Various reports uncovered that the Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in sexual abuse, and the organization’s elders intentionally prevented victims from bringing their allegations to the appropriate authorities for criminal and civil action. These religious leaders systematically enabled rampant abuse to occur. The organization kept a database of child victims of sexual abuse, but when requested to produce this information in civil proceedings, religious leaders refused to grant access.
Recently, many reports of child sexual abuse exposed the Catholic Church for wrongdoing, but sexual abuse survivors within the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group have largely remained unknown to the outside world. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, the religious group’s parent organization, sent various memos instructing elders and other members to keep sexual abuse claims and other related information concealed. It declared that the Watchtower determines when a child sex abuser is a “predator.” Along with imposing nonsensical biblically-based reporting requirements, the organization’s overseers fostered an environment that led to known child abusers being promoted instead of reprimanded.
If someone abused you or your family member within the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group, you have the legal right to seek compensation for your damages. If you are a survivor of child sexual abuse, you don’t have to go through your recovery and continued healing alone.
How common is Jehovah's Witnesses child sexual abuse?
It’s currently unknown how prevalent the Jehovah’s Witnesses sex abuse scandal is because the organization is attempting to keep its database of allegations a secret. One former elder said the number was 23,720, but the Watchtower rebuffed that comment stating it was considerably lower. Based on the outcome of an Australian investigation, the estimated number of alleged American abusers in the database is 18,000.
Sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious group is not limited to the US but is instead a global problem. In 2018, more than one hundred people contacted the Guardian with allegations of child sexual abuse in Jehovah’s Witnesses communities across the UK. An Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that children within the organization do not have adequate protection from sexual abuse, and the organization does not appropriately respond to allegations of abuse.
What is child sexual abuse?
Victims need to know what sexual abuse is to understand when it’s happening and to report it. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the definition of child sexual abuse is “any attempted completed or attempted (non-completed) sexual act, sexual contact with, or exploitation (i.e., noncontact sexual interaction) of a child by a caregiver.”
The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) describes child sexual abuse as involving “any sexual activity with a child where consent is not or cannot be given… This includes sexual contact between an adult and a child, regardless of whether there is deception or the child understands the sexual nature of the activity.”
Child sexual abuse isn’t strictly limited to physical acts. It can also consist of forced visual acts, including:
- Exhibitionism or exposing oneself to a child
- Masturbation in front of a child
- Obscene phone calls or text messages to children
- Psychological pressure to engage in sexual activity
Physical acts of child sexual abuse include:
- Penetration, including oral, vaginal, or anal
- The use of children in pornographic materials
- Forcing a child to masturbate
Child sexual abuse doesn’t have to be forceful or violent. Perpetrators often manipulate a child’s trust to get them to engage in sexual acts and encourage them to hide the abuse or believe the perpetrator’s actions are okay, denying harm.
What are Jehovah's Witnesses' policies for handling child sexual abuse?
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ handling of child sex abuse allegations is seemingly dismissive and passive. Several policies help shield the abusers from retaliatory action.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ entirely biblically-based approach to sexual abuse claims naturally makes the investigative process arcane and outdated. Elders are also strictly bound to the policy, told that if they disobey the policy, they disobey God.
The “two witness rule” bars most sex abuse allegations from being advanced within the organization. Based on Deuteronomy 19:15, the policy states that if a child reports to an elder that someone in the congregation sexually abuses them, they must produce another witness to corroborate the claim before the elders can investigate the allegation.
Rarely, if there’s a second witness to the abuse or the perpetrator admits the abuse, the abuser and the victim go before a judicial committee. The intense questioning the victim must endure by the committee furthers the angst and emotional trauma suffered. Also, victims who report sexual abuse are often “disfellowshipped” for making the allegations, meaning they have to leave both their family and the church making disclosure prohibitive.
The organization shows disturbing leniency towards abusers who confess and show repentance of their wrongful acts. Sometimes, abusers receive continual promotions within the organization’s ranks despite sexual abuse claims lodged against them. Additionally, the organization’s policy of not giving the congregation a reason when dismissing a member allows these predators to take up their abuse elsewhere.
A 2012 Watchtower memo noted that not every individual who sexually abuses a child is considered a “predator,” further elaborating that the Watchtower, not the local body of elders, ultimately determines the classification of a sexual abuser. The most recent policy letter Watchtower sent to elders in 2014 directed them to form confidential committees to handle potential criminal matters internally.
Organization leaders instruct elders presented with alleged child abuse to contact the Society’s legal department immediately. Further guidance tells them not to call the police unless state law requires reporting. These instructions lead elders to neglect to report alleged abuses to police because most state laws contain a clergy-penitent privilege as an exception to mandatory child abuse reporting laws.
How These Policies Fail to Protect Children
These haphazard policies are wholly inadequate to protect children experiencing sexual abuse and have already led to widespread cover-ups. The two-witness rule makes it virtually impossible for children to assert abuse claims without the preparator’s confession because sexual abuse almost always happens in private, meaning another party cannot attest to it. Additionally, elders cannot deviate from this rule or any other rules imposed, no matter how egregious the circumstances.
The overall policy essentially mandates internal resolution of claims, most of which are swept under the rug to save the organization’s reputation. Also, the organization’s willingness to forgive sexual abusers with virtually no repercussions acts to enable further abusive behavior.
Finally, the policy of keeping reasons for the dismissal of members from the religious organization confidential allows abusers to continue their harmful and criminal actions against children in new congregations. The perceived lack of accountability and unbiased oversight make these policies extremely dangerous to children within the organization.
Jehovah's Witnesses' Secret Database of Child Abuse
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Secret Database is the central mechanism that allows this religious organization to handle sexual abuse allegations in a bureaucratic and secretive manner. The database was created after a 1997 letter from Watchtower directed elders to report all known and suspected child sexual abusers to the organization’s New York headquarters. The memo lists 11 questions for these “blue letters” to answer, including the abuser’s name, the victim’s age, how frequently abuse occurred, whether the abuser has notoriety in the community, and how the authorities view the abuser.
The organization kept the database a secret despite millions in fines from judges for withholding evidence. This secrecy is presumably due to the thousands of names the database contains. Its reveal would solidify the organization’s massive cover-up to protect the identities and reputations of religious leaders within the community and the organization itself.
Child Sex Abuse Investigations and Lawsuits in the Jehovah's Witnesses Community
Past investigations and lawsuits regarding child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization, and their outcomes, include:
- In 2014, the UK launched an investigation into how two Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations handled the discipline of two elders convicted as child sex offenders. The congregations refused to take action against the elders when claims arose and refused to give evidence when brought to trial, allowing the elders to abuse several more victims.
- In 2015, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that adequate protection for children from sexual abuse was not common within the organization and that once abuse allegations arose, the organization did not appropriately and effectively respond to them. Specifically, the commission reasoned that the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization relied on outdated policies and practices that made accountability for sexual abuse allegations impracticable.
- A Canadian court approved a class-action lawsuit against the Watchtower, allowing any current or former Jehovah’s Witnesses in Quebec, alleging sexual assault by elders when they were minors, to join.
- A Montana Court granted two women a $35 million judgment on claims that the Jehovah’s Witnesses failed to report child sexual abuse by an elder that continued to abuse them. Instead, the congregation only expelled him as punishment until he repented. The Montana Supreme Court unanimously reversed the landmark verdict, finding that the congregation was not obligated to report child sexual abuse due to the application of the clergy-penitent exception in Montana state law.
Jehovah Witnesses Child Sex Abuse Survivor Testimonies
Several survivors of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization stepped forward to give their accounts about the abuse they endured, including:
Candace Conti: Jonathan Kendrick started abusing Conti when she was nine after the congregation paired her with Kendrick for Sunday morning field service. Years later, when Conti found Kendrick’s name on a federal sex-offender registry, she went to the elders to report the abuse. The elders rebuffed her allegations, citing that the two-witness policy kept them from acting on her claims. The congregation was aware of Kendrick’s propensity for abusing children before Conti’s allegations, yet they chose only to strip Kendrick of testamentary titles and give him further teachings in Scripture.
Holly McGowan: McGowan told Jehovah’s Witnesses elders in 1998 that her stepfather, Maximo Reyes, was abusing her, but because McGowan didn’t have a second witness to back her claims and Reyes never confessed, the elders told her they couldn’t take any action. Six years later, her brother raised allegations that Reyes repeatedly sexually abused him. McGowan provided a letter to support his claims, preventing the two-witness rule from barring his allegations. The elders still didn’t report the abuse to authorities but convened a committee to expel Reyes from the congregation. Just one year later, though, at his request, the elders reinstated Reyes, who then began molesting Alexis Nunez, the niece of McGowan and her brother, who was only five years old when the abuse started.
Jose Lopez: Gonzalo Campos molested Lopez when he was only seven years old. Campos was an older fellow Witness whom the elders recommended as a mentor, despite knowing the allegations against Campos showing a history of molesting boys. Lopez immediately told his mother about the assault, and she reported Campos to the elders. The elders assured Lopez’s mother they would handle the situation and instructed her not to call the police. Despite what they promised the young boy’s mother, the elders did nothing, and Campos continued to rise in the organization, eventually becoming an elder himself. In 2010, Campos fled to Mexico in fear of more sexual abuse allegations and later confessed in a deposition to molesting Lopez and many other young boys.
What should I do if I experienced abuse in the Jehovah's Witnesses community?
Take the following steps to protect yourself and support your legal claims following abuse suffered in the Jehovah’s Witnesses community:
- If the abuse happened recently, ensure that you’re safe from further abuse and remove yourself from the environment where you experienced the abuse. Also, seek medical attention for any physical injuries you suffered. Your medical records are helpful as evidence of your abuse.
- Gather evidence that can help prove your abuse claim. If you don’t have any tangible evidence showing the abuse, it’s more challenging to verify your claim based on purely circumstantial evidence. You should take pictures of any injuries you suffered from the abuse and take screenshots or save any messages between you and the abuser. Also, put the clothes you were wearing when the abuse happened in a bag and don’t wash them. Your clothes might have valuable DNA evidence showing the accused perpetrator is the one who harmed you. If your clothes are torn or damaged, this can infer that forced sexual conduct occurred.
- You should go to your local police station to stop your abuser from abusing you again or anyone else. The police can also gather evidence from the abuser and help assist you in pressing criminal charges. Also, you should file a civil lawsuit against your abuser to receive compensation for damages you suffered and any present or future mental suffering stemming from the abuse.
- Contact a sexual abuse law firm, such as Herman Law, to help guide you through the legal process. We have experience and focused experience litigating sex abuse claims and obtaining favorable outcomes for our clients.
Is it too late to file a claim?
It depends on which state’s laws apply to your claim. Each state has different laws governing child sexual abuse, with the primary difference being the statute of limitations. This law restricts the amount of time a victim has to initiate a lawsuit.
Recently, several states have extended the filing limits for cases involving child sexual abuse. For instance, New York passed the New York Child Victims Act, prolonging the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse crimes to when the victim turns 28 in criminal cases and 55 in civil cases. This law has a lookback window giving past sexual abuse victims one year to file claims that lapsed under the old statute of limitations.
Considerations and enactments for similar laws in several other states, including California, Arizona, New Jersey, North Carolina, Vermont, and Montana, are underway or currently in place, giving child sexual abuse survivors a second chance to get the justice they deserve.
Should I contact a sex abuse law firm?
Yes. Sexual abuse attorneys like Herman Law provide vulnerable victims with the legal support they need. By pursuing legal action, building a solid case, and holding Jehovah’s Witnesses’ leaders accountable, you can make sure church members never harm your child or any other child again. Hiring a sexual abuse lawyer can help you:
- Gather the evidence you need
- Guide you through the investigative process
- Obtain compensation to cover your medical expenses and ongoing therapy costs
- Stand up against your abuser
- Report the crime and file your civil lawsuit within the statutory time limits
Surviving child sexual abuse can leave lasting scars, physically and psychologically. Your sexual abuse attorney can help you get the justice and compensation you need to aid in your recovery and ongoing healing.
We cannot undo your harm, but Herman Law has the knowledge and experience to fight for justice for abuse survivors. We are passionate about what we do, and we want to help you take control and get your life back on track. Contact us now for a free case evaluation.