St. Paul -- Two Minnesota women who say they were sexually abused by a Jehovah's Witness filed a lawsuit Tuesday against him, their congregation and the church's parent organization in New York.
The lawsuit, filed in Wright County District Court just west of the Twin Cities, seeks damages of more than $50,000. Three local congregation leaders are cited by name in the lawsuit, but are not defendants.
Heidi Meyer, 22, of Minneapolis, claims in the filing that Derek Lindala, a member of the Annandale, Minn., congregation molested her when she was between the ages of 11 and 13. The other alleged victim, who has chosen to remain anonymous and filed as ''Jane Doe,'' also 22, claims Lindala molested her in or about 1990.
Both women say they told congregation elders about the alleged abuse, but were told to remain silent. Police were never notified.
Lindala did not immediately return a phone message requesting comment. No one answered a phone call seeking comment at the Annandale church. Officials at the parent organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in New York, said they had no immediate comment.
''I was molested repeatedly throughout a two-year period,'' Meyer said. But she said the elders determined she ''misinterpreted'' Lindala's conduct.
She said church officials told her that because there weren't two eyewitnesses to the alleged abuse, any comments she made about it could be seen as slander or gossip, and that she could be excommunicated from the church.
Doe told a similar story. She said Lindala molested her only once, when she spent the night at his family's home when she spent the night with one of his sisters. She also said the elders dismissed her claims, even accusing her of dressing provocatively.
Lindala is eight years older than the two women. He is still an active member of the church, they said, but neither of the women are anymore.
Meyer said she hadn't told her parents before filing the lawsuit. She said she planned to tell them later Tuesday.
''I expect it to be a very hurt, very betrayed reaction,'' she said.
Also speaking at the news conference was William Bowen, a Jehovah's Witness and former elder from Draffenville, Ky., who runs a self-help group with a Web site for people molested by Jehovah's Witnesses. Bowen said he's been contacted by over 5,000 victims who want to get help or speak out.
''Many of these victims live in absolute terror,'' he said.
According to the lawsuit, Jehovah's Witnesses try to keep all matters internal. But Bowen said the elders are not equipped to deal with matters such as sexual abuse of children.
The attorney for the women, Jeff Anderson, of St. Paul, said he has received calls from about 100 people claiming they were abused by Jehovah's Witnesses. While this lawsuit seeks damages only for Meyer and Doe, he said the reason for the lawsuit is bigger. He wants the church to change the way it handles such cases.
''It exposes them,'' Anderson said.
A handful of other sexual abuse lawsuits against Jehovah's Witnesses are pending across the country, including in Washington State and New Hampshire.