A battle rises within Jehovah's Witnesses

Bergen Record/May 27, 2002
By John Chadwick

In 1989, a Jehovah's Witnesses member from Paramus pleaded guilty in a Hackensack courtroom to molesting his granddaughter.

Attracting no media attention at the time, the case is now part of a larger battle by the victim's parents and two other dissident Jehovah's Witnesses in Kentucky and Tennessee against the leadership of this insular Christian denomination.

Each of the four has complained publicly about the church's handling of sexual abuse complaints against members. They say the church seeks to handle such matters privately, rather than going to authorities.

This month, the Brooklyn-based church - formally named the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society - began expelling the four members.

Carl and Barbara Pandelo, the parents of the victim in the Bergen County case, say they were excommunicated two weeks ago for "apostasy,'' or forsaking their religious faith.

But the former Maywood residents say they suspect the real reason is retaliation because they voiced their complaints on NBC's "Dateline" program.The two other critics facing expulsion also went on "Dateline." The segment is expected to air Tuesday, a network spokeswoman said.

Because Jehovah's Witnesses are prohibited from listening to anyone expelled from the church, the Pandelos say the expulsion effectively forbids other members to watch the show.

"This was a preemptive strike,'' said Carl Pandelo, who lives with his wife in Belmar. "Even rebellious members who do watch it won't be able to discuss it with church elders.''

Church officials declined comment on the expulsions, but defended their handling of sexual abuse complaints.

Unlike the current scandal in the Catholic Church, the accusations against the Jehovah's Witnesses dwell more on alleged abuse by congregants rather than faith leaders. But like the Catholic controversy, the allegations raise questions about how religious communities handle potentially criminal acts by one of their own.

The Pandelos' criticism of the church goes back to 1988, when their 12-year-old daughter told them she was molested by her grandfather. The suspect, Carl's father, Clement Pandelo, confessed, and was sentenced to five years' probation in a plea bargain, according to court records.

But the aftermath created a rift between the Pandelos and their congregation, then located on Saddle River Road in Fair Lawn.

The elders, or leaders of the congregation, played a large role in the case, instructing the grandfather to confess to authorities, then expelling him from the congregation, and finally forgiving him 18 months later.

In this tightknit religious community, where the faithful live by biblical injunctions and routinely seek guidance from church elders, the Pandelos said they were told to forgive the grandfather, and to keep his crimes secret from the other members.

They said the elders should have permanently expelled the grandfather, and informed the congregation of his wrongdoing. They're particularly upset he has been allowed to go door-to-door, preaching the church's message - although his wife is required to accompany him.

"There was no concern for my daughter, or any of the other children in the church,'' Barbara Pandelo said.

A spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses said the church believes in forgiving sinners if they show repentance, and members are expected to welcome them back to the fold. A Maywood man who served as an elder in the Pandelos' congregation said the elders kept a close watch on the grandfather to make sure he wasn't alone with children at church functions.

"As far as pedophilia is concerned, the elders will monitor the situation, besides whatever else is happening legally,'' said the elder, Anthony Valenti."That continues to be the case today.''

The rift widened when the congregation refused to testify for the Pandelos when they filed a lawsuit against the grandfather.

With the help of the Internet, the family joined forces with other critics a few years ago. They recently issued a joint press release after the church initiated expulsion proceedings.

Because New Jersey requires any citizen to report child abuse to the police, the elders in the Pandelo case said they had to call the authorities.

But critics as well as church leaders say that's not necessarily the case with every allegation, especially in states with no mandatory reporting laws.

Church officials say they decide on a case-by-case basis how to handle accusations. David Semonian, a spokesman at church headquarters, said congregation elders must consult with legal advisers at Jehovah's Witnesses' headquarters when faced with an accusation of child abuse.

"If the law requires [reporting], then that's automatic, and we would never try to discourage someone,'' Semonian said. "But a person may decide themselves that they do not want to report it. And we would not force them to do so.''

Jehovah Witnesses, who claim 6 million members worldwide, live by a Bible-based theology that requires members to keep some distance from the trappings of the secular world. Under this "Christian neutrality,'' members do not salute the flag, serve in the military, or participate in politics.

Members say they strive to be decent, law-abiding citizens while following Jesus' example of being "no part of the world.'' Critics, however, say this world view has led to mistakes, such as handling cases of child abuse through congregation elders instead of calling in law enforcement.

"For any type of wrongdoing, you are supposed to report the matter to the elders, and they are to give you the godly direction on what to do about it,'' said William Bowen, once an elder of his congregation in Kentucky, and now one of the four facing expulsion. "If they tell you, 'I don't think you should report,' and you don't listen to them, you could be perceived as going against God's will.'' Bowen said he resigned his position as elder in 2000 after church leaders resisted his efforts to report an allegation of child abuse that dated back to the early 1980s.

Critics want the church to institute mandatory reporting, and to prohibit convicted abusers from holding leadership positions and engaging in door-to-door evangelizing.

Meanwhile, the Pandelos say they will appeal their expulsion to church elders, although they acknowledge they are no longer active Jehovah's Witnesses.

"It's more than the principle, it's the punishment that goes with it,'' Barbara Pandelo said. "We don't deserve them telling our friends that we are on the same level as adulterers, fornicators, or molesters.''

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