NASHVILLE, March 27 — Present and former Jehovah’s Witnesses who claim they were sexually abused by congregation leaders gathered in their first national caucus Saturday, sharing grievances about the religion’s handling of abuse complaints and discussing legal strategy.
William Bowen, former leader of a Kentucky congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, said Saturday that more than 6,000 alleged sexual abuse victims have contacted a group he founded in 2001 to express “outrage at being silenced by the bad institutional policies” of the faith.
The religion’s procedures “can decimate the lives of the innocent and empower predators to get away with the crime of rape,” Bowen said.
Bowen’s group, called Silentlambs, was holding the caucus, which runs through Sunday and drew about two dozen participants.
A key participant was Kimberlee Norris, a lawyer from Fort Worth whose firm represents 47 alleged abuse victims in civil cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations and individuals. Since getting involved in 2002, she said, she has spoken with more than 2,000 victims.
J. R. Brown, spokesman at world headquarters of the Witnesses’ Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, in New York, said the religion agrees with Silentlambs’ goal “to minimize or eliminate the sexual abuse of children,” but disputes the group’s specific allegations.
“We do not view them as our enemies,” Brown said.
Bowen contends that the Witnesses organization is a “pedophile paradise” because of the strong authority exercised by local elders and their overseers and the unusual way in which cases are handled.
As members of the faith understand biblical teaching, an accusation of wrongdoing must be supported by two people with direct knowledge, which Silentlambs says is impossible in most molestation cases. Without such corroboration, the accused person is deemed innocent, Silentlambs says, and victims and parents can be “disfellowshipped,” or excommunicated, for slander if they speak up.
For a Witness, excommunication is a harsh punishment. It means being cut off from relatives, friends and business associates. Bowen and other whistle-blowers have been excommunicated for raising abuse complaints against the organization.
Brown disputed the Silentlambs’ contention that Witnesses are discouraged from taking abuse complaints to secular police. Official policy says elders should report abuse allegations to police if state laws require this, as is now the case in many states.
Silentlambs, founded in 2001, has formed a loose interfaith alliance with two older groups that emerged from the Roman Catholic abuse scandals: the Linkup, based in Louisville, Ky., and Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, with offices in Chicago and St. Louis.
The issue has international ramifications for the Witnesses, who report about 1 million U.S. followers and 6 million worldwide.
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