Sex abuse victims target Jehovah's Witness in civil suitWednesday, April 14, 2004
By DAVID RYAN
Register Staff Writer
Napa child molester Edward Bedoya Villegas died in prison nearly 10 years ago, but the legal aftermath of his actions is still being hashed out in Napa Superior Court.
Two of his victims are suing two Napa Jehovah's Witness Congregations and other Jehovah's Witness groups, saying high-ranking elders and church policymakers were negligent in supervising Villegas and concealed records for more than 20 years.
The church, including its Brooklyn-based national headquarters, is fighting back.
In 1994, Villegas was convicted of molesting several local children at a Napa Jehovah's Witness congregation during the 1970s and 80s. During much of that time Villegas and his wife Marsha operated a Jehovah's Witness day care center.
His alleged victims include Clarissa Welch, now 35, and two women who are not fully identified in court papers: Nicole D., now 32, and Tabitha H., now 30. All three claim Villegas, who was an elder in the congregation, forced them to perform oral sex on him. Welch and Tabitha H. said Villegas penetrated them with his fingers, while Tabitha H. said she was raped by Villegas as well.
Welch claims she was abused for more than 10 years, starting at age 3 or 4. Nicole D. said she was molested only once when she 7 years old. Both Welch and Nicole D. filed their case jointly in July.
Tabitha H., who filed a separate case more recently, was 4 years old when she claims Villegas first abused her about two to three days per week in 1977, stopping sometime in 1980.
The three say despite informing congregation leaders about Villegas' behavior, the church either blamed them for sexual impropriety or did nothing. Villegas denied their allegations at the time.
According to Welch's and Nicole D.'s complaint in the July lawsuit, Jehovah's Witness organizations were reckless in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse.
"...Watchtower defendants engaged in a systematic pattern and practice of suppression of information to cover-up and hide incidents of child molestation from law enforcement and their membership in order to protect the watchtower defendants' reputation as well as those ... who committed acts of sexual molestation against children," it said, later adding there were "secret archival files" tracking church leaders' sexual abuse that are kept away from law enforcement.
Jehovah's Witness Associate General Counsel Mario F. Moreno released a statement about the two Napa cases.
"Our investigating shows that the accused died in 1995 and that he did not serve in any position of authority with Jehovah's Witnesses until February 1979, long before these plaintiffs filed their lawsuits in 2003," Moreno wrote. "While our hearts go out to Clarissa, Nicole and Tabitha, the facts will show that neither the Watchtower Society nor the local elders are responsible..."
The national Jehovah's groups claim their organizations had nothing to do with Villegas' conduct and they are asking to be removed from the litigation.
Trying to protect children
Moreno said since the 1960s, the Jehovah's Witnesses have published information to help parents protect their children from abuse. He said witness elders do their best to comply with child abuse reporting laws and the victims and their families have the right to report abuse to authorities.
According to the Jehovah's Witnesses Office of Public information, Jehovah's Witnesses are different than many Christian denominations in that although they live, work and go to school with people of different religious beliefs, they believe they must follow the example of Jesus Christ by being "no part of the world" and avoid the prejudices and controversies that divide mankind. They do not participate in politics or pagan-inspired holidays such as Halloween, and they reject military service.
All baptized members are ordained ministers, but group together in congregations of up to 200 members before forming new congregations. In Napa County, there are three witness congregations; two in Napa and one in Calistoga. Men deemed spiritually mature serve as elders and a body of elders supervises each congregation.
Death in prison
While Witness lawyers reject the claim that national Jehovah's Witness organizations are in any way responsible in the Villegas affair, there are few questions about Villegas' history of sexual abuse. In 1994 he was sentenced by a Napa jury to 12 years in prison for sexual molestation.
Gary Lieberstein, who is the Napa County District Attorney, prosecuted the case as a deputy district attorney. At Villegas' 1994 trial Lieberstein called Villegas "the worst sexual predator that I've ever come across."
Villegas died from a kidney disease seven months after a Napa jury delivered his sentence. In a Dec. 12, 1993 article in the Register, Villegas told a reporter he engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct with several victims. He said he could contest some parts of their allegations, but admitted there was "no point in arguing the details." At trial, he pleaded no contest to molestation charges.
"I'm not saying they're not true," Villegas said. "I'm sorry they happened."
Looking for victims
Two law firms are part of an effort to coordinate dozens of abuse claims throughout the country, claiming Villegas is not a unique case in Jehovah's Witness congregations. Fort Worth, Texas-based law firm Love and Norris handles cases nationally, working with law firms including Sacramento-based Nolen Saul Brelsford to file cases in California. Nolen Saul Brelsford filed lawsuits in Napa, Yolo and Tehama Counties last July, and is coordinating Tabitha H.'s more recent case in Napa, as well.
The firms have held meetings, advertised in newspapers and radio stations, to recruit clients in cities across the country and the Bay Area. They held one in Napa last July and another at a Holiday Inn last month in Santa Rosa.
One Jehovah's Witness member blasted the 20 or so people who showed up in Santa Rosa, saying they were violating God's law by turning to "Caesar" for justice.
Love and Norris attorney Kim Norris said she had spoken to more than 2,000 alleged victims of sexual abuse at the hand of Jehovah's Witness members. She said many congregations can be insular, with little incentive for members to go outside the church to seek help for abuse. Even still, she said, with small meetings like the one in Santa Rosa, word about her law firm gets around.
"A lot of them call me on pay phones down the street (from where they live) whispering because their whole support structure is inside the congregation," she said.
Four years ago, a Kentucky Jehovah's Witness elder named Bill Bowen resigned from the Jehovah's Witness Church for asking questions about a fellow elder who was accused of sexual molestation. He started a support group for Jehovah's Witness abuse victims called Silent Lambs.
"As an elder, I am instructed ... if it is one person's word against another and not two witnesses to the wrong, no action would be taken and no authorities would be notified," he wrote in a Dec. 2000 letter he posted onto the Silent Lambs Web site. "The victim? Cautioned to keep silent or face discipline within the congregation that could go as far as being disfellowshipped for slander."
Disfellowshipping is what witnesses call being cast out from the church. Unlike the Catholic tradition of being excommunicated, Jehovah's Witnesses are no longer allowed to speak to a disfellowshipped member unless it's an emergency.
In June, a Napa judge will decide whether the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society of Pennsylvania, the Religious Order of Jehovah's Witnesses, and Jehovah's Witness's legal arm, Kingdom Support Services, should be removed from one of the local lawsuits entirely, and perhaps have their legal costs paid by their accusers.
That would still leave more than 20 defendants in the case.