UK court: Jehovah's Witnesses not liable for rape by elder

FILE - The Supreme Court entrance is photographed in London, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. The U.K. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, April 26, 2023, that the Jehovahs Witnesses organization is not liable for an elder who raped a member of his congregation more than three decades ago. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, File) (Alberto Pezzali, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

LONDON – The U.K. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization isn't liable for an elder who raped a member of his congregation more than three decades ago.

The decision overturned rulings by lower courts that awarded 62,000 pounds ($77,500) for the emotional harm suffered by a Welsh woman who was raped in 1990.

Elder Mark Sewell was sentenced to 14 years in prison for raping the woman in his home after the two had been out proselytizing.

The Supreme Court ruled that the concept of vicarious liability — often used to hold an employer responsible for the reckless actions of an employee — didn’t extend to the Witnesses in the case, because it didn't pass a two-stage test.

While the court said the elder could be considered an employee of the religious organization, the rape at his home wasn't within the scope of his duties for the congregation.

“The primary reason that the rape took place was not because Mark Sewell was abusing his position as an elder, but because he was abusing his position as a close friend of (the victim),” Justice Andrew Burrows wrote.

Four other justices on the Supreme Court agreed unanimously with Burrows in favor of the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society of Pennsylvania, the New York-based charitable arm of the Witnesses religious activities, and the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Attorney Thomas Beale, who represented the victim, said the ruling was “devastating for our client, who has shown great bravery and determination.”

While it was loss for his client, Beale said the ruling could be helpful for others because it clarified that an organization could be held responsible for acts by volunteers, which has been the subject of disagreement in the courts.