Jehovah's Witness leaders win Supreme Court appeal after woman raped by elder 30 years ago

In 2014, Mark Sewell, who was an elder of the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was given a 14-year prison sentence for rape and indecent assault. Credit: PA

A court has ruled that the Jehovah's Witness organisation will not have to pay a woman damages after she was raped by a congregation elder more than 30 years ago.

The woman was raped by a fellow Jehovah's Witness after going door-to-door evangelising near Cardiff. The attacker was an elder of the Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In 2017, the woman sued for damages and claimed that the Jehovah’s Witness organisation was “responsible in law” for the rape.

A High Court Judge had ruled that the rape victim should get £62,000 in damages and Court of Appeal judges also ruled in her favour.

However the Jehovah's Witness group has now won a Supreme Court appeal against those rulings.

On April 26 2023, Supreme Court justices ruled against the woman and concluded that the “Jehovah’s Witness organisation” was not “vicariously liable”.

In their ruling, the justices said all five of them had unanimously allowed the appeal by the trustees of Barry Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The woman is not being identified and is only referred to as “Mrs B” in the ruling.

However the man who raped her has been named as Mark Sewell.

He raped her at his home after they had been out “evangelising together”, justices said.

At the High Court trial, 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 in 2014, Sewell was investigated by police. He was given a 14-year prison sentence after being convicted of rape and indecent assault.

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 claim.

The five Supreme Court justices – Lord Reed, Lord Hodge, Lord Briggs, Lord Burrows and Lord Stephens – said judges had made “errors” when reaching earlier decisions.

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.”

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