Feb 26, 2016

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ sex abuse scandal is a lot like Catholic Church’s

Heidi Hirvonen
Reveal News
February 25, 2016

Jehovah’s Witnesses
The release of “Spotlight” – the Oscar-nominated film chronicling The Boston Globe’s groundbreaking investigation into child sexual abuse among Catholic priests – has refocused attention on problems in the church and trumpeted the importance of investigative reporting.

This week’s episode of Reveal goes behind the scenes with the real Globe reporters to learn more about how the story broke in 2002 – and what happened after the credits rolled.

Right now, we’re learning a lot about another religion with a history of hiding child sexual abuse. The themes in our new episode parallel Reveal reporter Trey Bundy’s ongoing investigation into abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses. Taken together, the two religions share a series of troubling themes and tactics.

Abuse allegations stifled from the top

The Globe’s reporting didn’t just reveal crimes; it shed light on a series of cover-ups by high-ranking Catholic Church officials. In one dramatic example, a priest who had been accused of molestation and rape more than 130 times was not disciplined. Rather, he was reassigned by then-Cardinal Bernard Law to a new parish, with disastrous consequences.

More than a decade later, Minnesota Public Radio exposed another scandal, this time in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. As you’ll hear in our episode, reporter Madeleine Baran discovered that the church was making clandestine payments to abusers and continuing to conceal allegations – even after its archbishop led a committee to draft national zero-tolerance policies.

Since reporters and victims have brought these scandals to light, the church has tried to address child sexual abuse on an institutional scale. Last year, Pope Francis established a tribunal to judge individual bishops in the clergy who have allowed cover-ups to occur.

The Vatican, however, recently modified its protocol for reporting sex abuse. Instead of placing the burden to report on the clergy, current guidelines given to new bishops now state it is “not necessarily” the duty of a bishop to report clerical abuse.

Jehovah’s Witnesses also employ a top-down system for dealing with sexual abuse cases. For years, the religion’s leaders have instructed elders to keep child abuse secret from secular authorities and members of their congregations.

The religion’s parent organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, argues that the First Amendment and clergy-penitent privileges exempt elders from having to report sex abuse cases to police. Jehovah’s Witnesses also have preached a doctrine allowing followers to deceive those outside the religion if doing so will protect the religious organization.

Known perpetrators continue working with children

Some priests who have admitted to molesting children have not only avoided being defrocked, they also have been allowed to continue working with children. In 2014, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child denounced the Vatican for transferring priests who were known child sexual abusers to new parishes.

A GlobalPost investigation highlights how scores priests facing allegations of child abuse in the U.S. have avoided accountability by moving to less-developed countries. Through the reporting of Will Carless, our episode focuses on how South America has become a safe haven for these “fugitive fathers.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses elders also have allowed child abusers to continue having access to kids and to move without notifying those in the new congregation that a predator is in their midst. In 1993, a Witness named Jonathan Kendrick confessed to elders that he’d sexually abused his stepdaughter. A few years later, according to former Witness Candace Conti, Kendrick performed door-to-door field service with her when she was a young girl. For two years, Conti says, Kendrick sexually abused her.

When Kendrick eventually moved to another congregation, the elders wrote a letter of introduction that said he worked well with “young ones.” He went on to abuse a young girl in the new congregation. Kendrick denies abusing Conti.

With mounting allegations of child abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization, the Watchtower still refuses to produce its list of known perpetrators in court, in violation of subpoenas.

Statute of limitations may hinder attempts at justice

Cases brought to court by adults who suffered sexual abuse as children in the Catholic Church sometimes are dismissed because legal action wasn’t timely enough. For example, Dale Scheffler, a victim of the Rev. Robert Kapoun in Minnesota, brought his case to trial in 1996. He was awarded a $1 million verdict by the court, only to see it overturned by a higher court the following year due to the statute of limitations. Our episode explains what happened to Kapoun in the years after.

Some states, such as Connecticut and Delaware, have extended their statutes of limitations for child sex abuse, while others are struggling to pass similar bills. Certain lobbying groups for bishops and Catholic lawmakers are making these efforts difficult, arguing that prosecuting old cases will rely on flimsy evidence and that bringing these cases to light will distract from the church’s social mission by depleting funds.

Debbie McDaniel of McAlester, Okla., was disfellowshipped by her Jehovah’s Witness congregation twice: once in 1987 for porneia, a biblical term for sexual acts deemed immoral, and again 2012 for being a lesbian.
Debbie McDaniel of McAlester, Okla., was disfellowshipped by her Jehovah’s Witness congregation twice: once in 1987 for porneia, a biblical term for sexual acts deemed immoral, and again 2012 for being a lesbian.

Victims in Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations have encountered similar barriers to justice. According to court documents, Debbie McDaniel was abused by the top elder in her congregation, Ronald Lawrence, for five years starting when she was 8 years old. In 2013, decades after Lawrence had disfellowshipped McDaniel from the congregation for “loose conduct,” McDaniel brought charges against him for his treatment of her as a child. He was arrested and charged with 19 counts of sexual abuse, but those charges ultimately were dismissed – again, thanks to the statute of limitations.

As of last year, Lawrence was a Jehovah’s Witness in good standing.


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