As Roman Catholic bishops issued a mea culpa last week, Jehovah's Witnesses, a cloistered group of 980,000, moved closer to facing a sex-abuse scandal of their own. In January a woman from Sacramento, Calif., filed a lawsuit charging that church leaders knowingly failed to notify civil authorities that she was raped by a member of her congregation.
A former church leader in Maryland was indicted in February for sexually assaulting three women who say they were told by elders not to report the abuse, and were excommunicated when they did. After additional stories aired recently on TV, a victims' support group run by William H. Bowen was deluged with e-mails and phone calls. "Catholics only protect the priests. Jehovah's Witnesses do it for any member of the church," says Bowen, a former elder from Kentucky.
Sara Poisson says that prior to her husband's conviction for sexually abusing her daughters, church elders told her to "pray more and be a better wife." Church spokesman J. R. Brown says the group instructs local leaders to notify police when required by law. They also conduct their own investigation: "That consists of going directly to the accused." If someone confesses, says Brown, he will be prohibited from going door-to-door - unless accompanied by another Witness. Brown points out that people who accuse the church are often lapsed Witnesses, and "open prey" for exploiters. But victims like Poisson's daughter, Heather Berry, 20, say it's the church that does the exploiting. "They're letting the kids down. I don't think there's anything Christian about allowing abuse to continue."