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Fifteen Advocates Lend Support to a Woman Who Claims She Was Sexually Abused and Raped as a Child by a Jehovah's Witness Elder

By Shirley Wentworth
Tri-City Herald

Wednesday, August 15, 2001

RITZVILLE - Fifteen advocates from across the United States and Canada traveled to Ritzville to lend support to a woman who claims she was sexually abused and raped as a child by a Jehovah's Witness elder.

A retrial began Tuesday in Adams County Superior Court. Members of the group say they are especially concerned with clergy-based sex crime.

Evidently anticipating problems, a number of Adams County sheriff's deputies were stationed to be alert for trouble and searched people for weapons before they entered the courtroom.

Manual L. Beliz, 49, was convicted by an Adams County Superior Court jury in 1998 for two counts of first-degree child rape and two counts of first-degree child molestation. The jury dismissed two other counts.

According to the Washington Appellate Reports, Beliz unsuccessfully challenged the state's jury challenges, calling them racially motivated. Then-deputy prosecutor, Dennis Scott, contended his challenges were not made to exclude Hispanics, but to exclude women. The state admitted it was looking for a predominantly older male jury. While the court of appeals did not find racial bias, it did find that gender bias was grounds for a new trial.

On Tuesday Jury selection took most of the day, but by 3 p.m. Adams County Prosecutor Gary Brueher gave his opening remarks to what is this time an eight-man, four-woman jury.

Brueher told the jury that the most important testimony will be that of Erica Garza, now 22, who charges that Beliz molested and raped her on various occasions between the ages of 4 and 11. Brueher said she never came forward as a child because her family was close with the Beliz family and she was best friends with Beliz's daughter. Brueher also mentioned that both families belonged to a church that encouraged eldership.

"I encourage you to listen to the details," he said.

Defense attorney Dennis Morgan reserved his right to present an opening statement later.

Othello police officer Dave Rehaume was called to the stand to recount his interrogation of Beliz after the Othello Police Department was informed by police in Sacramento, Calif., in December 1996 that Rodriguez made a report about Beliz. The Rodriguez family had moved to California in 1990.

Rehaume said when he interviewed Beliz, Beliz first denied everything but later changed his story. Rehaume said he believed Beliz confessed to first-degree rape.

Rodriguez, who is expected to testify in court today, said in an earlier interview, that she was heavily pressured by Jehovah's Witnesses elders not to take her story to the police. She said she was told she would not only be considered a family wrecker, but also
would be condemned by God.

Bill Bowen, a former Jehovah's Witness elder who traveled from Kentucky to Adams County for the trial, said he quit his job last year to devote his time to a campaign to change church policies. Bowen also says church leadership shields sex abusers and blames victims.

Bowen formerly led the congregation of a Draffenville, Ky., church. He has dedicated a Website to the problem, www.silentlambs.org.

A lawsuit filed in New Hampshire last week claims the Jehovah’s Witnesses church routinely encourages victims not to report sexual abuse because it would bring reproach to the organization.

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