A newly-created whistleblower organization has released damning internal documents from a sexual abuse investigation conducted by the Jehovah’s Witness Church, a controversial Christian off-shoot with over 8 million members worldwide.
Have you or someone you loved been sexually assaulted by a member of the Jehovah's Witness community? Speak with our experienced lawyers today to learn more about a Jehovah's Witness sexual assault lawsuit.
The leaked documents, published by FaithLeaks, a group founded to increase transparency within religious communities, provide substantial evidence that Church elders worked between 1999 and at least 2012 to conceal sexual abuse allegations against a prominent Massachusetts member.
In just 33 documents, a combined 69 pages, the leak provides a shocking account of alleged child molestation and even more horrific details from the Church’s apparent attempts to hide its internal investigation from the “worldly court of law.”
Around 1999, three female members in Brimfield, Massachusetts came forward to accuse a local Church leader of ongoing sexual abuse. Two of the alleged victims were the man’s daughters. In interviews with elders from Brimfield’s Palmer Congregation, the women said the man had physically, emotionally, and sexually abused them from an early age. One daughter described “4-years of continued rape” beginning when she was just 3 years old. The other daughter says her father repeatedly touched her genitals from the age of 5.
Their interviews were recounted in a 1999 letter from the Brimfield congregation’s elders to the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society – usually referred to as “the Watchtower” – the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ governing body.
In the wake of these accusations, the man was removed from his position as a ministerial servant at the congregation. The accusations of his daughters, however, were not to be aired in a criminal court of law, internal documents show. Several of the records make clear that Church leaders feared the involvement of local or state law enforcement officials. Instead, the man’s alleged actions were to be probed through judicial hearings within the Jehovah’s Witness Church.
That turns out to be difficult. Accusers must personally confront and charge an abuser with misconduct (either in-person or over the phone) to begin the process, but at this early stage, one of the man’s daughters wasn’t “emotionally prepared” to challenge her father, Church leaders write.
Three years later, the woman still wasn’t ready to participate in the Church’s internal “prosecution,” but she had found the courage to inform secular police, a fact that apparently worried elders investigating the allegations internally.
Later in 2003, the daughter was ready. In a conference call that included Church elders, the woman formally accused her father of child abuse, setting the groundwork for a judicial hearing in March of that year. While detailed minutes from the hearing are not available, a schedule for the day includes the recitation of Bible passages, including the procedural guidelines found in Deuteronomy 19:15:
“one witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.”
If the father was found guilty, the schedule makes clear, he was to be “reprove[d] scripturally” and ordered to perform an unspecified form of “repentance.”
The outcome of this hearing isn’t clear, but from later documents, it appears that the father admitted to tying one of his daughters to a bed and inspecting her vagina for signs of masturbation. He was subsequently “disfellowed,” excommunicated from the Church.
Meanwhile, one of the women was able to secure a restraining order against her father, a restraining order that he violated in 2004. Local police arrested the man on Church property after receiving a call from the daughter’s husband.
But again, Church elders appear more concerned about the involvement of secular law enforcement than their own parishioner’s safety. In a memo from that year, leaders “seriously question” the husband’s “arbitrary action of bypassing theocratic organizations because of his personal feelings.”
Soon after, a reinstatement committee was convened to determine whether the alleged abuser should be re-admitted to the congregation. A memo was written at the time, however, shows that the committee chose to disregard the claims of the man’s youngest daughter because she had shown reluctance to formally accuse her father. A third woman’s allegations were discounted, in part, because she had closed her eyes during the assault.
The father was allowed to rejoin the religious community, although a subsequent formal accusation within the Church led to a restriction in his activities. At least as late as August 2012, records show, the man remained a member of the Brimfield congregation.
It’s not easy to find transparency in the Jehovah’s Witness Church, but a slate of recent civil lawsuits have provided journalists with unprecedented access to the organization’s handling of sexual abuse cases.
Court filings obtained by Reveal show that, since 1989, the Watchtower has issued at least 10 internal memos that instruct Church elders to conceal allegations of childhood sexual abuse from both local law enforcement officials and congregation members.
A directive released on November 6, 2014, told local Church leaders to investigate potential criminal activity in secret committees. “Generally, the elders should not delay the judicial committee process,” the Church writes, “but strict confidentiality must be maintained to avoid unnecessary entanglement with secular authorities who may be conducting a criminal investigation of the matter.”
The Church’s extraordinary secrecy has led to significant trouble in court. In 2014, one man – who said he had been molested by a congregation leader, Gonzalo Campos, in San Diego – was awarded $13.5 million, in large part because the Watchtower refused to provide the court with internal documents. During court proceedings, a Church official admitted that the Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain a database of sexual abuse accusations and known pedophiles. But the files were never released and, on appeal, a higher court overturned the $13.5 million judgment.
In a second case, the Church was ordered to hand over its sexual assault database, but only provided heavily-redacted information covering four years of internal investigations. In June 2016, Judge Richard Strauss of the San Diego Superior Court imposed a fine of $4,000 for every day that the Church refused to turn over the documents. As of November 2017, Reveal says, the Jehovah’s Witness Church has racked up a bill in excess of $2 million.