The Jehovah’s Witness organisation has won a Supreme Court appeal after a High Court judge ruled that a rape victim should get damages.
Judges had been told that the woman was raped by a fellow Jehovah’s Witness after going door-to-door evangelising near Cardiff more than 30 years ago.
Her attacker was an elder of the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, judges heard.
She had sued for damages and claimed that the Jehovah’s Witness organisation was “responsible in law” for the rape.
A High Court judge, who made a damages award, and Court of Appeal judges had ruled in her favour.
But Supreme Court justices on Wednesday ruled against her and concluded that the “Jehovah’s Witness organisation” was not “vicariously liable”.
Trustees of the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, part of the Jehovah’s Witness organisation, had asked the Supreme Court to consider the case.
They said, in a summary of their ruling, that they had to decide whether Court of Appeal judges “wrongly” found that the Trustees of the Barry Congregation, part of the Jehovah’s Witness organisation, were “vicariously liable” for a rape committed by one of their elders.
Justices said they had unanimously allowed the appeal by the trustees and concluded that the “Jehovah’s Witness organisation is not vicariously liable for the rape”.
They have not named the woman – who is referred to as “Mrs B” in the ruling – and said she could not be identified in media reports of the case.
But they have named the man who raped her as Mark Sewell.
He had raped her at his home after they had been out “evangelising together”, justices said.
They said Sewell had been convicted of raping Mrs B – and of indecently assaulting two other people.
“In 2017, Mrs B brought a claim for damages against the worldwide governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society of Pennsylvania, and the Trustees of the (Barry) Congregation,” said the justices in the summary of their ruling.
“She claimed that they were responsible in law, or ‘vicariously liable’, for the rape, because of the nature of their relationship with Mr Sewell and because of the connection between that relationship and the commission of the rape.”
A High Court judge had “found them vicariously liable for the rape” and awarded Mrs B £62,000 “general damages”, justices said.
Court of Appeal judges had upheld that decision.
A High Court judge had made a damages award in early 2020, after considering evidence at a High Court trial in London.
Mr Justice Chamberlain heard that a “judicial committee” of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ elders had, in 1991, found the woman’s allegations against Sewell “not proven” at an internal inquiry.
But more than 20 years later Sewell was investigated by police.
Following a trial in 2014 he was convicted of rape and indecent assault and given a 14-year prison sentence.
The woman, who is no longer a Jehovah’s Witness, said she suffered depression as a result of the rape.
She said a “proper” internal inquiry had not been carried out and said leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were “vicariously liable”.
The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, which is based in New York and is the worldwide governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the trustees of the Barry congregation, the congregation of which the woman was a member, did not accept that they were vicariously liable.
But Mr Justice Chamberlain concluded that her psychiatric injuries were attributable to the rape.
Lord Burrows said, in the Supreme Court ruling, that the rape had not been committed while Sewell was “carrying out any activities as an elder on behalf of the Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
He said that in contrast to some child sex abuse cases, Sewell had not been “exercising control” over Mrs B “because of his position as an elder”.
“The rape was not so closely connected with acts that Mark Sewell was authorised to do that it can fairly and properly be regarded as committed by him while acting in the course of his quasi-employment as an elder,” said Lord Burrows.
“There is no convincing justification for the Jehovah’s Witness organisation to bear the cost or risk of the rape committed by Mark Sewell.
“Clearly the Jehovah’s Witness organisation has deeper pockets than Mark Sewell.
“But that is not a justification for extending vicarious liability beyond its principled boundaries.”
The four other justices said they agreed with Lord Burrows.