Jehovah's Witnesses' tab for child sex abuse secrecy: $2M and counting

Reveal/November 16, 2017

By Trey Bundy

The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to hand over internal documents detailing alleged child sexual abuse just got more expensive.

A California appeals court last week upheld an order for the religion to pay $4,000 for each day it does not turn over the documents. The tab currently stands at $2 million. The ruling stems from a case in San Diego, where Osbaldo Padron sued the Jehovah’s Witnesses for failing to warn congregants that a child abuser was in their midst.

Padron, a former Jehovah’s Witness, was sexually abused as a child by an adult member of his congregation named Gonzalo Campos. Campos confessed to sexually abusing seven children.

During that time, leaders at the Jehovah’s Witnesses world headquarters in New York – known as the Watchtower – knew that Campos had abused children, according to court documents. Yet they continued to promote him to higher positions of responsibility in his congregation and took no action to prevent further abuse, the documents show.

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting reviewed multiple cases involving Campos as part of a larger investigation into the Watchtower’s institutional cover-up of child sex abuse in its congregations.  

According to internal Watchtower documents, the organization has instructed congregation leaders, called elders, to keep child abuse secret from law enforcement as a matter of policy since at least 1989.

In 1997, the Watchtower sent a letter to all local elders across the U.S., instructing them to send to a written report about anyone currently or formerly serving in a position of responsibility known to be have sexually abused a child.

Three years ago, Padron sought those documents in court as part of his lawsuit, hoping to show a pattern that extended beyond his own case. The documents also would provide a roadmap to what are likely thousands of known or accused child molesters in congregations across the country.

The Watchtower argued repeatedly that fulfilling Padron’s request would violate the privacy rights of people named in the documents, confidentiality privileges between elders and congregants, and the organization’s religious protections under the First Amendment. The court dismissed those arguments. But the Watchtower has refused to fully turn over the documents.

In June, Judge Richard Strauss imposed sanctions of $4,000 a day until the organization complied. The Watchtower appealed.

In upholding Strauss’ order last week, the appellate judges called the Watchtower a “recalcitrant litigant who refuses to follow valid orders and merely reiterates losing arguments.”

Should the Watchtower again refuse to comply with the court’s order, the judges wrote, Strauss would be justified in kicking the Jehovah’s Witnesses out of court and ruling in favor of Padron.

“Indeed, we find Watchtower’s conduct so egregious that if it continues to defy the March 25, 2016 order, terminating sanctions appear to be warranted and necessary,” the judges wrote.

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