Another church facing charges of sexual abuse

Baltimore Sun/May 21, 2002
By Dennis O'Brien

Former Jehovah's Witness leader to be tried on sex offenses, attempted rape; Congregation is in Chase; 3 accusers, now 29 to 31, claim incidents occurred between 1974 and 1984.

In a case similar to those troubling the Archdiocese Of Baltimore , police have charged a former leader of a Jehovah's Witness congregation in Chase with sexually abusing three women who say the congregation discouraged them from reporting the abuse and shunned them when they spoke out about it.

David R. Shumaker, 39, of Felton, Pa., will be tried July 15 in Baltimore County Circuit Court on several sex offense counts and one count of attempted rape in a series of incidents that allegedly occurred between 1974 and 1984, when the women were child and teen-age members of the Jehovah's Witness congregation and Shumaker was a ministerial servant, according to papers in Circuit Court.

Shumaker's lawyer, Michael Pate, declined to comment yesterday.

Assistant State's Attorney Kevin Barth, the prosecutor assigned to the case, also declined to comment.

But in court papers, county police charge Shumaker with repeatedly molesting one of the women and performing oral sex on another at his father's house in the 11000 block of Raphael Road in Kingsville between 1976 and 1984.

Shumaker, whose father is a longtime member of the congregation and is now an elder who oversees church matters, also is accused of improperly touching a third woman while they were swimming and tubing on the Little Gunpowder Falls near Philadelphia Road in the mid-1970s.

"I would tell him that I was going to tell," one woman is quoted as telling police in a four-page statement of charges. "He would twist my arm and tell me that no one would believe me, and that I liked it."

The Sun does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse.

Report in 1980s

One of the women said in an interview yesterday that when she and the others reported abuse in the mid-1980s, the church's all-male group of elders refused to believe them and banished them from the congregation.

All three women, who now range in age from 29 to 31, have quit the church, she said, after years of being ostracized by the congregation and its members for making the allegations.

"They had this rule that you need a corroborating witness," said the woman, 30, who lives in Harford County. "How are you going to have a witness to sex abuse? It was like no one wanted to believe us."

Research on claims

Bill Bowen, a former Jehovah's Witness elder from Benton, Ky., who has been studying how the church handles abuse complaints for several years, said his research shows the women's experience is fairly common.

Members of the close-knit organization, known for its door-to-door evangelism, are encouraged to report abuse to congregation elders first, Bowen said.

If elders determine that abuse has taken place, their first call is to the church's legal department at its headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., he said. The lawyers often then decide whether to report it to authorities, Bowen said.

"They're worried about getting sued," he said.

Bowen said that the church holds tremendous power over its members, and being asked to leave the church is like being "stoned to death spiritually. They have an absolute ironclad hold over their membership and they control their lives."

When the women made the allegations, all three were banished, and no church member was allowed contact.

Church spokesman

David Semonian, a spokesman for the church at its Brooklyn headquarters, said that when a member comes forward with an accusation of abuse, two elders meet with the accuser and then with the accused to see if the complaint is valid.

"We do look for some corroborating evidence," he said. "The Bible directs that no single witness should rise up against any man."

Semonian said that he is unsure what policies the Jehovah's Witnesses followed when the women complained in the 1980s, but he said the church has become "very aggressive" in protecting children from abuse.

'Do not discourage'

"Jehovah's Witnesses do not discourage anyone from reporting child abuse or sex abuse to the authorities," Semonian said. "We would not do that. The Christian congregation does not take the place of the civil authorities."

Bowen said that members convicted of child abuse are sometimes later sent out for door-to-door proselytizing.

"That's just what I want - a child abuser knocking on my door," he said.

But Semonian said that anyone guilty of molestation is barred from holding positions of responsibility and that if he is sent door-to-door, he is not allowed to have any unsupervised contact with children.

Semonian said that dismissal of a member is a last resort for those who become a danger to the church.

"It's not that we're kicking someone out," he said. "It's an arrangement by God to keep the congregation from harmful influences."

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