Jehovah's Witness Church Accused of Hiding Sexual Abusers

Jehovah's Witness Church Accused of Hiding Sexual Abusers

Jehovah's Witness Church Accused of Hiding Sexual Abusers By Matt Pyeatt CNS Staff Writer - The woman who was sexually abused by a leading elder in a Jehovah's Witness church in Washington State claims the church regularly hides illegal actions of its members and officials to protect its "image." The elder, Manuel Beliz, was convicted of raping and molesting 23-year-old Erica Rodriguez and sentenced last August to 11 years in prison. Beliz now awaits the result of a civil suit filed by Rodriguez against him, the Othello Washington Spanish Jehovah's Witness congregation and the church's official national governing body, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. Rodriguez said Beliz "abused her approximately once a week" from the time she was four until she was 11, when she and her family moved to California. "The criminal case was to protect other kids from a dangerous molester," Rodriguez said. "This case [civil suit] is to protect many more kids from a dangerous denomination." Rodriguez believes that "perhaps thousands" of youngsters are victims to the Jehovah's Witness denomination because of what she alleges is the church's policy to allow known molesters to avoid detection and criminal prosecution. Attorney Timothy Kosnoff stated that Rodriguez was pressured to remain silent about the issue and that church officials Carlos Chicas and Milton Malendez threatened her with "disfellowship" or ex-communication from the church if she spoke out. "This pattern of forbidding abuse victims to contact police or outsiders is standard operating procedure all Jehovah's Witnesses must follow, by direction of the national organization in New York," Kosnoff said. "By failing to contact civil authorities, the Jehovah's Witness elders violated Washington's mandatory child abuse law." Beliz is currently serving time in a Washington state prison in Walla Walla. Two separate juries found Beliz guilty of the crimes. The first conviction was overturned because the deputy prosecutor admitted to tampering with the jury by attempting to exclude younger women during jury selection. An appellate court ordered a mistrial and Beliz was convicted a second time. Jehovah's Witness church officials in New York deny that the church hides criminal activity. "We have no such policy. Our policy allows for anyone who wishes to report the matter to the authorities to do so," J.R. Brown, national spokesman for the Jehovah's Witness organization, said. "We strictly comply. We are not in any way resistive to the proper authorities being notified." Brown said that while he could not comment on the specifics of the case, the church typically follows general policy guidelines in such matters. "We follow a general policy that we do not support legally any Jehovah's Witness charged with a crime. We do not use our donated resources to defend any Jehovah's Witness accused of a crime," Brown said. Barrett said Rodriguez brought the civil suit to "bring attention to the fact that the Jehovah's Witness church has very regressive policies and she wants to see some changes." "The Jehovah Witness church and the Watchtower Society must protect kids and not molesters. A lot of pain and suffering could be prevented if they would forget about the church's image, take sexual abuse seriously and start reaching out to the victims," Rodriguez said. But Brown said the core issue is not the church's image. "If someone were to feel that our concern for our resources were greater than that for innocent victims, that simply is not true," Brown said. "We are concerned, just as any other organization, about our public image. We are concerned about our resources because we are recipients of donated funds for non-profit charitable work. But we are primarily ministers who are concerned to act as shepherds in a protective and spiritual sense over the members of the congregation," he said. "If anyone has been abused by anyone else in the congregation or whether that person is an appointed elder or not, we view this as a horrific crime to inflict on a child or anyone else," Brown said.

PHOTO from AP/Wide World Photos Archive

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