Shocked Priest in Confession
Members of the clergy are considered mandatory reporters in the state of Oregon.

Do clergy members have an obligation to report heinous crimes to police, or does the holy confidence of the confession booth trump all? That is the question at the heart of a strange lawsuit in Oregon.

The wife of an Oregon man is suing the Mormon Church for reporting her now-imprisoned husband’s criminal confession to police. The man was convicted of sexually abusing the couple’s own daughter for four years, and is now serving 15 years. 

His wife has apparently decided real justice means filing a $9.5 million lawsuit against the Mormon clergy who reported her husband to authorities.

The lawsuit claims the husband, Timothy Samuel Johnson, confessed to the molestation to a local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints panel back in 2016 after being encouraged by the church to “repent for his sins”, seek spiritual healing and “bring peace within his life and family.” 

One member of the panel who heard the confession took it straight to the police.

Johnson was arrested and charged a year later, and finally convicted of four counts of second-degree sexual abuse in 2018.

And now Johnson’s wife, Kristine, is suing the Mormon Church. She listed herself and four of her children as plaintiffs, all of whom have been deprived of her husband’s “companionship, society, love, affection” and financial support. She is seeking $5.5 million in damages for herself and $1 million each for the children.

The couple’s fifth child, the one abused as a young teenager, was not listed - for obvious reasons.

What Happens in Confession, Stays in Confession… Right?

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the Utah-based Mormon Church, defended the decision to report. “The Church teaches that leaders and members should fulfill all legal obligations to report abuse to civil authorities. In some circumstances, those obligations may be governed by their professional duty and in others by their role as clergy. We are grateful for the efforts of law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and pursue justice for those who were abused.”

In Oregon, clergy are considered mandatory reporters, and are required by law to report suspected child abuse to authority.

While the law requires a list of “private or public” officials to report suspected child abuse to the Oregon Department of Human Services or local police, that list - which includes doctors, firefighters, teachers, social workers, and clergy  - does include certain exceptions for child abuse uncovered through “privileged” communication. The fact that the clergyman who reported the abuse, Brian Saari, works as a pharmacist for his day job, only compounds matters. Pharmacists in Oregon are also considered mandatory reporters.

Broken Promise or Moral Obligation

And yet Bill Brandt, the Salem attorney representing the family, isn't concerned with mandatory reporting laws at all, but rather faults the church for breaching confidentiality after assuring the family that confession would remain private.

He’s painting the reporting as a betrayal of his client’s trust and confidentiality. Brandt insists church leaders should have warned the husband they would report him to police. “That was a promise,” Brandt argues, that “totally violated church policy.”

“It’s been devastating on the family,” he argues. “They lost a husband and a father.”

Righteous Indignation

The lawsuit had drawn outrage from non-profit organizations that support child abuse victims who worry failing to report pedophiles will only victimize more children.

“It’s not just a parent’s job to protect their kids from predators, it’s the job of every single adult,” explains David Clohessy, former national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “So adults who do put the safety of kids first should be applauded not penalized.”

Of course, the irony of a church being sued for reporting child abuse is impossible to ignore. Advocates fear that if this case moves forward and is sided in Johnson’s favor, clergy may be more hesitant to report child abuse that is confessed to them, for fear of being hit with a multi-million dollar lawsuit. Law professor Christine Bartholomew said that “this litigation would push courts and these religious organizations towards less transparency than more”, leading to an environment where abuse can run rampant. 

If it moves forward, the case could define how church leaders react to confession in the future. Is confession truly sacred, no matter how heinous the crime? After all, clergy members hear disturbing confessions all the time- isn’t that kind of the point? And yet, advocates make a great point. If this case is successful, church leaders will undoubtedly be wary of reporting the most heinous confessions to police.

Where, exactly, is the line between minister/clergy confidentiality and civic obligation to report criminal activity?

46 comments

  1. Yvonne's Avatar Yvonne

    In the case of a father molesting his daughter, I feel that the mother should be grateful that this has been brought to justice and thankful it’s not still continuing. In all walks of life we have a duty of care to one another and if child is being harmed this has to be brought to task, regardless of any ministerial denomination. We have a duty to protect our young, not allowing abuse to continue.

  1. Lionheart's Avatar Lionheart

    One of the Articles Of Faith of the LDS Church is:

    “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

    No one is above the law, even in the LDS Church. This will be one if the reasons why the individual was reported to law enforcement. Every member is made aware of the Articles Of Faith when they join the Church. This will be made aware to the woman suing the church, in a court of law.

    1. Ruthie J McCranie's Avatar Ruthie J McCranie

      IT SHOULD BE LAW THAT NO MATTER WHO THE ONE IS THAT HARMS A CHILD THEY SHOULD BE IMMEDIATELY PUT TO DEATH BY THE WORST MEANS POSSIBLE....

      1. Reverend Will's Avatar Reverend Will

        Glad you don't speak for anyone but you. Or we would have a large number of murders on our hands because children hurt children every day many seriously. Under your rules NO ONE, NO MATTER WHAT, you are condemning millions of kids to death for hurting kids. And who decides what harm is? Parents that use spanking? Kids who get into a fist fight? Use your head instead of your anger and mouth before you make a strict blanket statement like that.

        1. Lionheart's Avatar Lionheart

          As a secular humanist I totally agree with you Sir Will. The desire to kill someone by the worst means possible, irrespective of the crime, is as equally inhumane as the offenders crime.

          🦁❤️

        2. rev.heidianne's Avatar rev.heidianne

          In my opinion the mother has her values screwed up! She should be focusing on helping her child heal with counselling instead. She should be thankful, that he isn't there to cause any more damage. The molester wasn't a father, a father doesn't terrorize his kids, but protect them. I feel so sorry for the one who was molested. She doesn't have a mother, who instead of protecting her, sees only dollar signs, and her molester aka sperm donor!

  1. John Craig Matthews's Avatar John Craig Matthews

    Confession in an open forum, like the Mormon Council, is not the same as the Catholic confessional. A Catholic priest cannot violate the sanctity of the confessional, EVER. Do other denominations have rules regarding the sanctity of confessions divulged in private sessions? I do not know and other responders might weigh in on this matter. IMHO, this woman will not win her lawsuit. The thing more shocking is that she would want her husband back. She needs professional help.

    1. Master Wolf KSC's Avatar Master Wolf KSC

      Agreed, though I didn’t know that about the Catholic confessional. If atonement is part of your religious organization, then it goes without saying that the clergyperson has a responsibility to support the sinner confessing capital crimes of violence against themselves or others to the appropriate authorities.

      1. Pastor Susie Timlick's Avatar Pastor Susie Timlick

        Yes my brother. I give praise to the LDS member of that panel to put that child first, and went to the appropriate authorities to relieve her of the abuse in the molestation she had been suffering. I cancel families in situations like this and I would say seven times out of 10 the mother is aware of something going on. So that child should probably be with the grandparent or another responsible family member. And as far as the Catholic confessional goes they were very very good at hiding molestation and abuse of children for over something like 75 years now possibly longer don't hold me to that number. Settle God bless that LDS person. And may God take that child into his tender care and find her a place where she can recover from the abuse she has suffered. And again thank you my brother. Pastor Susie

  1. Tom's Avatar Tom

    Respectfully...there should be no confidentiality...it appears to me that there is no good reason to make criminal acts (and especially something that will ruin the lives of children) private, when the only reason is for the felon to unburden him or herself...as a society we should protect and honor our children at all levels; not encourage felons to unburden themselves, while ignoring the past and future harm they do...and it is difficult to believe the mother knew nothing...Peace...Tom B

    1. June Tanner's Avatar June Tanner

      I wholeheartly agree!

      1. Wen's Avatar Wen

        Count me on this team! Our primary goal should be to protect vulnerable children at all cost. For my entire working career I was a mandatory reporter. That carries responsibility beyond the average citizen. This pharmacist did the right thing. And the mother? I have one word: wow

    2. Ruthie J McCranie's Avatar Ruthie J McCranie

      This shouldn't even be a debate AT ALL.... WTH

  1. Minister Mike's Avatar Minister Mike

    Are there any state or federal laws that require preachers to hold confessions in confidence? How about lay leaders? Or congregants?

    There ARE laws that that forbid judicial inquiry - cops/courts cannot force a preacher to divulge confessions of sins and/or what goes on in counseling session. In this case, though, the church member, was a member of a pane,l and may or may not have been a preacher, volunteered the information.

    I don't see any grounds for the suit, but I do see a lot of repercussions if the woman wins. Think about all the criminals whose families will be able to sue anyone who reports their family member's crimes.

    Finally, a report from the monastery that has some social significance and not stuck in the blog just stir the pot.

    1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

      I bet that woman wi be laughed out of court. And I don't see anything sa red about confessions. It's just a way to get things off our chests, like taking a fifth step in A.A.. And you better be careful about who you take u our fifth step with, too, or you might hear it all over the place. Some things are best not being said at all, like if it would hurt yourself or others. However, I encourage child molesters to tell everyone about it, so they'll get the punishment they deserve.

    2. Ruthie J McCranie's Avatar Ruthie J McCranie

      All I'm saying if such a monster's confesses to me I won't be a minister any longer and would know I done right by my god because we are to protect the weak protect the children

      1. Reverend Will's Avatar Reverend Will

        All you have to do is say anything spoken to you is NOT privileged under Confession and can be used by police. Before every conversation from now on and you're covered.

  1. Amy Minckler's Avatar Amy Minckler

    Being forgiven does not mean you don't have to pay for your crimes. I may not be a christian but I do know my bible lol.

    Romans 13:1-2 says: "Obey the government, for God is the One who has put it there. There is no government anywhere that God has not placed in power. So those who refuse to obey the law of the land are refusing to obey God, and punishment will follow."

    1. John D. Partin's Avatar John D. Partin

      Amy Minckler, God didn't put Hitler in power or Joseph Stalin or Lenin or the other masters of the Soviet Union in power or the Caesars in ancient Rome in power or Saddam Hussein in power or Ivan the Terrible in Russia in power or any of the other tyrants and monsters over whole countries in history in power! All of them happened because they and other people refused to listen to or obey God and didn't give a damn about what He said or wanted, but did whatever in the Hell they wanted to do, the same as most of the rest of us!! God permitted them to exist for a while, the same as He permits Satan to exist, but He didn't put them in power because they wanted and practiced the opposite of what He wants for the world! We aren't required to obey unloving and ungodly authorities, such as all of these, but are required to speak out and act in defiance against them! That is one place, among many, where Paul got it wrong.

      1. Ruthie J McCranie's Avatar Ruthie J McCranie

        How do you know what gods plan was then or now for that matter

        1. John D. Partin's Avatar John D. Partin

          It's called God is Love!! That's how I and anyone else can know what is God's plan. If it isn't love, it isn't from God or what God wants, even if He permits it for His own purposes. That's why homophobia among so-called "Christians" isn't really what God wants or from God, but only from these phony "Christians" and Bible writers putting their words into God's mouth and making Him say whatever they want Him to say, like a big ventriloquist's dummy sitting on their laps!! "God is love" is one of the few statements about God even in the Bible that got it right, since that is self-evident! If God isn't love, He is no different than what we already have anyway without Him. So, what would we need Him for then? That is why the Black Muslims are wrong, too, since they believe in a "God" who is just the big Black Muslim up in the sky and tells them that "it is good and natural for black and white people to hate each other and separate from each other" because they have created a "God" to suit themselves and tell them what they want to hear and believe, but only a "god" of hate would have put people into the world for them to hate each other and separate from each other!! That isn't the true God of love!!

  1. Yvonne's Avatar Yvonne

    In the realm of ethics you assure the client that everything between you is confidential EXCEPT if you feel they may cause harm to the self or another or they are criminally active. However before you call it out you would discuss your concerns with the client.

  1. Tom's Avatar Tom

    This family is so concerned about how devastating it is for the father to be sent to jail and that the Church betrayed his trust.... what about their daughter who was sexually abused? She was likely devastated that her own father would sexually abuse her, not to mention the betrayal of trust she had with her father. Now they want to sue the Church for reporting the criminal acts of the father? Sounds like a family that needs to rethink their priorities. I hope their daughter has a better support group than her mother.

    1. Ruthie J McCranie's Avatar Ruthie J McCranie

      It's covered or ignored by the mother in these types of stories speaking from personal experience.... Generally FIRST on dear old mom's list is shame.... She doesn't want her family... Friends... church and so forth to know what a scum bag she hooked up with... SECOND believe it or not... She don't wanna believe encouraged by gifts lies & promises from the monster... & THIRD and not final INCOME my mom didn't wanna support 3 kids with no husband she handed me over to the monster at 4 and he owned me for 13 yrs and she knew it and allowed it

  1. Angel's Avatar Angel

    You do realize that the priest in the picture isn't Mormon, right?

  1. Casey Dave Darrah's Avatar Casey Dave Darrah

    I'm a mandated reporter as is, and as far as I'm concerned, reporting it is the only option. Not reporting it brings harm to others, which is the line. It's the same as if a patient told me they were molesting their child- doctor/patient confidentiality is strong, but not that strong.

  1. Jim's Avatar Jim

    I have to say that while I believe that what is said in a confessional should be between the priest and the confessor to have it cover up crimes against others should be allowed. This lady should be put in jail for aiding a felon. It sounds to me like maybe mommy knew this was going on and told the husband to go to church to confess as it appears this was a family issue in front of the church. IF SO then she is as guilty as he is. Nothing should be awarded to the woman or her family. If she wins the lawsuit it would set a precedence that people will try and exploit.

    1. Jim's Avatar Jim

      I meant to say should not be allowed. The confessional should not allow abuse or harm to another or future crimes to continue.

    2. Minister Mike's Avatar Minister Mike

      Seems to me this was not a private confession, but a public one that anyone who heard it should have immediately called police.

      I don't know about the mormons in particular, but I do know that one of the cornerstones of more than one christian denomination (lutheran and baptist comes to mind) is public confession of sins, not private.

  1. Rod Gesner's Avatar Rod Gesner

    While I understand the justifications of "Sanctity of Confessional" it has become obvious that it is a Corrupting influence as The "Father confessor" my Also be an abuser; which puts any child vulnerable to his influence and control; Likewise the Priests that Priests confess to Then Protect the Predator..in Catholic confessional part of the absolution/Benediction is:"go forth and Sin no more"If it is Obvious that that is not the intent of the Person confessing then its should absolve the priest of any Privacy concern and He/She should Act to Prevent further harm.. The Latest Pope has decreed that Mafioso/Costra Nostra Be Denied Further absolution and confession; if They Refuse to stop Killing and Exploiting others; not sure how that has really changed things as they can afford their own Churches and Priests.. But if it's Just for them?? Then should it not be Just ALL who continue to Sin and use the confessional as a revolving door to forgiveness?? As for this Case Mormons have just as long a Way to Clear their Reputation as the Trading of children as child brides has long been a Known Reality to different Sects.. however in this Case it was Not a Confessional Booth; and the law in Oregon is Clear.. Plus the man who gave testimony as to the fathers crimes was Twice as Legal responsible to Report;and whatever his religious Feeling; HAD to Report to Protect the children as Well as His Career... and Ya if the Child or siblings has any knowledge of the mother being complicit, even if She was in Denial, She should be Charged; and the children Kept together treated as Victims by Non Mormon Social services..

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    One of my favorite shows was To Catch A Predator, with Chris Hanson, on MSNBC. All of those perverts need to be exposed! I wouldn't last a day hearing confessions, without getting fired, for reporting all of those sickos to the proper authorities.

  1. Carl Bernard Elfstrom's Avatar Carl Bernard Elfstrom

    Mr. Gesner, like many others, has confused the Cosa Nostra with the mafia. The Cosa Nostra is a very nice family organization, and has absolutely nothing to do with the mafia. My grandmother, Mrs. Rose Maniscalco Pistone told me and other relatives that, when we were at her house watching the first airing of The Godfather on T.V.. And none of our relatives have ever been members of iether one of those organizations, but when I know something contrary to something that has been said that has falsely accused such a wonderful group of people of being affiliated with something bad, I feel it's my right and my duty to confront and defend that organization.

  1. Scott Steven Otterson's Avatar Scott Steven Otterson

    So if she wins; If I was a serial killer or molester with the police close on my trail, wouldn't I want to confess to every minister in town in the hopes that the one would go to the police. Then my close family could sue the minister and be set for life. However I would only confess to ones with "Deep Pockets". There should be frivolous law suit damages awarded to the minister to cover the cost of defending this in court.

  1. Amber Fry's Avatar Amber Fry

    Different religions have different rules and regulations to that. Most mainstream religions might have a policy to not report such things in order to keep people involved but they do have an obligation to talk to the confessor to try to persuade them into counselling or to turn themselves in. The safety of all is at stake and if any head of any church doesn't learn to adjust with the knowledge of the times, as well as the ways available to help others, it will fizzle out. That just might include insisting someone making a confession also do something to fix their mistakes and seek one of those ways to deal with whatever drives them to such things. Contrition seems to have been forgotten. Part of that means doing what one can do to fix it.

  1. William Anthony Huffman's Avatar William Anthony Huffman

    Quite simply - If you confess to a "victimless crime", and confess it you can move forward. If you have or are injuring another you should;ld not receive protection.

  1. Cleveland Washington Christie's Avatar Cleveland Washington Christie

    A heinous crime was committed, confessed, and finally the fellow commuted to the pokey. His wife is just looking for a payday because some lawyer wishes one too and saw an easy foot in the door , and probably hoping for a settlement as this will never get to trial. The poor kid is probably feeling worse for her mother's wear.

  1. dragonlord3759's Avatar dragonlord3759

    Has anyone thought that the girl may have thought she loved her father and he loved her as if she was his own wife more than his real wife? Maybe by separating the two of them it may have caused her even more trauma, and that she didn't believe she was being abused. In this whole thing all of you are condemning him, and maybe he truly loved her and only confessed because his wife and the church made him feel evil for his love. Incest has been practiced for ever look back into history and even the bible itself. Where did mankind get started if not from incest Adam and Eve had to start it out they had children who had children and so on. Maybe it was true love between them. IT says she was a teen when it started not like he started molesting her when she was 5 or something, before she could have made a decision for herself. I'm not saying that child molestation is right. I'm just saying that we are here judging a man and his wife and her lawsuit without knowing even half the facts. Wether the man I won't even call him a priest, because I feel that isn't a title for a part time pastor, and someone who should even be hearing confessions, should have went to the police with the information he had taken from the man. I say again we don't know what he said to him, how did he explain it,was it like I said before a love affair, and the gentleman jumped on his high horse and decided it was terrible at any reason. Did he just come out and say you have to forgive me I love to go around molesting my daughter. Ee don't know and the one thing you all do have right is it will set a presidence for good or bad. Thank you for reading this I hope someone does and gets something out of it your friend

    1. Pastor Susie Timlick's Avatar Pastor Susie Timlick

      Your response disturbs me. The man boy club who believes it sexual interactions with a child is perfectly natural and acceptable because somewhere in history it was done. That a father has the right to molest his daughter because she is his chattel. And that includes mothers who abuse abuse their children but not reporting what's going on or participating me abuse himself. And I'll leave you with this thought last year I officiated at the funeral of an 18 month old who died from being raped by her father. Give a comment to that.

    2. Rev. Dennis's Avatar Rev. Dennis

      Laws in many countries explicitly outlaw incestuous relations for a specific reason. In addition many countries outlaw sex before a specific age (18 in the U.S.). One sex act by an adult on someone under the age of 18 carries several violations of the law even if you are not related. I am disturbed by your Adam and Eve justification for an act of evil. God did create Adam and Eve but there is no biblical record of anything born from them but 3 sons.

  1. Toya Moore's Avatar Toya Moore

    I believe some people mistake confession of sins with dismissing horrible acts of towards their fellow man. We are here to do Gods will; assist in helping, healing, and protecting. A child needed help; and they received it. How can you sue because you thought confessing would help you sleep better at night; or perhaps you thought that perhaps by confessing made the sin no longer be a reality? Either way the only crime committed was against the child. I pray that she heals; and understands that she did no wrong.

  1. James M Slack's Avatar James M Slack

    James Slack To All This Concerns In thinking this over I yo believe that this so called mother is not the mother I would have wanted, to call mother. This child needs a mother to console her and be there for her. Or did the mother know about this all the time and permitted it. I believe that all demonations should report all crimes to law enforcement and maybe help put a stop to this. Out children pay enough of a price in some of our so called families. I can’t believe in a court if law this women will win any kind of a settlement. I also wonder what else goes on in this family that thinks this way. Let’s keep our children and adults safe from these crimes

  1. James M Slack's Avatar James M Slack

    James Slack I forgot to add the true confession is to God. Churches should not be held accountable

  1. Tom's Avatar Tom

    Respectfully..."religions" should not be allowed to protect criminals; much less let them "get things off their chests"...Peace...Tom B

  1. Richard Lee Cornell's Avatar Richard Lee Cornell

    Civil law rules first. Your only a church if the IRS gives you a number and that prize 501 (c) (3) otherwise your just a bunch of people having lunch in a building. You as a pastor has the duty if a person tells you he has done a crime that warrents attention by the police, before he does it again to tell the police. If I was a mass killer and I told you of my crimes how long before I decided that I should have kept quiet and kill the only person who knows my deeds. In Viet Nam there was a problem with a guy who like young girls and sometime very young girls. When his Lt. found out about it that guy found himself at point on a patrol. He is now found on the Wall in Washington, DC. If I was a pastor inthat war I would have approved of him being at point.

  1. Colleen Chapple's Avatar Colleen Chapple

    I'm assuming from the article, the man confessed while still in the thralls of abusing his daughter, which, if true, is also an important element in deciding the case. Either way, no matter how a situation is dealt with, there are only a few solutions (if people truly want solutions) to choose from. 1) for the church to oversee the "correction" of the sins of this daughter-molester or 2) To allow the legal system to "correct" the actions of the daughter-molester. If the church is responsible for this "correction" then are they all certified in counseling the entire family - as a whole unit? To actively and without bias dedicate all the time necessary toward their mental well-being to help them all emotionally heal from the abuse? And if so, in this case, the church then also assumes responsibility for the outcome. Suppose the daughter commits suicide during the church process of intervention, would the church be sued for taking on a responsibility that should have went to the legal authorities? Probably so! The non-solution for the church would have been to decided that prayer and confession was simply enough to correct the problems and protected the molester, just as the Catholic church had done with their priests. There has to be a precedent sent, obviously, and every church owes transparency to it's parishioners, so they everyone understands the real limits of the clergy and where responsibility for crimes is set. Personally, I believe both the church and legal system have to play an equal part, because the healing process is an internal navigation far more than it is an external one between bars. Colleen

  1. Rev. Dennis's Avatar Rev. Dennis

    After reflecting on this for a short time I have to agree with what was done. As a child of God I believe that the abuse of children, especially sexual in nature by an adult is a crime which is not just morally wrong but mortally wrong. There were other children in the family which may have been in danger as well as ones in the community. If I were the defense of the LDS, I would request an investigation be opened into the wife and her role or knowledge of this sexual abuse. Her knowing or allowing this is also mortally wrong and in addition she acted as an accomplice in the sexual exploitation of a minor. All the children may be in danger of being sexually exploited in the future if left in her care and if she had knowledge of, participated in or allowed this sexual abuse to take place.

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