Abuse Suits Point at Jehovah's Witnesses

Associated Press/July 29, 2003

Sacramento -- Four lawsuits filed in California claim Jehovah's Witnesses officials have been covering up alleged sex abuse of children by congregation leaders, adding to a series of similar suits nationwide.

The law firms involved in the suits filed last week in three northern California counties are holding public meetings this week in search of more victims and witnesses.

"It is a widespread problem and nothing's been done about it to protect these children, to protect future children," said Bill Brelsford, one of the Sacramento attorneys who filed four lawsuits Thursday in California.

"Once they (church leaders) know about it, they don't do anything to stop it," Brelsford said.

Church general counsel Philip Brumley said the church's own investigation of previous lawsuits found church elders did nothing wrong as they tried to protect victims, comply with sexual abuse reporting laws and adhere to biblical admonitions against accepting accusations by a single witness.

"We abhor child abuse," Brumley said. "The assertion or allegation of a cover up, or a nonchalance about child abuse, is just so far from the truth."

Brumley said 10 lawsuits were filed before the California suits. William H. Bowen, who was excommunicated from the church after he set up a critical Web site and hot line for abuse victims, estimated 15 to 17 suits are pending, not counting the California cases.

Bowen said he has posted more than 1,000 abuse stories on his Web site, and fielded more than 6,000 complaints since 2001. Some of the allegations date to the 1970s.

The church puts its membership at 6 million worldwide, including 1 million in the United States.

"I have literally the last couple months been bombarded with this stuff. These are not liars, they're abuse survivors," Bowen said. "It never stops. New victims are coming in on a weekly basis."

Last year, church members or elders in Tennessee and Kentucky were banned from the church after they went public with allegations the denomination has protected pedophiles.

One member, Barbara Anderson of Tullahoma, Tenn., worked as a researcher at Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters in the early 1990s, when she said a church official asked her to look into the handling of sexual abuse cases. She said she found hundreds of allegations kept secret in church files.

Lawsuits have been filed in Nevada, Minnesota, Texas, New Hampshire. Suits filed last year by members in Maryland, Oregon and Washington also claim church elders told them they would not be believed if they reported the molestation without corroboration by witnesses.

Brumley explained the requirement stems from biblical references that no single witness should rise up against any man. But he denied the church discourages victims or their parents from going to police.

Where molestation allegations are corroborated, the abuser is banned from the church and is never again allowed to hold a position of authority if the excommunication is rescinded, Brumley said.

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