Sixteen current or former Jehovah's Witnesses have settled nine lawsuits in which they said they were sexually abused as children by Jehovah's Witnesses members or leaders.
The settlements between the alleged victims and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York—details of which have been kept secret—were announced Thursday (May 10) by a watchdog group that has worked for five years on lawsuits that accuse the religious group of not adequately protecting children.
"For once, we have the church stepping up to the plate and having to settle with these victims," said William H. Bowen, founder of SilentLambs.org, a support group that focuses on victims who claim to have been molested by Jehovah's Witnesses. "To me, it's a vindication for the abuse survivors."
Bowen, who tracks abuse cases, discovered that one case had been settled and continued researching until he discovered several others had as well, mostly in mid-February. Most of the cases were in California, but one in Texas and one in Oregon also were settled.
Mario Moreno, the Jehovah's Witnesses' associate general counsel, confirmed Friday that nine lawsuits involving a total of 16 plaintiffs had been settled.
When asked the total amount of the settlements, he said, "I'm not able to comment on any of the specifics," citing "a confidentiality agreement."
Bowen, of Paducah, Ky., called that agreement a "bittersweet" outcome.
"Even though they're vindicated and they're going to be compensated ... they can't tell anybody about it," he said.
Even so, Bowen considered this a significant legal victory for the plaintiffs. "It's the largest group of people that they have settled with—as far as child abuse is concerned—at one time," he said.
Moreno would only say that "it certainly is unusual for us to have a number of cases."
In a brief statement, the religious body said: "We are pleased to see this matter resolved." The statement "regarding January-February 2007 settlement of child abuse cases" cites the New Testament book of Romans about hating "what is wicked" and says child abuse falls in that category.
"As an organization, we will continually strive to educate families and congregations with sound Scriptural teachings that they can use to protect their children from child molesters," the statement said. "And we will continue to do our utmost to protect children from this horrible crime and sin."
Bowen said one factor in the settlement could be a ruling last October by a California Superior Court judge that granted a plaintiffs' request for details about how Watchtower's legal department investigates allegations of child sexual abuse.
"The church did not want to open this database to the court," Bowen said.
His organization held news conferences in Nashville, Tenn., and in San Diego on Thursday to announce the settlement, and has begun a campaign to place fliers outside Kingdom Halls—as Jehovah's Witnesses houses of worship are known—encouraging abuse victims to speak up.
"They have done something wrong, they had to pay for it and now everyone should know," Bowen said. "The church can be held accountable for what they've done to children."
©2007 Religion News Service[ abuse ]