Spokane, Wash. -- A federal civil sexual abuse lawsuit filed last week in Spokane, Washington against the Brooklyn-based Jehovah's Witness organization is "just the tip of the iceberg," according to the leader of a new nationwide support group for church members who have been abused by Jehovah Witness members and leaders. A plaintiff's attorney who has represented more than 400 people who were molested by clergy agrees.
Dozens more victims of other abusive church leaders may file similar suits, they predict.
Last Tuesday, a 23-year-old Sacramento woman, Erica Rodriguez, sued the Jehovah's Witness minister who repeatedly abused her and the New York-based denomination which "routinely" gives pedophiles "sanctuary, protection, sympathy and support," the suit claims. Manuel Beliz of the Othello Washington Spanish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses was convicted of raping and molesting Rodriguez during her childhood and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
The case is significant because it is one of a relatively small number filed against the Jehovah's Witnesses' national headquarters.
One of Rodriguez' attorney's in the case, Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul Minnesota, has filed more sexual abuse suits against religious bodies than any other legal expert. "In my experience over the last 20 years, a handful of brave victims step forward in any denomination. Then, others who are hurting become inspired to seek healing too," he said.
"Our denomination is now where the Catholic Church was 20 years ago -- right on the edge of a crisis," said William H. Bowen of Calvert City, Kentucky. A former church elder in his local congregation and a Jehovah's Witness for 43 years, Bowen now heads "silentlambs," a new national self-help group for men and women molested by Jehovah's Witness members. ( www.silentlambs.org, 1-877-WTABUSE) He resigned as Presiding Overseer last year to support victims and push the denomination's leaders to respond more sympathetically to abuse victims and turn over alleged molesters to the criminal justice system.
"In just a few months, with a shoestring budget and a volunteer staff, our group has been contacted by nearly 1,000 Witnesses and former Witnesses who have been raped or molested by church members," Bowen claimed. The alleged victims range in age from 2 to 15 from Maine to California and several foreign countries.
Repressive and insular church policies, a rigid hierarchy and a strong emphasis on obeying church authorities combine to "trap victims in a cult of silence," Bowen believes. Members of other faith groups who are abused are more apt to speak up and consult attorneys or turn to police, he feels.
"Both formally and informally, Witnesses are taught to take all matters, especially controversial matters, to church leaders, and to avoid bringing shame on the church," said Barbara Anderson, another leader in "silentlambs." Anderson served for 10 years at "Bethel," the Brooklyn New York headquarters of the denomination. Like Bowen, she became disillusioned after being assigned as a researcher on how church leaders handled abuse accusations.
But that "cult of silence" is slowly changing, she believes. "More and more Witnesses realize that exposing sexual crimes is God's will. They recognize that getting rid of molesters is healthy for the church." Witnesses are "encouraged, even inspired" by the example of victims in Catholic and Protestant denominations who have sued their perpetrators with increasing success in recent years, she said.
"We find that the more conservative and controlling a church group is, the harder it is for someone who has been victimized to come forward," said attorney Timothy Kosnoff of Bellevue Washington. Kosnoff also represents Rodriguez and has handled sexual abuse claims against other religious organizations.
"That's why having a support group is so helpful, and that's why getting the police or a therapist or any outside professional involved is critical," he said.
While the Jehovah's Witnesses headquarters maintains extensive internal files on accused molesters within the church, they refuse to make public this information. In many cases, they do not report the crime to police, Bowen said. As a result, no solid figures exist on the number of Jehovah's Witnesses who have been accused of sexual molestation.
"Whatever that number is, you can be sure it's going to start growing quickly and dramatically," said Bowen. "Victims are starting to discover that the church can no longer bully them into silence."
The denomination has one million members in the United States and six million across the world.