Molestation victim, parents think church elders let them down

Jehovah's Witnesses' policy on child molesters attacked

The Courier-Journal In Focus/February 4, 2001
By Peter Smith

Policies on reporting abuse allegations vary among religious denominations. When Corinne Pandelo was 12, court records show, she told her parents that her grandfather had molested her during a visit to his home in Paramus, N.J., in August 1988. That episode launched a chain of events that ultimately alienated Corinne and her parents from the church to which they had been devoted.

Carl and Barbara Pandelo, now of Belmar, N.J., went to the elders in their Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in Fair Lawn, N.J., with their daughter's accusation, according to court records.

New Jersey law required clergy to report suspected child abuse. Elders told Carl Pandelo's father, Clement Pandelo, to turn himself in to authorities, Carl Pandelo said. Clement Pandelo confessed the molestation to police on Aug. 24, 1988. But Carl and Barbara Pandelo said local elders also urged them to agree to a plea bargain for Clement Pandelo, saying they wanted to spare Corinne the trauma of a trial. The Pandelos agreed.

Anthony Valenti of Maywood, N.J., who was an elder in the Fair Lawn congregation at the time, said in an interview that was not his recollection. "To my knowledge, we did not advise them that way," he said.

Clement Pandelo was placed on probation after pleading guilty in February 1989 in Superior Court in Bergen County, N.J., to molesting Corinne and two other girls. Now 75 and a member of the Hawthorne, N.J., congregation, Pandelo told The Courier-Journal he had no comment. The Fair Lawn congregation expelled Clement Pandelo after a disciplinary hearing and reinstated him about 18 months later, court records show. Carl Pandelo said the reinstatement followed a letter of apology to him, not his daughter, from his father.

Carl and Barbara Pandelo said it was bad enough that the family saw Corinne's attacker at church meetings. They also became upset when members and an elder warned they would not "make it through Armageddon" unless they renewed ties with Clement Pandelo, Carl Pandelo said. Corinne was by then preparing to be baptized and had recurring nightmares of encountering her grandfather in the baptismal pool, according to court documents.

"I can understand how the Pandelos might feel," Valenti said, adding that a person is only reinstated after a three-man committee deems him or her repentant. "It would be better if they could forgive (Clement Pandelo), but circumstances are what they are." Eventually, Corinne's parents took her to a therapist. Corinne said she began to unlock memories of being molested by her grandfather over several years, court documents said. To help guide her therapist, Corinne's parents said they obtained the police report and were shocked to read Clement Pandelo had confessed to fondling girls for 40 years.

The parents said they went to church elders asking for any details Clement might have confessed to them and were told that the confession was confidential. "As parents, we feel we have the legal right to know what he did actually confess to," Carl Pandelo said in a Jan. 21, 1993, letter to the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, a legal corporation of the church.

Valenti said the Pandelos were involved in discussions among elders that pertained to their daughter. He declined to say what elders discussed with Clement Pandelo on other occasions.

Clement Pandelo did not face any other criminal charges, but his Hawthorne congregation expelled him in 1992, according to court documents. Four years later it reinstated him, according to a letter from the Pandelos to the Watch Tower Society. When Carl and Barbara Pandelo prepared to sue Clement Pandelo in 1993 to recover costs for Corinne's therapy, Valenti said he told them the Bible held that Christians shouldn't sue each other.

Valenti said the church allows members to sue to collect insurance payments -- Clement Pandelo would be paying out of homeowner's liability insurance -- but that elders tried to mediate the conflict outside of court. Carl and Barbara Pandelo appealed to the Jehovah's Witnesses' headquarters, which eventually gave them the green light to sue, according to a church letter.

Corinne Holloway, now 24, married and living in Spring Lake Park, N.J., won $1.8 million in compensatory damages against Clement Pandelo in Bergen County Superior Court in 1999 after other women testified he molested them when they were girls.

Clement Pandelo also was ordered to pay $500,000 in punitive damages. But the jury deducted 40 percent of Holloway's original $3 million compensatory-damage award, judging her parents 40 percent responsible for leaving her in her grandfather's care.

The jury heard testimony that a relative had told Carl Pandelo that his father had molested a girl years before. Carl Pandelo said in an interview that he was told by Valenti that at least one elder had investigated Clement Pandelo for suspected sexual abuse and found it to be untrue.

Valenti, in a pretrial deposition, confirmed that he had been told by an elder that an investigation had found no evidence Clement Pandelo committed sexual abuse. Valenti, who did not testify in court because of clergy confidentiality, declined to comment. Holloway is appealing the jury decision.

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