The recent spotlight on childhood sexual abuse has largely centered on the Catholic Church. This year, the Catholic Church spent more than $300 million on sex abuse allegation-related costs and it is estimated they will spend another $4 billion by the end of 2020.
Though it hasn’t been as widely publicized, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian sect with more than 8.5 million members worldwide, has been similarly accused of covering up sexual abuse. A series of local court cases have begun to crack open a document detailing more than two decades’ worth of abuse allegations that were never shared with law enforcement, as required by law. Hoping to maintain the congregational code of silence, the Watchtower has quietly paid out more than $100 million over the past 20 years.
The upcoming three-year lookback window provided by the passage of Assembly Bill 218 (AB 218) will give Californian sexual abuse survivors with previously expired claims another opportunity to seek justice against Jehovah’s Witnesses elders.
Sexual Abuse Among California’s Jehovah’s Witnesses
A number of stories reveal allegations of sexual abuse in California Jehovah’s Witness congregations:
- On August 15, 2019, a 26-year-old Los Angeles man filed a lawsuit against the San Dimas Spanish Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses Inc., and the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. His lawsuit detailed abuse by an elder, “Humberto,” that started at age six and persisted from 1999-2001. The plaintiff was allegedly told he “would not be accepted into paradise” if he did not touch the elder and allow the elder to touch him at bible studies, during assemblies, and while out in field service. The boy’s parents reported the abuse to church elders in 2001, but the police were never notified, as required by California’s mandatory reporter law.
- On October 7, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the Watchtower to win a judicial review of a 2013 case in which the Riverside Superior Court of California awarded plaintiff “JW” a judgment totaling more than $4 million. The plaintiff in this case alleged sexual molestation in 2006 by a religious leader who was convicted in criminal court of “lewd and lascivious acts on a child under age 14” for two other victims and sentenced to 45 years in prison. A “special blue envelope” letter dated March 14, 1997, notified all elders the organization was: aware of molestations, compiling a database of pedophiles in leadership positions, and expected confidentiality from its members. Infuriated by the organization’s refusal to cooperate, the judge tacked on an additional interest penalty of 10% per year because they refused to obey court orders by producing files of known child molesters within their ranks. This order was upheld upon appeal.
- In 2012, a California jury awarded $28 million to a 33-year-old Fremont woman. The verdict represented the largest ever against a religious organization. On appeal, the award was later reduced to $3 million. According to the lawsuit, instead of taking her to conduct Saturday morning field service, Elder Jonathan Kendrick would molest the 9-to-11-year-old girl in his home. Years later, after the woman had left the congregation, she discovered her abuser’s name on the federal sex-offender registry. When she notified elders, they allegedly told her about the “two-witness rule,” rooted in Deuteronomy 19:15, which states: “No single witness may convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit” without two credible eyewitnesses who are willing to corroborate the accusation. When they refused to cooperate, she filed a lawsuit against them and won. During depositions, the elders admitted they’d long known Kendrick had a problem with child molestation—even before pairing the girl with him for door-to-door ministry.
- Another 2012 lawsuit resulted in a $13.5 million verdict for the 1986 molestation of a 7-year-old boy by mentor Gonzalo Campos in La Jolla. When confronted by the boy’s mother, the elders promised to handle the situation but allowed Campos to rise to the status of an elder. He was kicked out of the congregation after a victim reported abuse in 1995, but was reinstated in 2000. In 2010, Campos fled to Mexico and confessed during a deposition that he had molested the plaintiff and at least 17 other children. Six men and one woman settled for undisclosed sums out of court. An appellate court overturned the initial ruling in favor of a $4,000-per-day penalty instead. The organization racked up $2 million in fines before handing over the documents and settling for an undisclosed sum in February 2018.
Jehovah’s Witness Sex Abuse Allegations Could Reach Tens of Thousands
Exactly how many alleged pedophiles are named in the database has been the source of widespread speculation. In 2002, a former elder said there were 23,720 abusers in the ranks. During Gonzalo Campos’ trial, a Watchtower attorney estimated there had been at least 775 “special blue envelopes” in circulation from 1997 to 2001 but had no idea how many had been shared since then.
In 2015, Australian investigators revealed that the elders failed to report more than 1,000 cases of child abuse. The Church dismissed 401 members following internal abuse investigations but reinstated more than half. Their “secret sexual deviant database” represented 1.5 percent of the country’s Jehovah’s Witnesses. Considering there are 1.2 million members in the U.S., a similar outcome would suggest there are roughly 18,000 people in the database.
AB 218 Allows Victims to Seek Justice
The passage of AB 218 allows for:
- Extended civil lawsuit deadlines: Prior to January 1, 2020, victims of childhood sexual abuse had until age 26 to come forward with their allegations in civil lawsuits and pursue compensation for their pain and suffering. However, with the passage of AB 218, survivors have until age 40 to file civil lawsuits against child molesters and the institutions that shielded them.
- Expired claims to be revisited: The law also permitted a three-year lookback window that allows childhood sexual abuse victims with previously expired claims to file a civil lawsuit.
- Treble damages to be awarded: Treble damages are specifically allowed when plaintiffs can prove the institutions involved engage in coverup activity. “Treble damages” meaning the plaintiff’s recovery award amount can be multiplied by three.
New York recently permitted a similar lookback window with the Child Victims Act. They have already seen the Watchtower named as a defendant in a number of lawsuits.
Help for Victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses Sexual Abuse Cover-up
If you’re wondering what to do following the Jehovah’s Witnesses organizational coverup of the sexual abuse you suffered, a specialized attorney can help. An attorney who specializes in sexual abuse cases can point you in the right direction for seeking medical attention, connecting with crisis social workers and counselors, dealing with insurance issues, and getting your life back in the wake of disturbing events that were beyond your control.
The attorneys at Lewis & Llewellyn are not intimidated by large organizations such as the Jehovah’s Witness organization. Our passionate and experienced trial attorneys have represented both adult and child victims of sexual abuse across the nation, which is why a leading legal publication, The Daily Journal, described our firm “a giant slayer.”
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