Saturday, 05/11/02    |    Middle Tennessee News & Information


Abuse charges put Witness at risk of shunning



Barbara Anderson , of the Manchester Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, faces possible disciplinary action.  





Staff Writers

TULLAHOMA, Tenn. A Coffee County woman faced congregation disciplinary action yesterday after alleging that leaders in the Jehovah's Witness faith have, for years, downplayed or ignored child sexual abuse by congregants.

Barbara Anderson feared that she would be disfellowshipped, the equivalent of excommunication, for her appearance on an upcoming episode of the NBC news show Dateline, in which she joins other alarmed members in speaking out against the denomination's alleged unwillingness to report abuse and to keep confessed pedophiles away from young children.

After the 1-hour, 45-minute meeting with three congregation elders yesterday, Anderson was hopeful that she would not be shunned for comments that appeared on a Web site run by a former Jehovah's Witness.

''Right now I am hopeful that disfellowship will not happen, but we'll see,'' she said as she left the worship center of the Manchester , Tenn. , congregation of the Jehovah's Witnesses. This has been her spiritual home with her husband, Joe, for many years, although she stopped attending services in 1997 in protest of what she viewed as lax judgment on the part of the international organization's leaders.

A New Jersey couple, Barbara and Carl Pandelo, of Belmar, were disfellowshipped this week after speaking out against the organization's handling of their daughter's allegations of sex abuse by another member of the faith, Barbara Pandelo said last night. The Pandelos also had spoken to Dateline .

''What she (Anderson) alleges is not true at all,'' said J.R. Brown, a spokesman for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., the incorporated name of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Brown said he had been talking to Dateline about the show's story for a year but said he and other organization leaders did not know which members television producers had interviewed.

''We have no idea what she told Dateline ,'' Brown said of Anderson .

Dateline spokeswoman Caryn Mautner would not go into details of the story or when it is scheduled to air. Mautner confirmed that Dateline had interviewed Anderson for a story about ''accusations that the church was covering up cases of molestation.''

Anderson has been a Jehovah's Witness for most of her life, as has her husband of nearly 45 years. She was summoned last week to yesterday's meeting.

She feared the worst.

''Most people don't understand what disfellowship would mean for a Witness. What I would lose is my family. Witnesses are not to associate with anyone who has been disfellowshipped,'' she said. While she would remain married to Joe, a congregation elder, Anderson said, he r r elationship with her son, also an elder, her daughter-in-law and her young grandchild would be jeopardized.

The consequences of excommunication are severe for a reason, Brown said. It is hoped that the harsh isolation that disfellowshipped members feel will draw them back to the organization.

Other members of the faith are not allowed to speak to disfellowshipped members. They can't greet them in a store or share a meal with them. Live-in family members can speak to the person but never about spiritual issues.

''Our statistics bear out that you have many people every year be reinstated,'' Brown said.

''My son said he thinks what I'm doing is a noble thing, but he disagrees with going public,'' Anderson said. In fact, she said she was reluctant to take her story public but said she had concluded that Jehovah's Witness leaders were not going to change the organization's policy unless forced to do so.

''They are accusing me of causing division, but this is not a theological question. This is a question of whether the church is doing everything they can to protect the children of Jehovah's Witnesses,'' Anderson said.

Brown said Jehovah's Witnesses have a strict policy about child sexual abuse. If parents come to congregation leaders with concerns that their child is being abused, the leaders follow state law, he said. If state law requires parents to report the abuse, congregation leaders tell them that.

People in the organization who are accused of sex abuse are subject to a hearing like the one Anderson attended yesterday, Brown said. They are automatically removed from leadership positions and can't go door-to-door without other members' being present.

Anderson said she knew of pedophiles in four Middle Tennessee congregations who had confessed to elders and who had not been disciplined. She said those elders did not go to authorities with what they knew.

There was no way yesterday to corroborate the accusations that Anderson made. Brown said they were false. A call to the local district attorney at his home yesterday did not yield a return call.

Yesterday, the Tullahoma woman was charged with speaking ill of the organization on an Internet site run by a former Jehovah's Witness. The article was sent as a personal e-mail but was picked up by the dissident Web site and used without her permission, Anderson said.

''I explained this to the three elders, who listened. They treated me fairly, I think,'' she said.

None of the three elders who questioned Anderson yesterday would speak to reporters.

Anderson said none of the elders were aware that the three other Jehovah's Witnesses who spoke to Dateline faced disciplinary hearings this week.

''All they had was a request from New York for them to settle this issue,'' said Anderson, who thinks action was taken now to discredit the upcoming Dateline show.

''If you're disfellowshipped, then Jehovah's Witnesses everywhere cannot watch the show and they can tell their friends that we are disgruntled Witnesses and bona fide apostates and what we say can't be trusted,'' Anderson said.

The dilemma she finds herself in is distressing. ''The church has been our life. We have sacrificed greatly,'' said Anderson , noting the decades of service that she and her husband had put in at Witness headquarters in New York .

Anderson said she was risking he r r eputation in the organization because of her belief that abuses could be curtailed if leaders would take appropriate measures.

''The people in the congregations don't know who they're sitting next to. People don't know who they are inviting into their homes,'' she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

About Jehovah's Witnesses

Charles Taze Russell founded the denomination in Pittsburgh in 1872. There are about 6 million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide, including about 1 million in the United States.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe they practice the oldest religion on earth. They refer to God as Jehovah, a name translated from the Bible's Old Testament.

Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in the Trinity. Instead, they worship Jehovah and believe Jesus is God's son, born as a man and resurrected as a spirit. Witnesses refuse to bear arms, salute the flag or participate in secular government. They also refuse blood transfusions.

Source: The Associated Press