As well as being known for showing up at people’s front doors uninvited to spread their version of the word of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses are renowned for being one of the world’s most insular religions. Decades of controversy have followed Jehovah’s Witnesses, but new allegations cannot be swept under the carpet any longer.
A substantial examination of thousands of documents has revealed systematic abuse of children at the hands of Jehovah Witness clergy members. The years of abuse and the terrible suffering of hundreds of minors has now surfaced, but no one thought a church would use the sacred First Amendment as an excuse for their behavior.
The numerous allegations against the church clergy are heavy and take some unwrapping to understand. But even if one does understand them, one cannot fathom how child abuse could have been allowed to continue for so long, and then whitewashed as if it never even happened. We start by trying to unravel the confidential committees, set up to handle child abuse allegations internally.
According to the religion’s parent organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, directives were issued on at least 10 disturbing memos dating back to 1989. Even though those memos were anonymously written, they were approved by the organization’s governing body. A more recent memo compelled members to form “confidential committees to handle potential criminal matters internally,” according to Reveal News.
That anonymous memo speaks for itself, as elders are asked to form committees to keep the allegations away from law enforcement. “In some cases, the elders will form a judicial committee to handle the alleged wrongdoing that may also constitute a violation of criminal law (e.g., murder, rape, child abuse, fraud, theft, assault),” one directive stipulates. “Generally, the elders should not delay the judicial committee process, but strict confidentiality must be maintained to avoid unnecessary entanglement with secular authorities who may be conducting a criminal investigation of the matter.”
Despite the fact that the Watchtower has the final say over who is guilty of child abuse and who is not, an internal memo noted that: “Not every individual who has sexually abused a child in the past is considered a ‘predator.’ The (Watchtower), not the local body of elders, determines whether an individual who has sexually abused children in the past will be considered a ‘predator.’”
With more than eight million members globally, Jehovah’s Witnesses preaches that Armageddon will come soon and when it does, the world will be released from Satan’s grip. In the U.S. alone, Jehovah’s Witnesses operate more than 14,000 churches and have a following of roughly a million faithful members. But the sex abuse allegations are proving difficult to hide, mainly due to overwhelming evidence.
Having successfully used and abused the First Amendment to avoid military service or even to salute the American flag, Jehovah’s Witnesses collected child sexual abuse data and kept it a secret for years. They have used their First Amendment rights to keep the sensitive and damning information away from law enforcement, but it was only a matter of time before it came out.
Jose Lopez was molested by Jehovah Witnesses clergy when he was just seven years old. His predator was an elder who operated within the San Diego congregation where Lopez was a member. It took him decades to get justice for what happened to him, and he was finally awarded a massive $13.5 million by the judge who heard his case. But this case revealed some more damning information about the church.
It’s not as if the elders of the church had no idea what was going on. To the contrary, systemic abuse of children was happening right under their noses, and they knew it. The Lopez case was a landmark one as it forced the church into a rare submission they would rather not have made. It was discovered that the organization has thousands of internal documents, scanned into computers, which speak of the horrific abuse of children.
At the trial, a senior official from the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters, Richard Ashe, told Lopez’s attorney, Irwin Zalkin, some interesting but incriminating information. He explained that the thousands of documents were electronically scanned into their computers on a Microsoft SharePoint database. But, according to Ashe, it was virtually impossible to extract them from the system.
“Honestly, Mr. Zalkin, the efforts that we’ve made up to this point [are] just trying to figure out how on earth we could ever do that in our filing system,” Ashe said. “You’re talking about 14,000 congregations and over 3 million documents that have been scanned, and that would have to be searched. … It would take years to do that.” But Zalkin consulted a software expert who even testified that this was a lie and that the documents could be found using a simple search button.
The story gets even worse as known child abusers were even promoted to higher positions within the church despite their heinous crimes. One such predator, Gonzalo Campos, who assaulted many children, was promoted to ministerial servant and then became an elder a few years later. When people complained directly to the elders about Campos, they were told that too much time had passed since the abuse and that nothing could be done.
When Zalkin asked Ashe directly in court whether Watchtower instructed elders to keep child abuse allegations private he answered in the affirmative. And when Watchtower was asked to comment on the case, they said, “We continue to educate parents and provide them with valuable tools to help them educate and protect their children.”
Zalkin, who has been filing lawsuits against Jehovah’s Witnesses across the U.S. for years, explained that the pattern is clear as day. “Keep your mouth shut. Don’t go to law enforcement,” he said. “‘You come to us first. Don’t tell anybody. … You don’t warn parents in the congregation. We’ll decide what happens here.’ That’s their policy.” But Lopez’s case was anything but isolated.
Another case included two sisters who claimed they were both sexually molested by members of their congregation when they were just four years old. They said that when they reported the abuse to the church elders, they were accused of being liars. It was hard for them to prove their serious allegations so many years later and that’s why only a fraction of the abuse cases can be taken to court.
In another case out of Oregon, two former Jehovah’s Witnesses said they sued Watchtower as well as their local church. Their claim was similar, alleging that elders had kept quiet about the abuse these girls had suffered at the church. But they join a long list of cases brought against Watchtower since 2012 in Connecticut, Florida, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and other states.
Despite claims of offering spiritual guidance, Watchtower seems more interested in covering their backs and those of sexual predators. An internal memo more or less proves that point. “Often the peace, unity, and spiritual well-being of the congregation are at stake,” a Watchtower memo reads. “Improper use of the tongue by an elder can result in serious legal problems for the individual, the congregation, and even the Society.”
The same memo becomes even more sickening as it goes along, with the church condemning what they call “worldly persons.” “Worldly persons are quick to resort to lawsuits if they feel their ‘rights’ have been violated,” states the document. “Substantial monetary damages could be assessed against the elders or congregation. In some cases where the authorities are involved, certain complications could lead to a fine or imprisonment.” And that just about says it all about Watchtower’s take on the whole matter.
The cover-up methods are fairly transparent and reek of internal meddling. One memo lists 11 questions that need to be answered in each abuse case. They include the name of the abuser and victim as well as how many times the alleged abuse occurred. But this is all against the backdrop of trying to gauge the perpetrator’s risk of exposure. “How is he viewed in the community and by the authorities? Has he lived down any notoriety in the community? Are members of the congregation aware of what took place?” It reads.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Joan Lewis wasn’t having any of it and didn’t like the way the church thought it could hide behind the First Amendment. During the Lopez trial when Watchtower refused to provide lists of perpetrators, Judge Lewis disqualified their defense in totality. “Watchtower’s actions or omissions were ‘reprehensible.’ I think ‘disgraceful’ may be synonymous with ‘reprehensible,’ but I think ‘disgraceful’ doesn’t say enough about it,” Lewis wrote in her decision.
Sending a Message
Lewis added that: “The award of punitive damages against them will hopefully send a message to Watchtower and its managing agents, the governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that their handling of sex abuse cases within their congregation was reckless.” It now remains to be seen how many more victims will come forward to expose these disgraceful acts and what kind of defense the Jehovah’s Witnesses will bring now that their methods have been exposed.