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Lawsuit accuses Helena-area church of shielding alleged sexual abuser

Crime Watch
Posted at 4:17 PM, Dec 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-08 20:25:15-05

HELENA — A woman is seeking damages from a Helena-area church and resident regarding alleged sexual abuse on a mission trip in 1995.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday by John Heenan and Mike McLean on behalf of their client in Montana District Court, Lewis and Clark County. Is accuses Jerrad Zitnik, 44, from Helena, of sexually abusing a girl under the age of 14 on the trip. Mount Helena Community Church, Inc. (MHCC) is also accused of negligence for its role and failure to protect the girl.

In October of this year, Zitnik was arrested on unrelated charges of child sex abuse after allegedly trying to meet up with a 13-year-old girl for sex. He is accused of sending explicit messages to an account of a fictitious teen that was operated by law enforcement. Missoula County Justice of the Peace Judge Alex Beal imposed a bond of $25,000. Zitnik was ordered to have no contact with minors and to stay off dating sites. He has since posted bond and been released.

Heenan says the news coverage of Zitnik is what led his client to reach out.

“It was reading about reading about the guy that had assaulted her in the newspaper perpetrating crimes against other children and just dredging up all these old bad memories,” explained Heenan.

In 1995, the plaintiff of the case went on a mission trip to the Philipines with MHCC, then known as Grace Gospel Church of Helena. Zitnik was one of the adult supervisors attending the trip and was designated by MHCC as a “worship leader” according to court documents. He was around the age of 19 at the time.

Zitnik is accused of crawling into the girl’s bed one night during the trip and sexually assaulting her.

After the incident, the plaintiff says she called her parents who reported the alleged sexual abuse to MHCC’s leadership/officials.

The lawsuit alleges MHCC’s leadership/officials responded to the sexual abuse by “sequestering the plaintiff in a room by themselves.” Then at the end of the day, MHCC’s leadership/officials brought the child out of the room and forced her to confront Zitnik. Court documents further allege MHCC’s leadership/officials told the plaintiff that they had “prayed” about what to do, and that they thought they should forgive Zitnik in front of all those attending the mission trip. MHCC’s leadership/officials also allegedly encouraged the plaintiff to not discuss the sexual abuse again.

Documents claim Zitnik continued to work for the church even after the allegations.

Montana’s statute of limitations for sexual assault is 10 years or 10 years after the victim reaches 18 years of age. Heenan, who has prosecuted sexual assault crimes in the past, says it’s not uncommon for victims of sexual abuse to not come forward until decades after the trauma. He added more than anything his client wants individuals held accountable for their actions.

“I think first and foremost the concern always with people like this and conduct like this is how far does it go?” noted Heenan. “How many other women are out there thinking they were the only ones that were abused and have been suffering in silence as well?”

The lawsuit also claims MHCC did not properly report the alleged sexual abuse to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Editor's Note: MTN has reached out to MHCC for comment about the allegations and will update this story with their response.