The leadership of the Jehovah's Witnesses – one of the world's most insular religions – for 25 years has instructed its elders to keep cases of child sexual abuse secret from law enforcement and members of their own congregations, according to an examination of thousands of pages of documents in recent cases.
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The religion's parent organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, issued the directives in at least 10 memos dating back to 1989. Although the memos were anonymously written, Watchtower officials have testified that the organization's Governing Body approved them all.
The most recent letter, dated Nov. 6, 2014, instructed elders – the spiritual leaders of local congregations – to form confidential committees to handle potential criminal matters internally.
"In some cases, the elders will form a judicial committee to handle the alleged wrongdoing that may also constitute a violation of criminal law (e.g., murder, rape, child abuse, fraud, theft, assault)," the directive stipulates. "Generally, the elders should not delay the judicial committee process, but strict confidentiality must be maintained to avoid unnecessary entanglement with secular authorities who may be conducting a criminal investigation of the matter."
Within the organization, the Watchtower has final say over who is considered a serial child abuser. According to a 2012 Watchtower memo: "Not every individual who has sexually abused a child in the past is considered a 'predator.' The (Watchtower), not the local body of elders, determines whether an individual who has sexually abused children in the past will be considered a 'predator.' "
The directives are part of a pattern for the organization, which has more than 8 million members worldwide and preaches that Armageddon will soon release the world from Satan's grip. In the U.S., the Jehovah's Witnesses operate more than 14,000 congregations with about 1 million members.
Internal documents obtained by Reveal show that the Witnesses have systematically instructed elders and other leaders to keep child sexual abuse confidential, while collecting detailed information on congregants who prey on children.
Having successfully leveraged the First Amendment as a defense of their right to not serve in the military or salute the American flag, the Jehovah's Witnesses now are using a similar legal strategy to defend policies that shield serial predators from law enforcement.
" 'You come to us first. Don't tell anybody. … You don't warn parents in the congregation. We'll decide what happens here.' That's their policy."
— Irwin Zalkin, attorney for Jose Lopez, describing the system he believes the Witnesses have created
In many ways, the response by the Witnesses in recent child sexual abuse cases has mirrored the actions of another religious group: ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York. There, the community has faced a backlash for asking observant Jews to consult a rabbi instead of going immediately to police with evidence of abuse. With the Witnesses, however, there appears to be far more documentation and a bureaucratic protocol for dealing with allegations of abuse among its members.
For Jose Lopez, it took almost three decades to find some semblance of justice after he'd been molested – when he was 7 – by a predator who'd operated within a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in San Diego.
When his case against the Witnesses concluded in October, a judgeawarded Lopez $13.5 million, a remarkably large sum in an era of frequent payouts in abuse cases. The decision rested in part on the Witnesses' refusal to hand over documents in the case, prompting the frustrated judge to ban the organization from making a defense.
The Lopez case was remarkable for another reason. It forced the Witnesses into a rare admission: Somewhere within the organization, there is a trove of documents with the names and whereabouts of known child sexual abusers in its U.S. congregations.
During the trial, a senior official from the Jehovah's Witnesses headquarters, Richard Ashe, told Lopez's attorney, Irwin Zalkin, that the organization had collected and electronically scanned internal documents on decades of known abuse cases. Ashe said that the Witnesses keep their child sexual abuse reports in a Microsoft SharePoint database but that it would take years to extract the information because it was mixed up with millions of other documents.
"Honestly, Mr. Zalkin, the efforts that we've made up to this point is just trying to figure out how on earth we could ever do that in our filing system," Ashe said. "You're talking about 14,000 congregations and over 3 million documents that have been scanned and that would have to be searched. … It would take years to do that."
During the case, Lopez said his mother reported his abuse to the elders in 1986, but they didn't call police or warn the congregation. Lopez and his mother left the religion soon after.
Even as the abuser, Gonzalo Campos, continued to sexually assault children, the elders promoted him within the congregation, first to ministerial servant in 1988, then to elder in 1993, according to a 1995 letter from elders to the Watchtower.
In 1994, John and Manuela Dorman learned that Campos had abused their son a decade earlier, court documents show. They called Campos, who confessed and said the elders already were aware of the situation. When Manuela Dorman went to the elders, they told her not to talk about the abuse. They said too much time had passed, and nothing could be done.
After a letter from the Dormans reached the Watchtower later that year, the elders confronted Campos. In 1995, he confessed and was disfellowshipped, the Witnesses' version of excommunication. By then, he had at least seven known victims, according to elders' letters.
But Campos was reinstated to the congregation in 2000, eight months after the elders had sent a letter to the Watchtower explaining that they had managed to keep Campos' past hidden, court documents show. "The community does not know of all this and there was no publicity about this," the letter read. "Everything took place in the congregation and because of that he was not prosecuted." Campos, according to news reports, fled to Mexico.
During Lopez's trial, Ashe testified that the Watchtower instructs elders that child abuse must be kept confidential.
"And it directs that that should be kept confidential from prosecuting authorities?" Zalkin asked.
"Yes," Ashe responded.
Asked whether the Watchtower's policy of silence hinders parents' ability to protect their children from abuse, Ashe told Zalkin, "Not in my view it doesn't."
Ashe did not respond to a request for comment. In a written statement to Reveal, representatives from the Watchtower said, "We continue to educate parents and provide them with valuable tools to help them educate and protect their children."
But Zalkin, who has been aggressively filing lawsuits against the Witnesses throughout the country, said the pattern is clear.
"Keep your mouth shut. Don't go to law enforcement," he said, describing the system he believes the Witnesses have created. " 'You come to us first. Don't tell anybody. … You don't warn parents in the congregation. We'll decide what happens here.' That's their policy."
Increasing claims of cover-ups
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In the last few years, the Jehovah's Witnesses have been hit with an increasing barrage of lawsuits claiming the organization has covered up child sexual abuse.
A pair of sisters in Vermont filed a suit in September claiming that a member of their congregation molested them when they were as young as 4. When they reported the abuse to the elders in the congregation, they said, they were called liars. The next month in Dallas, five women and one man filed a joint lawsuit alleging that an elder in their congregation sexually abused them while they were all younger than 13.
In Oregon in December, two former Witnesses sued the Watchtower and a local congregation, claiming the defendants kept silent after learning that an elder had sexually abused them when they were in grade school. Since 2012, attorneys have filed more than a dozen similar suits against the Watchtower in Connecticut, Florida, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and other states.
In a recent court hearing in California, Jehovah's Witnesses lawyer James McCabe argued that "the religious beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses were at play in this case from start to finish."
At the heart of this issue are the Watchtower's own child abuse policy memos.
Each memo has been addressed to "all bodies of elders" and bears the letterhead of either the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society or the Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses. Those are the primary corporations used by the organization to administer spiritual guidance, create and disseminate policy, oversee the writing and publication of literature, and manage the organization's vast real estate holdings.
"Often the peace, unity, and spiritual well-being of the congregation are at stake," a 1989 Watchtower memo reads. "Improper use of the tongue by an elder can result in serious legal problems for the individual, the congregation, and even the Society."
"Worldly persons are quick to resort to lawsuits if they feel their 'rights' have been violated," according to the document. "Substantial monetary damages could be assessed against the elders or congregation. In some cases where the authorities are involved, certain complications could lead to a fine or imprisonment."
Subsequent memos reinforced the Watchtower's policies, culminating in a 1997 letter that directed elders to report all known or suspected child sexual abusers – past, present and future – to the organization's New York headquarters. This memo appears to be the foundation of the database referenced in Jose Lopez's case.
The memo lists 11 questions that must be answered in each case, including the name of the perpetrator, age of the victim and how many times the abuse occurred. Other questions appear to be designed to gauge the perpetrator's risk of exposure: "How is he viewed in the community and by the authorities? Has he lived down any notoriety in the community? Are members of the congregation aware of what took place?"
In the Lopez trial, the Watchtower refused to provide its list of perpetrators, in violation of an order upheld by the California Supreme Court. It also refused to provide the longest-serving member of the Governing Body, Gerrit Lösch, who was subpoenaed.
As a result, San Diego Superior Court Judge Joan Lewis disqualified the Watchtower's defense.
"Watchtower's actions or omissions were 'reprehensible.' I think 'disgraceful' may be synonymous with 'reprehensible,' but I think 'disgraceful' doesn't say enough about it," Lewis wrote in her decision.
"The award of punitive damages against them will hopefully send a message to Watchtower and its managing agents, the governing body of the Jehovah's Witnesses, that their handling of sex abuse cases within their congregation was absolutely reckless."
Her $13.5 million verdict was based solely on Lopez's evidence and testimony.
"They fight every request for documents, every subpoena," said attorney Irwin Zalkin. "They'll take a hit not to produce what they know."
"Not every individual who has sexually abused a child in the past is considered a 'predator.' The (Watchtower), not the local body of elders, determines whether an individual who has sexually abused children in the past will be considered a 'predator.' "— 2012 Watchtower memo
Child abuse policies based on Scripture
For example, if a child reports to an elder that someone in the congregation has molested him or her,the child must produce another witness to the crime before the elders will investigate the allegation. The so-called two-witness rule,one memo explains, comes from Deuteronomy 19:15: "No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin. … At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good." The Watchtower bases its child abuse policies on Scripture, and the message to elders is clear: Disobey the policy and you disobey God. For emphasis, the authors punctuate many of their policy directives with verses from the Bible.
Although most incidents of child abuse don't occur in the presence of witnesses, senior official Richard Ashe said in his deposition that elders are bound by the two-witness rule. "You know the truth has the ring of truth to it, but it still has to be established scripturally by the mouth of two witnesses for the congregation to be authorized to take any action," he said.
The only other way elders are allowed to take action is for the perpetrator to confess. But abusers who express repentance often are allowed to remain in the congregation.
In either case, elders are not instructed to call police unless required by state law. But state laws are complicated. According to a federal agency, clergy are mandated to report child abuse in 42 states, but laws in 32 of those states, including California, contain a loophole called the clergy-penitent privilege. That exception allows religious leaders to withhold information from authorities when they receive it through a spiritual communication, such as a confession in the Catholic church.
Watchtower officials say they instruct their members to obey state laws. Their policy memos direct elders who hear of alleged child abuse to "contact the Society's Legal Department immediately" to learn whether the laws in their states require them to notify police.