www.sfgate.com Return to regular view
Jehovah's Witnesses hit with rash of sex-abuse suits
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2003
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback
Eight former members of the Jehovah's Witnesses have filed lawsuits in three Northern California counties alleging that they were sexually molested as children and that their church covered up the crimes.
The lawsuits against the church and its congregations in Yolo, Napa and Tehama counties seek unspecified damages against two individuals and several organizations affiliated with the religious group.
The Jehovah's Witnesses, famous for promoting its "Watchtower" religious tracts on city streets and door-to-door, is a Christian millenarian sect that arose in the wake of the "Great Disappointment" of the 1840s, when several predictions about the end of the world failed to come to pass.
Members hold views different from those most Christian churches preach, most notably their denial of the Trinity and their belief that only 144,000 true believers will achieve full sainthood when the world does end.
The allegations against the Jehovah's Witnesses are similar to those leveled against the Roman Catholic Church in numerous lawsuits filed in California and across the country in recent years.
The legal assault -- coordinated and filed last week by the Sacramento law firm of Nolen Saul
Brelsford -- is the latest action under a new state law that temporarily abolishes the statute of limitations on lawsuits dealing with child abuse cases, making it easier to collect money from churches, schools and other organizations with a history of sexual abuse.
Because they deal with civil law, the lawsuits against Jehovah's Witnesses are not bound by last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a California law used to prosecute priests and other alleged child molesters accused of decades-old abuse.
In Yolo County, the lawsuit was brought by Daniel West, 26; Shane Pence, 18;
and Amber Pence, 23.
All three plaintiffs say they were molested by Timothy Silva, who led "adolescent book studies" at the Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in Woodland.
"This sexual predator used his appointed position of leadership and authority over children to gain access to and abuse those children," the lawsuit states.
Paul Polidoro, the associate general counsel for the Jehovah's Witnesses, said the staff at the church headquarters in New York had not yet seen the lawsuit and had no comment on the specific allegations.
"The majority of these lawsuits are parishioner-on-parishioner incidents," Polidoro said.
Silva, who, according to plaintiffs' attorney William Brelsford, was convicted in 1995 of lewd and lascivious behavior with a minor, could not be reached for comment.
"Our local congregations and national organization take child abuse quite seriously," Polidoro said. "Child abuse allegations are reported to (the) authorities if they occur."
Not so, the lawsuit charges.
It alleges that church leaders were told that West had been molested from 1991, when he was 13 years old, through 1993.
"Watchtower defendants did not notify authorities nor take any steps to hold (Silva) accountable," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit goes on to charge that the church exacerbated the trauma to West by accusing him "of participating in homosexual activity."
The complaint also alleges that one of the other plaintiffs, Shane Pence, was 7 years old when Silva "committed continued and repeated sexual battery" on the boy for five years, until 1997.
"His mother reported the abuse to the Watchtower defendants," the suit states, and was told not to contact the police herself, that the church would take care of the problem.
"Watchtower defendants did not report the abuse to authorities and took no steps to address it," the lawsuit charges.
The only other named, living perpetrator in the four lawsuits filed last week is convicted child molester James Henderson of Red Bluff, who, Brelsford said, is alleged to have molested then-15-year-old plaintiff "Tim W." in 1994.
Daniel Hall, who left the Jehovah's Witnesses in 1992 and now runs a "counter-cult" ministry in Sacramento, said the tightly controlled nature of the sect made it even harder for children and adults to speak out against sexual abuse.
"These children have been living in fear and are just coming out," said Hall.
Hall is working with another former Jehovah's Witness, William Bowen, who has an extensive Web site (www.silentlambs.org) devoted to the abuse problem in the sect.
Bowen's Web site, which includes a SilentLambs store selling coffee mugs and T-shirts with the group's logo, reports that "inside sources" at the headquarters of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York have revealed secret files with the names of 23,720 accused child molesters.
Hall and Bowen will be among the speakers Aug. 8-10 at a weekend conference about cults and sects being held at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Marin County.
Hall described the conference as a "gathering of people who have come out of these groups and become Christians."
Polidoro said he was insulted by Hall's ministry and Bowen's allegations.
"We are a well-established religion that has been in this country for a century," he said. "It's somewhat offensive when someone uses the word 'cult' to describe your religion."
E-mail Don Lattin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page A - 15