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Are Jehovah's Witnesses covering up child molestation?

By Joy Lanzendorfer

As Michael Jackson--raised as a Jehovah's Witness--stands trial for child molestation in Southern California, another controversy involving the apocalyptic religion and child sexual abuse is unfolding in Napa Superior Court.

A string of lawsuits accuses Jehovah Witnesses of repeatedly covering up cases of child molestation. The plaintiffs say that not only were they sexually abused by church elders, but that other church officials knew about the abuse and refused to take the necessary steps to report it, instead allowing sexual predators to retain positions of power in the congregation. The alleged abuses span 27 years, from 1970 to 1997.

The Napa case names three plaintiffs, Charissa Welch, 35; Nicole D., 32; and Tabitha H., 30. They are suing the Napa Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses as well as Jehovah's Witness headquarters in Pennsylvania and New York for an unspecified amount of money.

Originally, Sacramento law firm Nolan Saul Brelsford brought 17 cases against Jehovah's Witness churches throughout California, including one in Sonoma County. The firm has dropped 11 cases and the remaining six lawsuits span several counties, including Napa, Santa Clara, Yolo, Placer and Tehama. Because the Napa case was the farthest along in the proceedings, the lawsuits were coordinated and are now being tried in Napa as one large case.

Attorneys for the Jehovah's Witnesses deny the cover-up.

"The church abhors child abuse," says defense council Robert Schnack. "And it denies any liability in these cases, both factual and legal."

So far, the church has lost two motions in court. First, it claimed its status as a religious institution protects it from lawsuits under the First Amendment. Then it claimed it could not be held responsible for what its members did. On April 8, it is expected to argue that church officials had no knowledge of the abuse.

In the Napa case, the alleged abuser was church elder Edward Villegas, who was convicted for child abuse in 1994 and died in prison soon afterwards. Much of the abuse happened in the 1970s and 1980s. During that time, Villegas operated a church-sponsored daycare.

The complaint claims that the church not only knew about the alleged abuse, but "intentionally concealed" it from the police and the congregation and "continued to place Edward Villegas in positions of authority where he could abuse children while pursuing activities within the scope of his appointment."

In 1970, Charissa Welch, then an infant, was placed in Villegas' daycare, which the church used to attract new members. Welch's mother, Betty Hopkins, converted to the religion soon afterward. According to the complaint, when Welch was three or four years old, Villegas allegedly began molesting her by "fondling her genitals, penetrating her vagina and forcing her to have oral sex." The abuse lasted 13 to 14 years. Tabitha H. alleges that she endured similar abuse by Villegas from 1977 to 1980.

In 1971, Nicole D.'s family met Villegas through a church function. Nicole was placed under the elder's guidance. Her family even spent time at his home. In 1978, when Nicole was seven, he allegedly forced her to have oral sex with him.

According to the complaint, Nicole told her father about the abuse. He immediately informed the church. The elders removed Nicole from Villegas' care, but allegedly "took no other steps to hold him accountable or to otherwise notify members. . . . Instead, they intentionally concealed this information. Therefore, Edward Villegas was able to continue to use his position of authority."

The three plaintiffs say they were told they should let the elders handle the abuse. The complaint also says the church keeps "secret archival files regarding sexual abuse" by leaders. By not involving the police and keeping Villegas in charge, the plaintiffs are arguing that the church assumed a level of liability in the abuse.

The Jehovah's Witness church hierarchy has three levels. The first level, pioneers, are the familiar members who go door-to-door attempting to convert people. The second level, ministerial servants, are men who act as deacons, doing grunt work for the church. After three years, a ministerial servant can advance to the third level, elder. The elders make up the church's governing body.

"Elders are viewed as a direct representation of God on earth," says Bill Bowen, a former Jehovah's Witness elder. "To question an elder is to question God."

Because elders develop a trusting relationship with members, they take on the responsibility of protecting and molding character and behavior, especially in the case of children, says attorney Bill Brelsford, who represents the plaintiffs.

"The church takes these children and trains them in how to act," he says. "Through this undertaking as an organization, it has a certain responsibility here."

The Napa cases are not the only ones. In fact, lawsuits accusing Jehovah's Witnesses of covering up child abuse have been popping up all over the country. Spearheading the lawsuits is Texas law firm Love and Norris, which initially approached Nolen Saul Brelsford about the California cases.

Bill Bowen was an elder at a Jehovah's Witness church in Paducah, Ky., when he learned that a fellow elder had molested a child. He reported the incident, but the other leaders told him that since the elder claimed the abuse happened only one time, nothing should be done about it.

"I spoke to the victim and found out it happened multiple times and places, and that the current allegations pointed to another child," Bowen says. "I said to them, ‘Look, apparently he lied to us, there's even physical evidence pointing to another child,' and they said, ‘Well, he denied it, so we have to leave it in God's hands.'"

Bowen went to all the other leaders and even wrote Watchtower headquarters. Eventually, he was told that though the church would remove the man as an elder, Bowen was not to report the crime to the police. In response, Bowen officially resigned as an elder, went to the police, and then started a website, SilentLambs.org, to help Jehovah's Witnesses who have been sexually molested.

As is its custom with all so-called heretics within its ranks, the church excommunicated or "disfellowshipped" Bowen. Family and longtime friends soon started shunning him.

"I haven't spoken to my parents or sister in three years," he says. "If I had any contact with them, they would be disfellowshipped, too."

Over 1,000 people have reported on SilentLambs.org that Jehovah's Witness members allegedly sexually abused them. According to the site, inside sources at the Watchtower office in New York say it has a computer database of reported incidents of child abuse that lists nearly 24,000 child molesters.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York did not respond to interview requests for this article.

Bowen believes that child abuse within the church began as a small problem and has gotten worse over time.

"It probably started out somewhat like it was with the Catholic Church, with the church thinking if we ignore this problem, it will go away," he says. "But it hasn't. And the Jehovah's Witnesses are nastier about it than the Catholic Church was, especially to abuse survivors. They know that if they don't cover it up, it will expose major problems in the religion."

The allegations against the Jehovah's Witnesses are different from the Catholic Church in several ways. For one thing, with just 1 million members nationwide, there are far fewer Jehovah's Witnesses than the 60 million-member Catholic Church. For another, with its door-to-door conversion policy, a sexual predator who is a Jehovah's Witness has more contact with the public at large.

While the church's responsibility in these cases is still up for debate, in some cases--such as with Villegas in Napa, who was convicted of molestation--the abuse is not. At the very least, Bowen feels the Jehovah's Witnesses should make more of an effort to protect its congregation.

He says that in 1992, church members made recommendations to the New York office for a new policy dealing with child molesters. The policy stated that elders should report the abuse to the police first, that abusers should be removed from positions of responsibility within the church and that abusers should not be allowed to go door-to-door.

"That was in 1992," Bowen says. "To this day, not one of those recommendations has been followed up on."

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From the April 6-12, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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