Elder resigns, protests faith's policy on abuse charges

Jehovah's Witness: Child abuse claims can go unreported

Associated Press/February 11, 2001
By Kimberly Hefling

Benton -- As a boy, William Bowen sat quietly in his seat while his classmates recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

As a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, he spent years going door-to-door evangelizing and serving the denomination. In time, he became an elder, a position of authority, in his western Kentucky congregation.

But as an elder, he was privy to information that caused him to question the Jehovah's Witnesses faith -- and to question it publicly, an ultimate transgression in the denomination.

In a letter dated Dec. 31, Bowen resigned as an elder, in protest of how the denomination, a society that shuns the outside world, handles accusations of child molestation. His claim is that in such a culture, accusations of child sex abuse can go unreported to secular authorities by Jehovah's Witnesses members who don't want to go against their faith. The claims of abuse victims are discredited, he said.

"They want to act like pedophilia doesn't exist. Shame on them," Bowen, 43, said in an interview from his Draffenville home where he runs a candlemaking business with his wife, Sheila.

Though Bowen expects to be kicked out of Jehovah's Witnesses -- or disfellowshipped -- for speaking out, no disciplinary action has been taken by his congregation. Still, some members refuse to shake his hand or associate with him outside the church.

"They treat us like we have the plague," Sheila Bowen said. "You don't go against God, and they think the organization is God."

Bowen's decision to resign has made him a hero among the denomination's dissidents.

"People have been intimidated into not saying anything. There are pieces of this all over the country where one person has a piece of evidence and another has a piece of evidence, but they're scared to bring it up because they'll be disfellowshipped," Bowen said. "So these people stay silent and they think, 'I'm the only one.' "

A person who is disfellowshipped is considered invisible by denomination members and may even be shunned by members of his own family.

"It's not just being out of a health club," said Steve Hassan [Warning: Steve Hassan is not recommended by this Web site. Read the detailed disclaimer to understand why.], a former Unification Church member who is now a therapist and author. "It's losing your connection to God and members of your family inside the group."

Bowen chose to speak out anyway, and his story has appeared in religious publications and the secular media. In Kentucky, The Paducah Sun and WPSD-TV covered it. The (Louisville) Courier-Journal published a story in which it examined court records in seven child molestation cases around the nation involving members of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Bowen said a Jehovah's Witnesses policy requiring two people to witness wrongdoing before it is acknowledged by leaders makes it nearly impossible to prove child molestation occurs. Victims who do come forward confident they will receive help from church leaders are often left feeling betrayed, Bowen said.

Bowen said he became interested a couple of years ago after reading a confidential file alleging a member had molested a child in the early 1980s. He said he disapproved of the way the case was handled by church officials even after he spoke up about it.

J.R. Brown, spokesman at the Jehovah's Witnesses' headquarters in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, said he believes Bowen does not have a full understanding of church policies.

Members are free at all times to report abuse to secular authorities, Brown said. "This is a personal decision on how you want to handle this," he said.

What is revealed to church leaders is generally kept confidential unless state law requires that allegations of abuse be turned over to police, he said.

"We deal with sin, and law enforcement deals with crime," Brown said.

In some cases, however, the matter is turned over to secular authorities regardless of the law, Brown said.

Of Bowen, he said: "He's concerned about victims of child abuse, and we are, too."

Brown said the faith does require at least two witnesses to prove any kind of wrongdoing -- including child molestation -- because that is what is taught in the Bible. But corroborating evidence can be used instead of a second witness to prove wrongdoing, Brown said.

James Bonnell, an elder in Bowen's congregation, said the faith reaches out and helps people in need. It is not controlling, he said.

"It's a free choice," said Bonnell, of nearby Gilbertsville. "Everything you do is based on love of God and your neighbor."

'An identity thing'

The Jehovah's Witnesses denomination has 89,985 congregations and 5.5 million members worldwide, according to its Web site. It was founded in Pittsburgh in 1872 by Charles Taze Russell, a former Congregationalist layman.

Members refuse to bear arms, salute the flag or participate in secular government. They also refuse to accept blood transfusions. They reject a number of doctrines taught by traditional Christianity, including the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Jehovah's Witnesses are taught that the faith is the authority and the only way to salvation. They are to bring all problems to their religious leaders first.

Members attend numerous meetings, do Bible lessons and go door-to-door to evangelize, and some who have left the faith say that schedule leaves little time to think individually.

"It's like an identity thing," said Marilyn Zweifel, an ex-Jehovah's Witness in New Berlin, Wis., who runs a telephone helpline for current members. "Somewhere along the way, you lose your identity."

Debbie Shard, an ex-member who also operates a helpline from Ocoee, Fla., said members are told going outside the religion could hurt the faith's image and make it difficult to recruit and retain new members.

"If there's a fire, you'd call the fire department," Shard said. "If it's something that's not a life-threatening emergency, then the elders would be the first line of defense."

She agreed with Bowen, saying: "If you go to the elders, they will generally discourage you from going to (secular) authorities because it will bring reproach on the organization."

A former elder agreed. "Denial and secrecy are elemental to the way the society operates," said Mike Terry, of Conway, Ark.

Raymond Franz, a high-ranking Jehovah's Witness who was disfellowshipped and then wrote two books about the inner workings of the faith, said he doesn't believe cases of pedophilia are any more prevalent in the denomination than in others. But the religion's insularity leads to problems, he said.

"The thing is to keep everything within the system," Franz said. "That's a natural reaction for Witnesses because they are essentially a closed
community . . ."

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