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Lawsuits allege abuse
Complaints target Jehovah's Witnesses congregations
A woman who has sued Jehovah's Witnesses leaders alleging sexual abuse at a Pacific Grove congregation encouraged others to come forward at a meeting in Monterey on Monday.
"It was a huge betrayal," the woman said. "If it could happen to me, it could happen to other children."
The local case is one of a slew of lawsuits being filed nationwide against Jehovah's Witnesses institutions accusing them of covering up the sexual abuse of children. Lawyers from the two firms pursuing the bulk of the cases have been gathering alleged abuse survivors throughout California for a series of meetings to draw out more potential victims and witnesses.
"This organization has a problem with child molestation," said Kimberlee Norris, a Texas-based attorney with the firm Love & Norris.
While cautioning that there are many "upstanding" churchgoers, Norris said that she has detected a disturbing pattern of religious institutions covering up molestation. The lawyer has spent several years handling abuse cases stemming from Jehovah's Witnesses congregations.
She and fellow attorney Bill Brelsford of the Sacramento firm Nolen Saul Brelsford brought four alleged abuse survivors to speak in Monterey on Monday. Several local residents came to the meeting to share their experiences with the attorneys.
In the Monterey County lawsuit, a woman who is now in her 30s and living in Silicon Valley claims to have been sexually abused throughout the 1980s by the leader of the Pacific Grove congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.
The former leader, or "presiding overseer" named in the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment Monday. The current head of the Pacific Grove congregation said Monday that he knows nothing about the lawsuit and that the local congregation has not been served with any papers.
The current presiding overseer added that the man named in the lawsuit is no longer affiliated with the Pacific Grove congregation.
The lawsuit was filed Dec. 31, the last day allowed under a California law that suspended the statute of limitations on child molestation cases for the duration of 2003. An updated civil complaint filed March 12 accuses the former presiding overseer of molesting the Pacific Grove girl starting in 1979, when she was 13.
"As a young person in the Jehovah's Witnesses congregation, you're told to respect and to be submissive to these men who are in authority," the woman said in an interview Monday. "And not to question anything."
The lawsuit claims the man, "using his delegated authority as a leader" in the organization, repeatedly fondled, kissed and touched the girl during church activities and on church premises. When the girl spoke out, the lawsuit says, elders reprimanded her and told her to keep quiet.
The abuse continued throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the suit alleges. The woman said Monday that she was powerless to stop the molestation because her own family did not believe her, and in fact continued to place her in harm's way.
"It was my mom dropping me off at his house when I got into trouble," she said. "And he said he would take care of me."
The woman said her mother was on her deathbed when she finally accepted that her daughter had been telling the truth. She said she remains estranged from other family members who are still practicing Jehovah's Witnesses.
The lawsuit targets the former presiding overseer, the Pacific Grove congregation and the international Jehovah's Witnesses church, which is based in Brooklyn. National Jehovah's Witnesses representatives did not respond to numerous calls seeking comment late Monday.
In the past, however, church officials have sought to distance themselves from individuals accused of wrongdoing on a local level. They have denied any pattern of cover-ups.
"We abhor child abuse," Philip Brumley, general counsel for the church, told The Associated Press several months ago. "The assertion or allegation of a cover-up, or a nonchalance about child abuse, is just so far from the truth."
Jehovah's Witnesses institutions became targets for lawsuits several years ago after church whistle-blowers were excommunicated for exposing an alleged cache of secret files documenting abuse claims that were never reported to authorities. Critics have suggested that the church's distrust of secular bodies and its internal, scripture-based quasi-judicial system may have played a role in keeping abuse claims from reaching law enforcement.
The woman at the center of the Monterey County lawsuit said that the institutional pressures kept her from reporting the abuse for years. She never forgot about it, though, and finally last year she started the process of coming forward with a search on the Internet.
"For years you try to put it behind you and get over it and pretend it didn't happen," she said. "But it did happen."
Dan Laidman can be reached at 646-4346.