An organizational shakeup under way among the Jehovah's Witnesses may have been ordered by the faith's leaders to shield themselves from lawsuits over the group's religious practices, dissenters say.
A spokesman for the group denied the allegation.
The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, as the group is officially known, had been run by a Governing Body. But on Saturday, president Milton Henschel, 80, and the six other board members resigned, and it was announced that religious and administrative duties will be divided, with three newly formed corporations running U.S. operations.
Under the changes, the religious leaders will not be officially involved with the Watch Tower society.
Though the Witnesses say no important cases are pending, defectors from the religion have talked about suing the society, headquartered in Brooklyn, over various grievances.
Those could include lawsuits over church members who died or suffered because the denomination opposes blood transfusions. Also, the organization could face lawsuits over its practice of expelling members.
Raymond Franz of Winston, Ga., the only Governing Body member ever to quit and write about the religion's inner workings, also noted that France has a a new law targeting religious organizations accused of mind control, while German law requires severance pay for church workers who leave.
"They are trying to find means to protect themselves legally," Franz said.
A Web page operated by former Witness Randall Watters of Manhattan Beach, Calif., said that the current duties of Witness officials will not change and that the the new structure "clearly is meant to provide isolation of guilt" in light of "the litigious days ahead for the Watch Tower organization."
James N. Pellechia, public affairs director for the religion, denied that potential legal problems had anything to do with the reorganization. He said the Governing Body is simply being relieved of administrative tasks so it can "concentrate more on the ministry of the Word."
An official statement said decentralization would also allow the Witnesses to keep pace with growth. The Witnesses reported 5.9 million active members as of last year, 980,000 of them in the United States.