Appeals court scolds Jehovah's Witness organization over failure to turn over molestation records
Jose Lopez, at right, discusses his lawsuit against the governing body of Jehovah's Witness, with his lawyer, Irwin Zalkin, in 2014.
Kristina DavisContact Reporter
The governing body of the Jehovah’s Witness church received another rebuke this week by a state appeals court for “obstinately” refusing to turn over internal documents about knowledge of church leaders who have been accused of sexually abusing children.
The ruling, filed Thursday by the 4th District Court of Appeal, upholds a $4,000-a-day penalty against Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York for its failure to comply with a court order in a lawsuit filed by a man who claimed to have been molested in the 1990s.
“Here, Watchtower has abused the discovery process. It has zealously advocated its position and lost multiple times. Yet, it cavalierly refuses to acknowledge the consequences of these losses and the validity of the court’s orders requiring it to produce documents…,” the opinion concluded.
The fight for these internal documents has been at the center of not only this lawsuit, but a similar one that accuses the same leader of molestation.
Church elders knew Gonzalo Campos had molested a boy as early as 1982 but did not remove him from interacting with children, according to evidence revealed in the cases.
In one lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court in 2012, Jose Lopez said he was 7 when a church elder in a Linda Vista congregation suggested Campos mentor him. Campos molested the boy at Campos’ La Jolla home one day in 1986, according to the lawsuit. When church leaders were told, they said they would handle the situation, the lawsuit says.
Campos became more involved with another congregation in La Jolla in 1987. In 1994 or 1995, Campos molested Osbaldo Padron, a church member there, when he was 7 or 8 years old, according to Padron’s 2013 lawsuit.
Campos later confessed to abusing at least eight children between 1982 and 1995. He fled to Mexico around 2010, said Irwin Zalkin, the lawyer for both alleged victims.
Watchtower has argued that the court’s order to turn over the documents is too burdensome and overbroad, and also that Watchtower does not have access to such records after 2001, but a different governing body does.
In both lawsuits, Watchtower has rebuffed court orders to produce documents about current of former leaders accused of molesting children and has heavily redacted the records it has turned over.
In the Lopez case, a Superior Court judge found Watchtower to be noncompliant and eventually terminated the organization’s right to be heard in the case.
Watchtower appealed, questioning why the judge didn’t use lesser measures to gain compliance, such as monetary sanctions. The appeals court agreed last year, saying the terminating sanction had been too harsh and reversed a $13.5 million judgment that had been imposed. That case is still being litigated.
But when the issue came up in the Padron case, and a different Superior Court judge imposed financial sanctions — $4,000 a day for not producing or searching for the ordered documents — Watchtower complained it was unfair.
“… We are troubled that Watchtower has taken two inconsistent positions before us,” the three-judge appellate panel said in its Thursday ruling.
The court concluded that Watchtower’s conduct was “so egregious” in its handling of the documents that if court orders were not followed, it may be necessary to end the organization’s right to be heard in Padron’s case.
Watchtower officials said in a statement Friday that the organization is evaluating its legal options following the ruling.
REVIEW COURT DOCUMENTS HERE