church could not be held liable for the entire amount assessed against Taylor and overturned the negligence award altogether.
Taylor pleaded guilty to first-degree child molestation in 2001 and was sentenced to more than four years in prison.
The bishop “intentionally, willfully and deliberately” silenced the older sister by telling her that reporting the abuse to civil authorities would destroy her family, but the Mormon church cannot be held financially responsible for the stepfather’s crimes, the appeals panel ruled.
The ruling also agreed with the trial judge, Richard F. McDermott, who rejected the sisters’ claim that the bishop was similar to a social worker and thus was required to report sexual abuse to law enforcement or child protection authorities.
Kosnoff said he might appeal that part of the ruling and might ask the state Supreme Court to reinstate the lower court’s finding that the church could be held liable for the stepfather’s actions.
“You cannot have this group of people evade the responsibility of reporting to the police or (Child Protective Services) simply because they are not getting paid,” Kosnoff said. “It’s a dangerous situation for children in a religious environment where they are trained to take all their problems to the bishop.”
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