Associated Press (AP) News http://wire.ap.org/
February 10, 2001
Crisis of faith
Elder resigns to protest Jehovah's Witnesses policies on child molesting
By KIMBERLY HEFLING
BENTON, Ky. -- As a boy, William Bowen sat quietly in his seat while his classmates
recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
As a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, he spent years going door-to-door evangelizing
and serving the denomination. In time, he became an elder, a position of authority,
in his western Kentucky congregation.
But as an elder, he was privy to information that caused him to question the Jehovah's
Witnesses faith -- and to question it publicly, an ultimate transgression in the
In a letter dated Dec. 31, Bowen resigned as an elder, in protest of how the denomination,
a society that shuns the outside world, handles accusations of child molestation.
His claim is that in such a culture, accusations of child sex abuse can go unreported
to secular authorities by Jehovah's Witnesses members who don't want to go against
their faith. The claims of abuse victims are discredited, he said.
"They want to act like pedophilia doesn't exist. Shame on them," said Bowen, 43,
in an interview from his home in Draffenville where he runs a candlemaking business
with his wife, Sheila.
Though Bowen expects to be kicked out of Jehovah's Witnesses -- or disfellowshipped
-- for speaking out, no disciplinary action has been taken by his congregation.
Still, some members refuse to shake his hand or associate with him outside the
"They treat us like we have the plague," said Sheila Bowen. "You don't go against
God, and they think the organization is God."
Bowen's decision to resign has made him a hero among the denomination's dissidents.
"People have been intimidated into not saying anything. There are pieces of this
all over the country where one person has a piece of evidence and another has
a piece of evidence, but they're scared to bring it up because they'll be disfellowshipped
...," Bowen said. "So these people stay silent and they think, 'I'm the only one."'
A person who is disfellowshipped is considered invisible by denomination members
and may even be shunned by members of his or her own family.
"It's not just being out of a health club," said Steve Hassan, a former Unification
Church member who is now a therapist and author. "It's losing your connection
to God and members of your family inside the group."
Bowen chose to speak out anyway, and his story has appeared in religious publications
and the secular media. In Kentucky, The Paducah Sun and WPSD-TV covered it. The
(Louisville) Courier-Journal published a story in which it examined court records
in seven child molestation cases around the nation involving members of Jehovah's
Bowen said a Jehovah's Witnesses policy requiring two people to witness wrongdoing
before it is acknowledged by leaders makes it nearly impossible to prove child
molestation occurs. Victims who do come forward confident they will receive help
from church leaders are often left feeling betrayed, Bowen said.
Bowen said he became interested a couple of years ago after reading a confidential
file alleging a member had molested a child in the early 1980s. He said he disapproved
of the way the case was handled by church officials even after he spoke up about
J.R. Brown, spokesman at the Jehovah's Witnesses' headquarters in the New York
City borough of Brooklyn, said he believes Bowen does not have a full understanding
of church policies.
Members are free at all times to report abuse to secular authorities, Brown said.
"This is a personal decision on how you want to handle this," he said.
What is revealed to church leaders is generally kept confidential unless state
law requires that allegations of abuse be turned over to police, he said.
"We deal with sin, and law enforcement deals with crime," Brown said.
In some cases however, the matter is turned over to secular authorities regardless
of the law, Brown said.
Of Bowen, he added: "He's concerned about victims of child abuse and we are, too."
Brown said the faith does require at least two witnesses to prove any kind of
wrongdoing -- including child molestation -- because that is what is taught in
But corroborating evidence can be used instead of a second witness to prove wrongdoing,
James Bonnell, an elder in Bowen's congregation, said the faith reaches out and
helps people in need. It is not controlling, he said.
"It's a free choice," said Bonnell, of nearby Gilbertsville, Ky. "Everything you
do is based on love of God and your neighbor."
The Jehovah's Witnesses denomination has 89,985 congregations and 5.5 million
members worldwide, according to its Web site. It was founded in Pittsburgh in
1872 by Charles Taze Russell, a former Congregationalist layman.
Members refuse to bear arms, salute the flag or participate in secular government.
They also refuse to accept blood transfusions. They reject a number of doctrines
taught by traditional Christianity, including the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Jehovah's Witnesses are taught that the faith is the authority and the only way
to salvation. They are to bring all problems to their religious leaders first.
Members attend numerous meetings, do Bible lessons and go door-to-door to evangelize,
and some who have left the faith say that schedule leaves little time to think
"It's like an identity thing," said Marilyn Zweifel, an ex-Jehovah's Witness in
New Berlin, Wis., who runs a telephone helpline for current members. "Somewhere
along the way, you lose your identity."
Debbie Shard, an ex-member who also operates a helpline from Ocoee, Fla., said
members are told going outside the religion could hurt the faith's image and make
it difficult to recruit and retain new members.
"If there's a fire, you'd call the fire department," Shard said. "If it's something
that's not a life-threatening emergency, then the elders would be the first line
She agreed with Bowen, saying: "If you go to the elders, they will generally discourage
you from going to (secular) authorities because it will bring reproach on the
A former elder agreed.
"Denial and secrecy are elemental to the way the society operates," said Mike
Terry, of Conway, Ark.
Raymond Franz, a high-ranking Jehovah's Witness who was disfellowshipped and then
wrote two books about the inner workings of the faith, said he doesn't believe
cases of pedophilia are any more prevalent in the denomination than in others.
But the religion's insularity leads to problems, he said.
"The thing is to keep everything within the system," Franz said. "That's a natural
reaction for Witnesses because they are essentially a closed community..."
It took several years before Carl and Barbara Pandelo of New Jersey left Jehovah's
In 1988, their 12-year-old daughter told them she was being molested by her grandfather,
Clement Pandelo of Paramus, N.J., who was also a member of the faith.
As part of a plea agreement, Clement Pandelo pleaded guilty to two counts of endangering
the welfare of a child and one count of criminal sexual conduct. Court documents
reveal Clement Pandelo admitted to having fondled girls for 40 years.
He was placed on five years' probation. He did not return phone messages seeking
Carl and Barbara Pandelo said they wish they had pushed the case more so he served
prison time, but they decided to allow the plea bargain because church leaders
told them to do so -- a claim disputed by Anthony Valenti, an elder in the Hackensack,
Despite the denomination's opposition to suing other members, the couple later
decided to sue the grandfather's homeowner's insurance policy for funds to help
pay for the daughter's therapy. A multimillion-dollar verdict was returned last
year to the daughter, now Corinne Pandelo-Holloway. It is being appealed.
She and her parents are angry that Clement Pandelo -- after being disfellowshipped
at least once -- is now a member of a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in Hawthorne,
N.J., and is allowed to evangelize door-to-door.
"It really does anger me," said Pandelo-Holloway, now 24 and married. "People
don't know what he is, and I think they should be warned he's a convicted pedophile
in your neighborhood."