No jail for Jehovah's Witness found guilty of abusing daughter

Orangeville, Canada - A Jehovah's Witness who sexually abused his daughter was sentenced yesterday to two years less a day to be served in the community in a case that cast a spotlight on how the sect handles sex-abuse complaints within its ranks.

The victim, Vicki Boer, said the sentencing of her father validates her allegations and should force the Christian movement to face up to its shortcomings in handling her abuse complaint.

"For the first time, somebody believed me," Ms. Boer said of the judge. "It makes [the elders] accountable. They've never had to be accountable," she said in an interview from Fredericton.

In June, Gower Palmer pleaded guilty in Ontario Superior Court in Orangeville to one count of sexual assault. Orangeville is about 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto.

However, the court found he had abused his daughter on at least five separate occasions, prosecutor Eric Taylor said yesterday.

Mr. Taylor said he wanted Mr. Justice Emile Kruzick to impose a prison term in the three-year range.

However, in imposing a lower penalty, Judge Kruzick said Mr. Palmer had already been punished by going through a lengthy civil suit. He will also be put on a sex-offender registry and will have to go through counselling.

While identifying sexual-abuse victims is normally prohibited, Ms. Boer wanted the public to know her name. "This is a battle that I'm fighting for not even just myself but for other kids," she said.

Now a married mother of three pre-teen daughters, Ms. Boer said she hoped her criminal and civil battles would force changes to how Witnesses deal with sexual abuse within their ranks.

As part of their beliefs, Jehovah's Witnesses reject anything political or "worldly" that distracts from their focus on Christ and the Second Coming, which they consider imminent.

Ms. Boer, 34, was sexually assaulted by her father between ages 11 and 14.

Rather than notify authorities, she claimed in an earlier civil suit that elders told her not to seek outside help or report the abuse.

She also said they forced her to confront her father to allow him to repent his sins as outlined in Matthew Chapter 18, Verses15-18, a process she said was abusive and traumatic.

In 1998, Ms. Boer sued the Jehovah's Witnesses through the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society for $700,000, saying the abuse and how it was handled by the sect almost drove her to suicide.

In June of 2003, Madam Justice Anne Molloy ruled the Witnesses could not be held responsible for all her pain and suffering.

Judge Molloy found the church had not warned her against reporting the abuse, and that only one elder had wrongly applied sect policy by persuading her to confront her father.

She did find the organization negligent in allowing untrained elders to hold the meeting and awarded Ms. Boer $5,000 in damages.

"They don't follow the [written] policies," said Ms. Boer, who abandoned the faith in the early 1990s.

Spokesman Mark Ruge disputed allegations that the Christian movement tries to deal with abuse away from the prying eyes of outside authorities.

"We abhor any sexual misconduct or abuse, especially when children are involved," Mr. Ruge said from Georgetown, Ont.

"We abide by the letter of the law as far as legal requirements are in reporting to the appropriate child-welfare services."

After the civil trial, Ms. Boer overcame a reluctance to press charges against her father, saying she wanted him held personally accountable for his actions.