A year-long investigation by the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit has uncovered new allegations of child sexual abuse and decades-long cover-ups inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization in the United States.
The allegations span states, congregations, and generations and have been the subject of inquiries by attorneys general offices in at least three states, the National Investigative Unit has learned – inquiries that have not been previously reported.
The findings are revealed in a three-part series of news reports this week that shed new light on the burgeoning number of people accusing the Jehovah’s Witnesses of systemic shortcomings in the protection of children within its religious communities.
Fifteen people who grew up in the organization’s teachings and are now adults living in cities from the West Coast to the upper reaches of New England agreed to talk on the record for these reports; 13 of them gathered this spring in Sacramento, California, for the largest television group interview of its kind.
Silent no more
When asked how many of them were telling their stories for the first time on television, most members of the group raised their hands – determined, they said, to be silent no more.
An equally broad majority acknowledged having had previous thoughts of harming themselves because of the circumstances they allege occurred during their upbringing while members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Kameron Torres said he was 6 years old when he began being abused.
He said he and his mother told the leadership of his congregation – men known as elders – about the abuse.
“And the elders didn’t do anything. They said, ‘we’d look into this, we’ll take care of it, we’ll leave it in God’s hands,’” he recalled during the interview.
“They haven’t done anything” in the past quarter-century, said Torres, who earlier this year testified before a California Senate committee.
Star Pahl, who filed a police report in August 1991 that was obtained by the National Investigative Unit, alleged long-term abuse while she was a child. Pahl subsequently decided not to pursue the case and the matter was closed.
“This organization is a culture that doesn’t protect our children. It’s dangerous. It’s very, very dangerous,” Pahl said during the group interview, sitting two chairs away from Torres.
“We were silenced,” declared Megan Lynn, a fifth-generation Jehovah’s Witness who asked not to use her last name since she did the on-camera interview without her family’s knowledge or approval.
Speaking with tears running down her cheeks, Megan Lynn said, “I hope to God they understand that I love them and I’m not doing this because I hate them. I’m doing this because I love children and I want them to be safe and this is the only way for them to be safe. For us to put ourselves on the front lines.”
When asked whether she was willing to speak publicly for the first time even if her congregation subsequently dis-fellowships her for doing so, also putting at risk contact with her biological family members who are still Witnesses, Megan Lynn simply replied, “Yes.”
‘Endeavor to Comply’
There are an estimated 1.2 million followers of the religion in the U.S., many of whom hand out literature or have gone door to door, trying to convince more people of their belief in an “approaching apocalypse”; that in the resurrection, only true believers will be saved by Jehovah – their name for God.
In literature from May 2019 titled “Love and Justice in the Face of Wickedness” published online, the Jehovah’s Witnesses call child abuse “an especially repugnant wicked deed,” and say elders “endeavor to comply” with laws requiring allegations of child abuse be reported to authorities.
But this investigation found that is not always true.
Avoiding the police – followers, elders, memos, and hundreds of pages of court transcripts reveal – was the expectation from the very top of the organization.
Internal documents and letters from headquarters going back 30 years directed its approximately 13,000 congregations across the United States to handle abuse internally, send copies of files to headquarters — not police — in “special blue” envelopes, and destroy documents laying out past policy.
‘I was complicit’
Roger Bentley was a longtime elder at a Kingdom Hall in California who says he remembered reading the internal letters from headquarters instructing local bodies of elders how to respond and who to contact in cases of alleged child abuse.
The memos, dating from between 1989 to 2012, do not tell elders to contact secular law enforcement authorities.
In an interview, Bentley says he read and followed the written orders when he was an elder and now says he was “blinded” by the religion.
“By learning of child abuse – even an allegation – and not reporting it, that is covering up child abuse. That’s not a tough question,” Bentley said.
Asked if the act of calling police would be like going against God’s word, Bentley replied: “Sure, yeah. Yes. Yes.”
He said it was “correct” that it would be “almost unthinkable” to disobey the Governing Body, the panel of men who oversee the organization worldwide, and contact law enforcement anyway.
“I was complicit… with an organization that really had a bad policy towards child sexual abuse,” said Bentley.
Attorneys general inquiries
Now authorities want to know more about that policy.
The National Investigative Unit contacted the offices of all 50 state attorneys general in the United States and learned that at least three have been looking into the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization, its policies and allegations against it. Among the individuals contacted by law enforcement recently: whistleblowers and followers who allege abuse.
- In Delaware: which reached a settlement – reported here for the first time – with a congregation in the city of Laurel to pay more than $19,000 and take a “Stewards of Children” training program after its elders failed to report alleged child abuse to authorities in violation of the state’s mandatory reporter law. The congregation did not admit liability in that settlement.
- In California: which sent an investigator to meet with an alleged victim north of Los Angeles in April who tells us she was threatened by elders with dis-fellowshipping if she reported her alleged abuser.
- In Pennsylvania: which has now interviewed at least one person who alleges abuse when he was a child.
The interviews in California and Pennsylvania could be the precursor to opening a formal investigation or grand jury probe. Both offices declined to comment, although California’s Attorney General directed journalists’ attention to a website it set up to solicit “information from the public regarding complaints” of sexual abuse of children “by members of clergy or religious organizations.”
According to documents obtained by the National Investigative Unit, a Pennsylvania Attorney General senior supervisory special agent looking into some of the allegations is Gary Tallent, the same child predator section investigator who helped lead the state’s blockbuster probe into the Catholic Church that last year revealed 301 priests accused of abusing 1,000 children.
Secret database of accused abusers
Those same Pennsylvania investigators could now seek access to a secret Jehovah’s Witnesses database of accused and convicted abusers filled with reports sent to the organization in those “special blue” envelopes.
Irwin Zalkin, a San Diego-based attorney who has also represented Catholic abuse victims, got a decade’s worth of documents from the database files, but can’t disclose details due to a California judge’s protective order shielding the files from public view for now.
In an interview in an ornate, wood-carved courtroom at his alma mater, California Western School of Law, Zalkin called the documents he’s seen “disturbing.”
“There are a lot of children that are being affected. Very, very badly… It’s hard to know what’s in that and not be able to talk about it,” Zalkin said.
Despite a court order requiring disclosure, lawyers for the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization are still fighting, appealing to heavily redact the files.
Zalkin says that in his experience, the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been more defiant than the Catholic Church when it comes to disclosure of files detailing years of alleged abuse and the hierarchy’s response to it.
Zalkin’s team, which is believed to represent the largest number of alleged Jehovah’s Witness abuse victims of any firm in the country, about three dozen, is now asking a judge to sanction the organization for the delays.
Lawmakers aren’t waiting.
In California, a bill passed the Senate in May that would strip away clergy-penitent privilege, requiring religious leaders of all faiths to report alleged child sex abuse.
Twelve states currently have such a requirement, leaving 38 states with less protection for victims, according to a fact-sheet distributed by the office of state Sen. Jerry Hill, the sponsor of SB 360.
“This exemption has caused a lot of abuse of children and we need to stop it,” the senator said in an interview just off the floor of the chamber.
“What we want to do is protect children. And that’s what this bill does,” Hill said.
‘A moral obligation’
All 13 participants of the television group interview with people who grew up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious doctrine said they supported the legislation.
And they also said they’re in favor of passing on a warning that children are “at risk every single day,” as Candace Conti, who says she was abused as a child, expressed.
“We need to protect our children. — we have a moral obligation — We have an obligation to our children,” another participant added.
‘Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse’
The National Investigative Unit repeatedly contacted the headquarters of the organization for comment over several months, sending its representatives a detailed list of 22 questions, specific names and allegations, and requests for granular discussions of past and current policies. In addition, a television crew subsequently visited three Jehovah’s Witnesses nationwide administrative sites, located in New York state, to provide its leaders an additional opportunity for comment.
But in a three-paragraph statement, the organization’s Office of Public Information declined to make anyone in leadership available for an on-camera interview with Hearst Television, saying, “out of respect for the privacy of all involved, it is not appropriate for our office to comment on specific legal cases.”
The Organization did not accept an offer for signed privacy waivers from the people interviewed to allow it to more fully discuss their cases.
The statement continued: “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse as a sin and crime. Our policies on child protection comply with the law, including any requirements for elders to report allegations of child abuse to authorities. Our organization will continue to promote child protection education for parents.”
Efforts to reach all of the individual congregations named by the group interview participants by mail either did not result in a response or resulted in the certified letters returned unopened.
*story by WGAL News