A bundle of child abuse cases may finally get off the ground at a key pre-trial hearing in Napa Superior Court this morning.
As many as 11 lawsuits filed in six counties contend that Jehovah's Witnesses covered up acts of child molestation by church officials. Today's hearing is set to determine how the court should go forward with handling the cases and even whether an attorney's potential life-threatening illness could hold up progress.
Two cases involve three alleged Napa victims who are suing Napa Jehovah's Witness Congregations and other Jehovah's Witness groups, claiming high-ranking elders and church policymakers were negligent in supervising one church leader and concealed records for more than 20 years.
Charissa Welch, 35, and two women partially identified in court papers, Nicole D., 32, and Tabitha H., 30, claim Edward Bedoya Villegas, who was an elder in the congregation, forced them to perform oral sex on him starting more than 20 years ago. Welch and Tabitha H. said Villegas penetrated them with his fingers, while Tabitha H. also charges she was raped by Villegas.
Villegas died in prison 10 years ago. In 1994, Villegas was convicted of molesting several local children at a Napa Jehovah's Witness congregation during the 1970s and '80s. During much of that time Villegas and his wife operated a Jehovah's Witness day care center.
Jehovah's Witness officials have said the facts will show that neither the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society -- the national organization of the Jehovah's Witness church -- nor local elders are responsible for Villegas's actions.
Yet whether the cases will move far enough along for both sides to present their evidence will largely be decided on whether the two sides can agree on a schedule of depositions, and even which cases should be tried first. At a Dec. 9 court hearing, Napa Superior Court Presiding Judge Scott Snowden ordered the parties to meet and confer on several pre-trial issues, including which cases to stick on a fast-track schedule, how to schedule testimony with witnesses and when pre-trial motions might be filed in those cases.
One of the most serious factors that could affect the speed of the cases is the health of Jehovah's Witness attorney Robert Schnack, who at the time of the Dec. 9 hearing was due to have a medical appointment where he would be told if he had cancer.
In addition to the chance of being sidelined while undergoing treatment for a serious illness, Schnack warned the court that even with a series of agreed-upon deadlines for taking testimony from witnesses, the sheer number of depositions could make the cases drag on.
"If we're going to pick two cases, it's still going to be 20 to 25 depositions," he said.
Napa courts are known for being able to dispatch most lawsuits within a year, but it was clear through discussions among the attorneys that the complications provided by the 11 lawsuits would expand the timeline.
"This isn't a garden variety case," Snowden said. "This is 11 lawsuits in one case and sometimes more than that."
Rudy Nolen, an attorney for the alleged victims, told Snowden he was interested in moving the cases forward as quickly and efficiently as possible, illustrating what may be underlying some of the initial conflict in scheduling that the two sides encountered when they first tried to work together.
"We don't have the resources of the Jehovah's Witness church," Nolen said, seeming to accuse the church of dragging the cases out.