Lawsuits filed in Vermont show continued coverup of abuse within Jehovah's Witnesses. Victims are speaking out and the letters "JW" are going to be synonymous with the abuse of children.
Child sex abuse lawsuit filed against Vt. Jehovah's Witnesses
Posted: Sep 30, 2014 11:35 AM CDT Sep 30, 2014 11:35 AM CDTUpdated: Oct 02, 2014 4:00 PM CDT Oct 02, 2014 4:00 PM CDT
By Shelby Cashman
BURLINGTON, Vt. -
Jehovah's Witness congregation sued for alleged child abuse
Read more: http://www.wptz.com/news/vermont-new-york/burlington/jehovahs-witness-congregation-sued-for-alleged-child-abuse/28338048#ixzz3FarfFjrw
BURLINGTON, Vt. —Two women filed lawsuits Tuesday in state and federal courts alleging they were sexually abused as youngsters by an authority figure at their Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Bellows Falls in the mid-1990s, and claiming church elders did nothing to stop it.
The litigation, announced in Burlington, involves sisters Miranda and Annessa Lewis.
Miranda Lewis, now 23, appeared with her mother, Marina Mauvoleon-Folsom, and lawyers Irwin Zalkin and Jerome O’Neill at a news conference.
Lewis said she was 4 years old when she was first molested and fondled by Norton True, a "ministerial servant" in the congregation. Zalkin said that position is one approved by church elders.
She said her sister, Annessa, who now lives in Texas, was similarly assaulted by True.
“The Jehovah's Witnesses have a policy - a policy that is grounded in a code of silence,” Zalkin said, describing a secretive organization that regards protecting its own image as paramount even to protecting its children.
When the girls’ mother says she confronted church leaders with abuse allegations, in 1995 or 1996, they were called liars. Mauvoleon-Folsom said the family immediately left the congregation.
Miranda Lewis said the abuse has caused ongoing anxiety, depression, and a range of other psychological issues. She now lives in Chester with her mother.
The Lewis sisters are seeking compensatory and punitive damages from True, the Bellows Falls congregation and from the national parent organization called the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
A spokeswoman for the church referred questions to its legal team, which has not responded to a message seeking comment.
But Zalkin said he has similar cases pending in other states, and will file a lawsuit in Connecticut on Wednesday against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
O’Neill has won tens of millions of dollars in judgments and settlements from the Catholic Diocese of Burlington for claims related to priest abuse of children.
He said he will press the courts to force the church to turn over records showing what it knew about True and other child abuse complaints.
Zalkin said his investigators have uncovered indications that the Lewis girls were not True’s first victims.
Reached by phone in Maine, True sounded surprised to hear from a reporter. “I have no comment to make,” he said in response to both a question about the Lewis sisters, or whether he remains active in the church.
When asked why she waited this long to file a complaint, Miranda Lewis said she’s “actually a really private person, and it was also that fear of being so public about sensitive issues. I didn't know this (lawsuit) was an option until this year, so I decided to do it, because it’s important that this stop.”
SISTERS SUE JEHOVAH’S WITNESS CONGREGATION, ALLEGING CHILD SEX ABUSE
BRATTLEBORO REFORMER OCT. 5 2014, 11:41 AM
Editor’s note: This article is by Domenic Poli, of the Brattleboro Reformer, in which it was first published Oct. 2, 2014.
BELLOWS FALLS — New details emerged in a case of alleged sexual abuse when two sisters filed lawsuits against the local and international Jehovah’s Witness governing bodies for turning a blind eye to their molestation by a congregation member 20 years ago.
Annessa Lewis, 27, and Miranda Lewis, 23, are suing the Bellows Falls congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which they attended as children, and claim it buried the issue when they were sexually abused by “ministerial servant” Norton True in the early 1990s. The lawsuits were filed Wednesday against True, the Bellows Falls congregation, and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., the international headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witness faith.
According to the lawsuits filed by Irwin M. Zalkin of The Zalkin Law Firm in San Diego, California, True abused Annessa Lewis before her fifth birthday and later did the same to Miranda. Zalkin has previously partnered with Jerome O’Neill of Gravel & Shea in Burlington to fight the Roman Catholic Church on cases of child sex abuse; they have recently been working for victims of abuse at the hands of Jehovah’s Witness organizations. Zalkin said Miranda Lewis came across his law firm while researching online and contacted him.
The lawsuits seek damages for injuries suffered due to childhood sexual abuse.
Documents state True baby-sat Annessa Lewis, who now lives in Texas, at his home prior to her fifth birthday.
According to Zalkin, True took Annessa to his property’s barn and lifted her up to see the horses inside, but while doing this he placed his hands under the little girl’s underwear. The complaint states molestation occurred on several occasions.
Zalkin also alleges that after the first incident, True tried to isolate younger sister Miranda Lewis (who still lives in Vermont) in his barn during a going-away party held at True’s home for a family that was leaving the Bellows Falls congregation. The girls’ mother, Zalkin says, saw what was happening and took her daughters to her car, prompting True to follow them and Miranda to ask when True was going to touch her again. True immediately denied touching Miranda Lewis, the complaint states, but Annessa said she believed her younger sister because the same thing had happened to her.
Zalkin said the girls’ mother reported the abuse to the Bellows Falls congregation’s Elders, or those tasked with the local church’s daily operations and governance. He said they chose to take no action against True, opted not to warn congregation members of the potential danger True posed to children, and chose not to report the allegations to any child protective or law enforcement agency. It is also believed that True abused at least three other minors prior to allegedly molesting Annessa Lewis.
Phone calls to the Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Bellows Falls were not returned on Tuesday or Wednesday. The phone number listed in the phonebook for True was no longer in service and it is unclear if he is still with the congregation.
According to the complaint filed, Watchtower is directed by a governing body of Elders and controls the Jehovah’s Witness faith and the operation of its local congregations. It also reviews and approves/rejects prospective Elders’ recommendations for ministerial servants and establishes the process of disciplining members accused of wrongdoing. Congregations are run by a Body of Elders, with duties that include identifying local members of the church and recommending potential ministerial servants to Watchtower. Anyone serving as a ministerial servant is an agent of their congregation and to Watchtower. Zalkin maintains True would not have had the opportunity to abuse the Lewis sisters without the access to them he obtained by being appointed ministerial servant.
Vermont Sisters Sue Jehovah's Witnesses For Child Sex Abuse
BY TAYLOR DOBBS
Miranda Lewis (right), with her mother Marina Mauvoleon-Folsom. Lewis and her older sister are suing the Bellows Falls congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses over sexual assaults they say took place when they were less than five years old.
Taylor Dobbs VPR
Two sisters raised in Vermont filed lawsuits Tuesday against the Bellows Falls congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, alleging that an ordained minister of the church sexually abused them as children.
Miranda Lewis, 23, said she was in a church meeting when she was around the age of four when Norton True – at the time a "ministerial servant" in the church – held her back as everyone else left.
“He waited for the room to clear out, and that’s when the abuse started,” Lewis said. She didn’t go into detail about the abuse, but the lawsuit, to be filed in Windsor County Superior Court, alleges that True lifted her dress and touched her.
In the case of Miranda’s sister Annessa Lewis, the complaint says that True was babysitting her on his property (years before the incident with Miranda allegedly happened) and took her to his barn and, when lifting her up “to be able to see horses located in a horse stall,” put his hands under her underwear and touched her.
Both cases allege that True molested the Lewis sisters on “multiple occasions.”
The sisters’ mother, Marina Mauvoleon-Folsom, says she reported the abuse to church elders. The suit alleged they didn’t take any action against True, didn’t warn anyone else in the congregation about True’s alleged activity and “chose not to report the abuse to any child protective or police agency.”
Mauvoleon-Folsom said the church maintained a culture of silence around child sexual abuse.
"They wanted me to be quiet about what had happened. Because they were not willing to do anything in the congregation, they allowed us to move to another congregation," she said. "It was very strange. It was a very strange thing. There was almost no support for myself or my family, or any understanding at all."
At the Jehovah’s Witnesses center in Bellows Falls, a man who answered the phone said he “can’t address the issue” and that he was “not the person you need to talk to,” and hung up.
It’s unclear if True is still part of the church in any capacity.
Mauveleon-Folsom said she did report the incident to police, and ended up working with the state’s child protection agency, but no charges were ultimately filed.
Irwin Zalkin, a San Diego based lawyer specializing in sexual abuse cases, said it’s fairly common for police not to pursue charges in sex abuse cases involving young children.
“They’re tough cases for [law enforcement],” he said. “They have a high standard, a high burden of proof. They’re very different than the civil cases.”
In these cases, both civil lawsuits, the sisters seek unspecified damages and trial by jury.
The two cases against True aren’t Zalkin’s only pending lawsuits against Jehovah’s Witnesses. He has been involved with more than 20 such cases across the U.S., six of which were settled out of court for confidential but “substantial” amounts, he said.
Zalkin joined forces for the Vermont cases with Jerry O’Neill, the attorney who sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington in a number of child sex abuse cases, leading to millions of dollars in settlements.
In those cases, documents kept by the church showed that officials were aware of the sex abuse. Zalkin said Jehovah’s Witnesses keep similar records, but have refused to disclose them under court order.
In one California case, Zalkin said that refusal led to a default judgment against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
O’Neill said a similar refusal in Vermont would likely not be seen as acceptable by the courts.
“I don’t think it’s going to go well for [the defendants],” he said. “The courts are not willing, in my experience here, to permit the shielding of relevant information. So I anticipate – don’t know until it happens – that the courts here are likely to order the production of those documents. They’re relevant documents that are not privileged in any way. I think they’ll be required to produce them.”
Annessa, 27, now lives in Texas. Miranda Lewis lives at home with her mother. She says she’s coming forward now to force the church to confront the issue of child sex abuse and to save other children from being abused.
“I hope it helps make them pay attention,” she said. “I mean, I guess that’s the best I can say. I just hope it makes them pay attention and just think about it a little bit more than they have in the past.”
Lawsuit: Jehovah's Witness official molested girls
Sam Hemingway, Free Press Staff Writer7:32 p.m. EDT September 30, 2014
Two sisters, one of them a Vermonter, filed lawsuits Tuesday alleging they were sexually molested as young girls in the mid-1990s by a Jehovah's Witnesses official in Bellows Falls.
"These very courageous and brave young women have decided that they need to do something about what happened to them as children that has been kept silent by the Jehovah's Witnesses," San Diego attorney Irwin Zalkin said at a Tuesday news conference in Burlington.
According to court papers, Miranda Lewis, 23, of Chester and Annessa Lewis, 27, of Austin, Texas, claim Norton True fondled them on several occasions when they were little girls living in Bellows Falls.
True, who still lives in Bellows Falls, was a ministerial servant with the church, a deacon-like position that performs clerical and other duties. The alleged abuse occurred either at the Jehovah's Witnesses hall in Bellows Falls or at True's barn.
Multiple efforts to reach the defendants for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Miranda Lewis, 23, of Chester, center, sits with her mother, Marina, and attorney Irwin Zalkin during a news conference at Gravel & Shea in Burlington on Tuesday announcing two lawsuits against the Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Tract Society of New York.(Photo: RYAN MERCER/FREE PRESS
Annessa Lewis was 4 years old and Miranda Lewis was 5 when the molestations began, the lawsuits stated. The abuse of the two preschoolers allegedly spanned more than a year.
Both women were Jehovah's Witness members at the time, along with their mother, Marina Lewis.
The Jehovah's Witnesses, with 14 million members worldwide, are a close-knit Christian denomination best known for door-to-door evangelism by members and for its Watch Tower and Awake publications.
Zalkin, the lawyer, said his law firm is involved in about 20 cases alleging sexual abuse of children by Jehovah's Witness officials across the country. He said one case, now on appeal in Oregon, resulted in a damage award of $21 million.
Miranda Lewis appeared with Zalkin at the news conference, along with her mother, Marina Lewis, also of Chester. Miranda Lewis told reporters that True abused her for the first time as she was leaving a congregation meeting in Bellows Falls sometime in 1995 or 1996.
"As everyone was leaving, Norton took my hand and held me back," she said. "He waited for the room to clear out, and that's when the abuse started." The initial abuse, the complaint states, involved True touching Lewis inappropriately.
The Burlington Free Press generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assaults, but the Lewis family is speaking publicly about the case.
Miranda Lewis is shown in this family photo as a young child. Two lawsuits against the Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Tract Society on New York claim that “ministerial servant” Norton True sexually assaulted Lewis and her sister, Annessa, when the two were girls. (Photo: Courtesy )
According to the lawsuit, the abuse ended when Lewis' mother saw True trying to isolate Miranda Lewis in his barn during a going-away party for a church member.
Marina Lewis took both of her daughters to her car with True following behind. Miranda Lewis then asked when True was going to touch her again, according to the lawsuit.
True denied inappropriately touching her, at which point Annessa Lewis told her mother she believed her younger sister, because True had done the same thing to her, the lawsuit stated.
According to Annessa Lewis' lawsuit, True first fondled her when she was in his barn and he lifted her up to show her his horses.
The lawsuits also claim True molested at least three other children prior to the abuse of the Lewis sisters, but the elders in the Bellows Falls congregation "chose not to warn ... congregation members of the danger defendant True posed to children."
"The Jehovah's Witnesses have a policy that is grounded in a code of silence when it comes to the protection of children," Zalkin said. "They are more concerned about scandal and the avoidance of scandal than they are the protection of the children that are entrusted to their care."
Marina Lewis, a single mom at the time of the events in question, said she notified church elders about True's conduct. She said no action was taken against True. Instead, she and her daughters were shunned by the church.
"They wanted me to keep quiet about what happened," Miranda Lewis said. "It was very strange. There was almost no support for my family. No understanding at all."
Said Miranda Lewis, "We were told we were liars by a lot of people."
Annessa Lewis is shown in this family photo. Two lawsuits against the Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Tract Society on New York claim that “ministerial servant” Norton True sexually assaulted Lewis and her sister, Miranda, when the two were girls.(Photo: RYAN MERCER/FREE PRESS )
Her mother said she and her daughters soon left the Bellows Falls congregation and became involved with another, nearby Jehovah's Witnesses congregation. None of the Lewises remain members of the church.
True could not be reached by phone Tuesday. Officers of the Jehovah's Witnesses hall in Bellows Falls, also a defendant in the case, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did attorneys at the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in Brooklyn, N.Y., the church's parent organization, another named defendant.
Marina Lewis also said a family therapist notified the Vermont State Police about the abuse, and a worker for the state Social and Rehabilitation Services — since renamed the Department for Children and Families — looked into the allegations against True.
"The allegations were substantiated by SRS at one time, and then there was a reversal of that decision shortly after," she said.
Ken Schatz, the newly installed DCF commissioner, could not be reached for comment Tuesday about the past handling of the abuse claims.
Miranda Lewis said she and his sister decided to file their lawsuits now against True and the Jehovah's Witnesses organization both to help themselves heal and to make sure similar conduct won't happen to others.
"I think it's important that this stops," Miranda Lewis said. "This is one way of helping achieve that goal."
The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Bellows Falls on Tuesday. (Photo: CHRIS GAROFOLO/THE EAGLE TIMES )
The two Lewis women also are being represented by Burlington lawyer Jerome O'Neill, who during the past decade represented dozens of Vermont victims of priest sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.
Miranda Lewis' lawsuit was to be filed at Windsor Superior Court in Woodstock. Annessa Lewis' case will be heard in U.S. District Court because she is a Texas resident, O'Neill said.
Contact Sam Hemingway at 660-1850 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Sam on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SamuelHemingway.
Miranda Lewis, 23, of Chester, center, sits with her mother, Marina, and attorney Irwin Zalkin during a news conference at Gravel & Shea PC’s office in Burlington on Tuesday announcing two lawsuits against the Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Tract Society of New York. (Photo: RYAN MERCER/FREE PRESS )
2 Sue Jehovah's Witnesses Congregation, Say Abused
MONTPELIER, Vt. — Sep 30, 2014, 7:46 PM ET
By LISA RATHKE Associated Press
Two adult sisters filed suit Tuesday against a Jehovah's Witness congregation in Vermont, saying they were molested by a minister when they were minor children and the church did nothing to protect them.
Miranda Lewis, 23, and Annessa Lewis, 27, say in their lawsuits that they were abused in the 1990s at ages 4 and 5 by then ministerial servant Norton True, who they said the church knew had a history of sexually assaulting minors. They have sued True, the Bellows Falls congregation of the Jehovah's Witnesses and its governing body, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. They say their mother reported the allegations to the congregation but no action was taken against True.
The congregation and the Watchtower Bible and Track Society of New York did not return messages seeking comment. True could not be reached; there is no phone listing for him in Vermont.
Miranda Lewis on Tuesday attended a press conference with lawyer Jerome O'Neill, who has won millions of dollars in settlements for plaintiffs in priest sex abuse cases against the Vermont's Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. Co-attorney Irwin Zalkin said his law firm has similar cases against the Jehovah's Witnesses pending in four other states.
Lewis said she was molested multiple times by True, the first time at age 4 after a church meeting, when he stopped her from exiting the room.
Annessa Lewis said she was molested by True at age 4 while he was babysitting her at his home.
Their mother reported the allegations to the elders of the congregation, but they took no apparent action against True and did not report the allegations to police or a child protective agency, the lawsuit said.
"Defendants Bellows Falls Congregation and Watchtower, by their actions and choices not to take action, ratified, authorized and approved of Defendant True's sexual molestation of children," the complaint said.
The lawsuits seek unspecified damages.
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