Witnesses to Pain

Obscured by Catholic scandals, Jehovah's Witnesses have child-abuse problems of their own

Las Vegas Weekly/January 22, 2003
By Damon Hodge

Come Armageddon, Elaine Stanton didn't want to be on the losing side. So she kept quiet about the sexual abuse. Urged her siblings to do so, too, fearing they'd be "disfellowshipped" or excommunicated, a fate akin to spiritual death for Jehovah's Witnesses.

For 15 years, everyone kept mum. Dan Young, her younger brother, publicly spoke up in 1992, accusing the church of coddling child molesters. Now he plans to sue.

Last Thursday, after nearly 25 years of silence and against the backdrop of a press conference launching an awareness campaign about child sexual abuse in the denomination and a lawsuit filed against a jailed Nevada elder, Stanton finally spoke up.

"Elders knew family members were molesting us but didn't do anything about it," she says. "I'm tired of being quiet."

Stanton didn't have an official role in the press conference, held on the doorsteps of the Kingdom Hal l on 1335 Mojave Road, where, 20-plus years ago (when the sanctuary was on East Charleston), she alleges, church leaders coaxed her and her siblings into silence about being physically and sexually abused by family members who were elders. They quoted Scripture touting unity and prayed over them.

She smiled as William Bowen, a disfellowshipped Witness who resigned from an elder's position in Kentucky to become the most vocal critic of the Witnesses' handling of abuse claims, announced that four women filed a District Court lawsuit against the state body and Dan Fitzwater, jailed in 1998 for child sexual assault.

But it was as much about her as the women behind the lawsuit (three live in Vegas, one in Oregon , and none could be reached for comment). Like them, and the hundreds victimized by Catholic priests, she felt powerless to confront her abusers. Excommunicated members were treated like pariahs. Separated from God. Their eternal life forfeited.

"For so long, we felt alone and afraid because no one believed us," she says.

Watching the proceedings from a parked white pickup truck 200 feet away, two tight-lipped men, who identified themselves as church officials, declined comment on Stanton 's allegations.

Members are encouraged to report all child abuse allegations, says New York spokesman Bryce Hemmelgam, who refused to comment on the Nevada lawsuit. On May 24, he says, all American congregations received letters outlining biblical instruction on handling child sex abuse claims.

The statement reads in part: "We expect elders to investigate every allegation of child abuse. Even one abused child is too many."

The trouble starts in the next sentences, which admonishes elders to heed Deuteronomy 19:15: "No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin and at the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good."

In other words, church doctrine maintains that two credible witnesses must verify that a child's been sexually abused.

It's too high a standard to meet, Bowen says, because pedophiles aren't likely to admit their sins, much less commit them in the presence of potential witnesses. Without circumstantial evidence, such as a pregnancy, it's basically the child's word against the adult's. Bowen's nonprofit group, Silent Lambs, has received 5,000 complaints from Witnesses in 30 countries, including dozens in Las Vegas . With the press' eyes trained on pedophilia in the Catholic Church, he says Witnesses have largely escaped scrutiny.

Hearing about child sex abuse but prevented by elders from reporting it, longtime local elder Phil Benson disassociated from the church in 1992. Some people who authored Witnesses' policy on dealing with child abuse, he says, were eventually victimized by it -- their children were abused, and they had no recourse.

Bowen and Benson point to Fitzwater as a textbook case of how the church addresses the problem. According to the lawsuit, elders concealed Fitzwater's sex crimes against his stepdaughter and other parishioners. In April 1998, Fitzwater was convicted on two counts of sexual lewdness with a child. He's incarcerated at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City .

Bowen says the denomination has yet to sanction him, and Fitzwater remains a member in good standing -- meaning that, once free, he can pursue the door-to-door evangelizing Witnesses are known for.

"I wouldn't want him proselytizing in my neighborhood unless he has a sign on his chest saying, 'I'm a child molester.'"

Stanton 's brother Dan, who lives in San Diego , spent the weekend meeting with Bowen and lining up legal representation for a pending lawsuit against the local Witnesses. The former Clark County School district truck driver says his life has been a living hell since coming forward in 1992.

"My wife won't talk to me . . . she's so scared [of being associated] with me that she left," Young says.

"When you challenge the church, it's like you're speaking out against God, and that's the worse thing you can do. You're called an apostate. You ca n n ever get God's spirit again. You're worse than Judas Iscariot."

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