Jehovah's Witnesses' policy on child molesters attacked
Church says it follows laws on reporting suspected abuse
By PETER SMITH, The Courier-Journal
New Jersey residents Barbara Pandelo, left, and daughter Corinne Holloway are unhappy that Holloway's grandfather, who sexually abused her, was reinstated twice after being expelled by Jehovah's Witnesses' congregations. Church policy also allows him to go door to door as an evangelist.
BY PETER ACKERMAN,
ASBURY PARK PRESS
» Molestation victim, parents think church elders let them down
» Policies on reporting abuse allegations vary among religious denominations
The Jehovah's Witnesses church is under growing attack by some of its members for policies they say can allow child molesters to go unreported, putting church members and the public at increased risk.
Church officials say elders alert authorities to suspected abuse in states that require reporting. But in other states they prefer to take steps to protect children that don't breach what they see as confidential communication between elders and members.
Church policy also allows some confessed molesters -- whose offenses are usually kept secret -- to stay in the church community, sometimes with tragic results.
An examination by The Courier-Journal of court cases involving church members in Maine, New Hampshire and Texas showed that the confidential church disciplinary process was blamed by some victims for allowing molestation to continue.
Among the cases:
In Maine, a teen-age boy was molested between 1989 and 1992 by a church member after church elders disciplined the offender secretly for molesting another boy.
Elders did not report the first case to authorities, and the law did not require them to. The second victim told a therapist, who notified authorities.
In New Hampshire, a former church member said elders failed to act when she told them her husband was physically abusing their children. The man received a 56-year prison sentence in October 2000 for sexual abuse that continued years after the woman went to elders.
New Hampshire law required clergy to report suspicions of abuse.
In Texas, a prosecutor said church elders told a teen-age boy to stop molesting his younger sister in 1992 but failed to report it to police in apparent violation of state law. The boy later molested a second sister and in 1997 was sentenced to a 40-year prison term. Police were alerted when one victim reported the abuse to hospital staff following a suicide attempt.
Church policy also allows molesters who are deemed repentant to continue evangelizing door to door -- accompanied by another member -- bringing them into contact with unsuspecting households that don't have the church's knowledge that a child molester is at their door.
The church's policies on sexual abuse have come under scrutiny following the resignation of a Western Kentucky church elder who objected to them.
The court cases have played out against the backdrop of a growing national consensus that all suspected child abuse must be reported and known molesters aggressively identified.
A lawyer for the Jehovah's Witnesses church, which has nearly 1 million members nationally and 6 million worldwide, said it complies with those state laws that require church elders to report abuse.
"If there is a law that mandates reporting, that takes precedent over any confidentiality, whether in church policy or statute," said Mario Moreno, associate general counsel for the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, a legal corporation of the church.
"I refuse to support a pedophile refuge mentality."
William H. Bowen in his letter resigning his church leadership post in Draffenville, Ky.
"In states where there is no reporting requirement, it's a different scenario," Moreno said.
Elders might have the victim relocated away from the abuser or have the parent or guardian of the victim, or even the accused person, report the abuse to police, he said.
"The laws of this country, as well as people's moral values, tell you there are some things that should be kept private. That's why laws protect confidential communications between clergy and their flock."
But Moreno said elders who contact the church's legal department with cases of suspected sexual abuse -- as they must do -- are often advised to refer victims to police or other outside help, even if the law doesn't require it.
Victims and their parents are free, Moreno said, to seek help from police or therapists and should not blame the church if they choose not to do so.
"Parents are encouraged to do whatever they need to do to protect their child," said Moreno.
However, some abuse victims and their advocates, in lawsuits and in interviews, said that fear of reprisals by church leaders, coupled with the importance of the church in their lives, made them reluctant to report abuse outside the church.
William H. Bowen resigned Dec. 31 as presiding overseer (chief elder) of the Draffenville congregation near Paducah, saying he could no longer support church policies that he felt allowed child molesters to go undetected.
"I refuse to support a pedophile refuge mentality that is promoted among bodies of elders around the world," wrote Bowen in his letter of resignation.
"Criminals should be ousted, identified and punished to protect the innocent and give closure to the victim."
Woman felt punished for accusing husband
Sara Poisson of Claremont, N.H., said she never considered turning to anyone but her church elders when then-husband Paul Berry began physically abusing some of her children. Berry would eventually receive a 56-year prison term.
"Whatever issues might arise that required guidance were to be handled within the congregation by the body of elders," Poisson said at her ex-husband's sentencing for molestation on Oct. 31, 2000.
Bowen said members of the Jehovah's Witnesses are continually told that if they have any problems within the family, they are to go to the elders for help.
"You have to understand the Jehovah's Witnesses organization," Bowen said. "Their life revolves around following the direction of what the local elders and the organization say."
But Sam Neal, an elder in the congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Jeffersontown, Ky., said church members are not sheltered.
"All of us have access to all of the things in the community," said Neal, retired associate dean of the University of Louisville's School of Social Work. "Whatever we need, we know where to go."
Church attorney Moreno said church members know they can go to the authorities on a matter of abuse. "They haven't committed a sin by turning in a Jehovah's Witness to the authorities," he said. "It's a very personal decision."
But Poisson said in Hillsborough County Superior Court at her ex-husband's sentencing that when she went to elders with her concerns, they repeatedly told her that she "needed to be a better wife" and "needed to pray more."
"Each time I spoke to the elders I was sanctioned in some way," Poisson told the court. "Some privilege was removed because I had dared to usurp the authority of my husband." Poisson later told a reporter she was barred from speaking at some meetings and restricted in the amount of door-to-door evangelism she could do.
New Hampshire law since the late 1970s has said that any "person having reason to suspect that a child has been abused or neglected shall report the same."
There is no evidence in court records or elders' public comments that the church reported Poisson's allegations.
Poisson said in court that while she did not know of Berry's sexual abuse, she knew of and didn't report the physical abuse, and "this I have to live with for the rest of my life."
Authorities found out, Poisson said, when her son went to school one day with the imprint of a fly swatter on his leg.
Poisson said a social worker gave her an ultimatum: Have Berry leave the house or lose custody of their children. She chose the former and said the congregation shunned her.
Some time later, one of Poisson's daughters ran away. She returned 18 months later, frail and sick, with the words, "Why did you let that happen?" Poisson said in court. The girl informed her mother that Berry had sexually abused her from age 4 to 10.
Mother and daughter went to police to launch the sexual abuse investigation.
Berry was arrested and in July 2000 was convicted of 17 counts of sexual assault. Among his offenses, Berry suspended one of his daughters from hooks in a barn and strapped her to a tree during episodes of sexual abuse.
When Berry showed up for sentencing, so did 29 members of his Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in Wilton, N.H., all of whom spoke in his favor, often in glowing terms, according to court records.
"Whatever charges that have been brought against him have been somehow misconstrued," said Robert Michalowski, a former Wilton elder. "Elders in the congregation would have picked up on (sexual abuse) in a minute."
In sentencing Berry, Judge Arthur Brennan said the church might have done more to help the victim.
"The church didn't help her and the state didn't help her," Brennan said. ". . . Perhaps if somebody had spoken years ago, if somebody had inquired, instead of relying perhaps on Jehovah . . . maybe it would have been . . . a lot less cruel for that child."
Brennan said he was "not talking against anybody's religion. I'm saying I've seen this happen in any number of different congregations."
The victim, Holly Brewer, of Berkeley, Calif., agreed to have her story told.
Berry maintains his innocence and is appealing the conviction, his lawyer, Mark Sisti, said.
Moreno would not comment on whether elders violated the law in this case but said, "Once in a while, in a small minority cases, elders screw up. They screw up because they don't call here (the Watch Tower legal department). When they call here, they don't screw up."
The Hillsborough County attorney's office said it did not investigate whether elders broke the law by failing to report the suspected physical abuse. By the time prosecutors investigated, more than one year had passed since the elders' involvement, beyond the statute of limitations for prosecuting a misdemeanor such as failing to report.
Three years ago, similar questions about elders' actions arose in a Texas case.
When a family in the Houston-area church reported that a teen-age son was molesting his younger sister, elders visited the home, counseled the family and received the boy's assurance he would stop, according to allegations in the family's lawsuit against the church.
Instead, the abuse continued, the lawsuit said. A criminal court jury in 1997 convicted the then-22-year-old for abuse committed as an adult. He was given a 40-year sentence for aggravated sexual assault.
"The elders sat at that kitchen table and listened to her tell what her brother had done," said Kelly Siegler, an assistant district attorney for Harris County. "All they did is tell him to stop and they prayed about it. They just blew it off. No one ever told the police."
Siegler said she would have prosecuted elders for failing to report abuse if the two-year statute of limitations hadn't expired.
The family sued the church in civil court and in 1999 reached a settlement that bars both sides from discussing the case.
Houston lawyer Jeffrey Parsons, who represented the Jehovah's Witnesses, said he was convinced the church conducted itself properly. "It was really an unfortunate circumstance, but (the family's lawsuit) was not a well-founded case."
Strict burden of proof needed for discipline
Taking a sexual abuse complaint to Jehovah's Witnesses church elders puts members in contact with a secretive church process that has a burden of proof that is much greater than in a civil court.
If a church member is accused of any offense, elders follow a strict biblical standard. They require either the member's confession or the testimony of at least two witnesses, including the accuser, to prove the member's guilt, according to church attorney Moreno and church publications.
This applies even in cases of sexual abuse, when there often are no "outside" witnesses.
For victims who can't produce witnesses or persuade the accused person to confess, elders are instructed to "explain to the accuser that nothing more can be done in a judicial (church disciplinary) way," according to a 1995 article in the Jehovah's Witnesses' Watchtower -- a magazine with a circulation of 22 million in 132 languages.
"And the congregation will continue to view the one accused as an innocent person," the article continued.
The article offers one other avenue of justice: "The question of his guilt or innocence can be safely left in Jehovah's (God's) hands."
Moreno said that eventually, the truth comes out. "Somebody else comes out of the woodwork and now you can take action," he said. Moreno said two separate accusers would count as two witnesses when making a sexual abuse accusation.
Church policy neither encourages nor discourages members to report suspected or admitted sexual abuse to police, Moreno said. Elders are instructed to always call the central legal department of the church in Carmel, N.Y., upon receiving an accusation.
When elders call, church lawyers tell them whether state law requires them to report abuse to police, Moreno said. A still-valid 1989 church memo also tells elders to call for legal advice before being interviewed by police, responding to a subpoena or voluntarily turning over confidential church records, unless police have a search warrant.
Moreno said church lawyers might advise elders to refer victims to police or other outside help. "That's a personal decision."
If elders suspect sexual abuse has occurred, they can begin church disciplinary hearings, in which what is said and written is held confidential. No one but elders may take notes, which are collected and kept in a secure place, according to the 1989 memo.
It is a process intended to safeguard reputations and protect the church against lawsuits, according to the memo. The church memo warns of lawsuits by "vindictive or disgruntled ones" and "some who oppose the Kingdom preaching work" if accusations are leaked.
No tape recordings of these proceedings are permitted.
A Jan. 2 statement from J.R. Brown, director of public affairs for the Jehovah's Witnesses, said church elders "encourage the wrongdoers to do everything they can to set the matter straight with the authorities."
But the strict rules of confidentiality -- in which elders are warned not to tell even their own family about disciplinary proceedings -- can leave a molester's identity shielded from those not involved.
Bryan Rees, formerly of Augusta, Maine, said in a lawsuit that his stepfather, Alan Ayers, never warned him to stay clear of his next-door neighbor, church member Larry Baker. Baker had confessed to Ayers and other elders that he had molested another boy.
The elders had secretly disciplined Baker, giving him "some real strict, severe counsel . . . and that was essentially it," Baker later testified.
Maine didn't require church officials to notify authorities and the elders in Augusta never informed police or anyone else. Though they warned Baker to stay away from children, the molester testified that elders knew he was going door to door with Rees.
"I'm sure they must have known," Baker testified. "There wasn't anything secret about it."
Baker went on to molest Rees at least 30 times by his own admission between 1989 and 1992. He was convicted of unlawful contact with a minor and served about a 90-day jail term.
Rees, who could not be reached for comment, won a $1.2 million judgment against Baker but has not been able to collect, according to Rees' lawyer, Michael Waxman.
Rees later went public with his story after suing the Jehovah's Witnesses unsuccessfully in 1998. He alleged the church breached its fiduciary responsibility when it failed to warn him about Baker and when it failed to exert some type of control over Baker's actions.
But Maine's highest court rejected such arguments in 1999.
"The mere fact that one individual knows that a third party is or could be dangerous to others does not make that individual responsible for controlling the third party," the Supreme Judicial Court ruled.
Ayers, Rees' stepfather, declined to comment, but church lawyer Moreno applauded the decision.
"There is no duty to announce to people that 'John Brown' is a child abuser," he said. If the court had ruled otherwise, he said, it "would basically discourage people from going to their ministers and getting help."
"If people could not count on confidentiality when they go and confess to a Catholic priest, there's going be quite a chilling effect on religion," he said.
The Jehovah's Witnesses say the privilege of clergy confidentiality applies to any confidential communication with members, including disciplinary hearings that involve multiple elders and witnesses.
A prosecutor in Hillsborough County, N.H., is currently seeking to force an elder to testify to what Gregory Blackstock, already convicted in one child molestation case, confessed to elders in the case of two other girls who were allegedly molested. The congregation involved was not the same as the one in the Paul Berry case.
Assistant County Attorney Roger Chadwick said because more than one elder was involved, and one elder regularly phoned the alleged victims' mother with updates, the church couldn't claim exemption under the state's confidentiality law.
"Simply put, (church) judicial investigations and telephone timeouts to confirm confessional details were not the types of speech that (clergy confidentiality laws) intended to protect," Chadwick said in a written brief filed in Hillsborough County Superior Court.
But Attorney Paul Garrity, representing Blackstock, argued that just because Jehovah's Witnesses don't use the one-on-one confessional process of other religions, the state can't strip its right to confidentiality based on "theological differences as to how reconciliation with God is to be achieved."
The case is pending.
AN ELDER PROTESTS
Kentuckian resigns over how suspicions handled
The Jehovah's Witnesses, whose organization was founded in the 19th century, part company with traditional Christian groups on some key doctrines.
They are best known for their door-to-door evangelism and their expectation that Jesus will soon establish the kingdom of God.
They do not serve in the military or pledge allegiance to political symbols -- facts that have brought them persecution here and abroad -- though they preach obedience to the law.
And it was the church's focus on the letter of the law that led elder and presiding overseer Bowen to publicly resign his church position in the Marshall County town of Draffenville.
Bowen had been alerted to possible sexual abuse involving a family in his area. When he called the church's legal department, as required, lawyers told him Kentucky law did not require him to report the suspected abuse.
After hearing details of the allegations, a separate church department then advised against a disciplinary hearing, Bowen said.
He said elders go against such advice at the risk of losing their position. After he resigned, he said he reported the allegations of abuse to police. Bowen said he was told by police the case is under investigation.
Bowen is still technically a member. Thomas Carrothers, the Jehovah's Witnesses' city overseer for nearby Paducah, said last month he saw no grounds for expelling Bowen. "People are allowed to express their points of view," he said.
In a talk to the congregation about Bowen's criticism of church policies, Carrothers urged church members to respond with love to "opposers" and "the slanderous statements of lying apostates."
Carrothers said he wasn't referring to Bowen.
"I was quoting from Watchtower articles. I wasn't accusing him of it," he said.
Bowen's father, Bill J. Bowen, denounced his son's actions in a videotaped interview produced and distributed by the church.
"What (my son) is saying is just absurd," the older Bowen, a longtime church member, said. "I've got to hope that my son will turn around, change his mind."
Elder David King of Edmonds, Wash., said he also resigned his church position in 1997, partly because of his disillusionment with the church's attention to "legal ramifications."
When investigating an allegation of sexual abuse several years ago, King said, elders called a lawyer at church headquarters.
"The moment we identified who we were, he immediately knew state law (in Washington) and said we didn't have to report it," King said. "That was almost the first thing he said.
"At the time, I was a true believer, but it shook me to think they were more concerned about legal ramifications than getting some kind of healthy recovery."
The victims' parents later called police. King said he gradually stopped attending the church.
Members say church discouraged efforts
Church writings say members are allowed to seek outside help when they suspect abuse.
Some members, such as Poisson, say they were intimidated by elders when they tried.
In Keene, N.H., the guardian of a 15-year-old girl sued a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in 1987, alleging that elders threatened the girl's parents with "religious excommunication and eternal damnation" if they sought police intervention or counseling for their daughter, who was sexually abused from 1975 to 1985.
The lawsuit was settled, and the girl's lawyer, Charles Donahue, said he could not comment on it. The abuser -- the girl's father -- was later sentenced to three to eight years in prison in 1986 after pleading guilty to two counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault, according to records in Cheshire County Superior Court.
Church lawyer Moreno said it would be "ridiculous" for any elder to make such a threat, and if one did, it would contradict church policy.