Nashville, Tenn. -- They're an all-volunteer organization with little money, and could only muster two dozen attendees to their first national meeting last weekend. But a group called silentlambs has still gained visibility in its campaign to change the sexual abuse policies of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Founder William Bowen says silentlambs exists to educate the public and "give a voice to survivors of child sexual abuse that had been silenced by the institution of Jehovah's Witnesses."
The group claims rules of the Witnesses protect child molesters: The Witnesses, however, insist they are committed to doing everything their faith allows to prevent abuse.
Meanwhile, the whole situation highlights the fact that, while the clergy sex abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church has dominated headlines the past two years, smaller American religious bodies are dealing with variations on the same problem.
The Hare Krishnas, with 100,000 devotees in the United States and Canada, are working on a settlement with 540 students who claim they were abused in boarding schools while their parents were practicing the faith by chanting and begging. A $400 million suit by 91 of them drove the Hindu group into bankruptcy.
In a trial scheduled to open Monday in Marshall, Texas, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America agencies, including an Ohio seminary, are charged with negligence in ordaining a pastor who molested 14 boys.
And the upcoming Presbyterian Church (USA) assembly will discuss rules to tighten handling of abuse allegations after a case in which a missionary molested 19 girls.
The Jehovah's Witnesses dispute involves a highly insular community of 1 million U.S. followers of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, whose unique doctrines include a belief that the end times are imminent. Adherents are famed for door-to-door distribution of Awake! and Watchtower magazines.
The Governing Body at Brooklyn, N.Y., headquarters commands not only an obedient flock but formidable finances and a corps of trial-hardened attorneys.
Their opponents are motivated by what some say is a problem comparable with, or even worse than, the scale of abuse by Catholic clergy.
Bowen founded silentlambs three years ago after he quit as an elder in Draffenville, Ky., saying Watchtower took no action against an alleged molester. He charged the group's rules created a "pedophile paradise."
The central issue is the Witnesses' policy of first bringing accusations of any sin to local elders. If an accused person denies the charge, two credible witnesses are required to establish guilt -- due to literal application of such Bible verses as Deuteronomy 19:15 ("only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained").
Philip Brumley, Watchtower's general counsel, says his religion cannot alter its beliefs and doubts secular courts will demand this.
"Do you change doctrine because someone feels something is more convenient, even if it's not in harmony with Scripture?" he asks.
But getting two witnesses in a molestation case "just goes off the scale of improbability," Bowen says.
And if two witnesses are lacking, the accused is deemed innocent, charges remain confidential and -- silentlambs says -- parents who warn others are subject to disfellowshipping for slander.
Disfellowshipping -- also the fate of some silentlambs whistle-blowers -- is an extreme penalty that means a total cutoff of relationships by family members, friends and business associates who are Witnesses. Silentlambs notes that during the Catholic crisis, no parishioner has been penalized for raising complaints.
Former Witness Heather Berry, of Claremont, N.H., said that when she was molested by her father, a "ministerial servant" in the congregation, local elders told her mother "to pray more and Jehovah would take care of it." Others at the Nashville meeting of silentlambs had similar stories.
Often "the victim is taken to a back room with guys who don't know diddly-squat about rape investigation," complains Bowen, who insists all allegations should be referred immediately to police.
Silentlambs also says Witnesses discourage police involvement because they believe Satan controls everything outside the faith.
However, official Watchtower policy states that victims have the right to file secular charges, and that elders report allegations to police where state laws require this.
Witnesses headquarters says it must follow what the Bible teaches, and that includes the belief that "child abuse is abhorrent." It points to a 1997 Watchtower article stating that, except for a few instances, proven molesters are barred from congregational leadership or full-time work.
The conflict escalated in mid-2002 when Kimberlee Norris, a tenacious Fort Worth, Texas, attorney, began working full-time on Witnesses litigation. She has since filed suits for 47 alleged victims in California, Nevada, Oregon and Texas, with 20 more cases in the pipeline.
Norris targets Watchtower organizations and alleged abusers who are leaders in local congregations. She told the silentlambs she culled the strongest cases from 2,000 people who contacted her, making accusations against 729 Witnesses.
She says the Witnesses' policy will change only when "The cost is too much, in the court of law or in the court of public opinion."
Eventually, Norris plans to get testimony from Barbara Anderson of Tullahoma, Tenn. Now disfellowshipped, Anderson says that, while working as a Witnesses headquarters researcher, she compiled an inch-thick dossier about believers' child abuse and other psychological maladies that went to the Governing Body in 1992.
Says Anderson: "Yes, they knew (about abuse), and didn't do a thing about it."