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How Jehovah’s Witnesses Leaders Hide Child Abuse Secrets At All Costs

This undated photo shows the Jehovah's Witnesses' headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.
Damon Jacoby / Reveal
This undated photo shows the Jehovah's Witnesses' headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.
How Jehovah’s Witnesses Leaders Hide Child Abuse Secrets At All Costs
How Jehovah’s Witnesses Leaders Hide Child Abuse Secrets At All Costs GUEST: Trey Bundy, reporter, Reveal

The scandals child sex abuse in the Catholic Church was big news nearly a decade ago but now an investigation is unearthing evidence of a widespread cover-up of child sexual abuse among Jehovah witnesses. Key documents involved in this cover-up are right here in San Diego. Trey Bundy is a reporter for Reveal and for the center of investigative reporting . Tray, thank you for joining us. Jehovah's Witnesses parent corporation called the watchtower and is based in New York. Outage or reporting on child abuse within the church lead you to San Diego? With first got wind that Jehovah witnesses had child abuse policies instructing others to cover up, we started by going online and finding a vast committee of X Jehovah witnesses around the world who are focused on this issue and we went source by source looking for lawsuits and one of the lawsuits was right there in San Diego. How big is the church? There are 1 million members of the Jehovah witnesses around the world. There is 1 million in the United States and they are central to the place is that Armageddon is imminent and will be coming anytime and everyone will be destroyed and only Jehovah witnesses will be resurrected to live in paradise on earth. That basically informs their behavior of the contact and their policies so essentially there was a more insular religions in the world so they do not vote, did not serve in the military. They are discouraged from going to college and discouraged from consuming and stream media. Their focuses to bend the church, on the religion, the teachings of God, essentially keeping outsiders at a distance. You learned that there was a rule of congregation leaders found out about child abuse they had to call the watchtower's legal department immediately. Here we have a cup from a San Diego attorney, Irwin Zalkin describing that pick Written, demanded, committed policy very different than the Catholic Church it was unwritten,, it was by voice only. If they did not have it written down anywhere. It was understood. Here it is in writing. As the report there are several levels lawsuits trying to get copies of these documents -- that the watchtower has. One of the hoping to learn and how they obtained any of the documents? There number of lawsuits against the Jehovah witnesses for child abuse all over the world. Irwin Zalkin has 18 lawsuits currently in the suits are in San Diego. Two in San Diego and one in Riverside. He has requested all of the child abuse documents that the watchtower has. What that means is in 1997 the watchtower issued a directive in writing to all elders in the United States in every congregation sang if you learn of an alleged child abuser in your congregation need to file a report in writing answering the following nine questions. Those questions with things like, how old was the victim, was this a one-time occurrence of abuse or an ongoing thing, do the authorities know, dressing members of the congregation know and so on. Since that time it has been 19 years that they have been collecting scanning these documents into an electronic database and that is what Irwin Zalkin is after. That is what they have refused to give up in court. Have they obtained any of the documents? Sultan tried this Intermec different cases. -- Is all contract this in three different cases. Both of the cases the judge struck the watchtower's defense from the trial and awarded Irwin Zalkin's clients $1 million judgments for those cases are in appeal. In the third case, Zalkin asked for the documents and it seemed as though the Jehovah's Witnesses are tired of being spent to death and agreed to give them a what they did was they only gave four years of documents rather than the full 19 years that the court had ordered the documents were retracted. The dams of the congregation comes the names of the abusers rolled retracted with the judge has ordered them to release all of the documents with the names that that point they shut down. They refuse to give over anything else. The court has sanctioned them to the tune of $4000 per day until they comply. There is a lot of money at stake here in this cover-up. How much has the Watchtower pates of our? Soper they have not paid a dime because they have been to be a link these decisions. What they are risking is $13.5 million judgment, a $4 million judgment and $4000 per day since Jim. It adds up to about $18 million that the Jehovah witnesses are risking to keep anybody from seeing what is in the files. Is that legal? What does California state law say about what you did you learn about child abuse? In California clergy are mandated reporters in terms of reporting child abuse. California also has a local to that law and that loophole is called a privilege which means that they learn about the child abuse because they somebody comes and confesses to them in a spiritual communication than they do not have to report that. Even though that is not how they learn about these cases, that is what they argue in court. They say anytime somebody tells an elder that somebody has been abused, it is a spiritual communication and they do not have to report it. Usually get shut down that argument when they make a corporate think the real question is, the courts cannot get these documents, the California Supreme Court cannot get the documents and the Jehovah witnesses are essentially thumbing their noses at the court system is there a point where law enforcement jobs in? That is the question. Has there been any interest in these cases from law enforcement? Not so far in the United States. We have reached out to attorney generals in California, New York, the Department of Justice including the FBI and it appears nobody is looking at the Jehovah witnesses. There are plenty of witnesses coming forward but law enforcement is not taking any action? That is correct. It does not necessarily have to be like that. It look at England, the Charity commission which oversees charities including the Jehovah witnesses in that country, they opened an investigation to make your Saco that is ongoing and they are looking at the child abuse policies based on the types of things that we are talking about, hiding child abuse from law enforcement. It look at all straight, Laster government commission held public hearings and finished up a to make your investigation in which they found 1000 let's child does and Jehovah congregations in Australia and none of them had been reported to the police. To put that in perspective there about 60,000 Jehovah witnesses in all strikebreakers 1 million in the United States of you extrapolate that the number. Could be as high as 14,000 let's child abusers that are likely still living in communities across the United States. Up the child sex abuse scandal did not destroy the Catholic Church but to get a sense that this might destroy the Jehovah's Witnesses at least financially if they continue to hold out? It is hard to say. It is beside the main point preventing people looking at this issue are more concerned about hitting the Jehovah witnesses to change them or policies of current child abuse rather than to bring down the religion. To go back to the money, the Jehovah's Witnesses are risking millions of dollars to-10 Illini their child abuse files that might not mean so much to them. They are a multibillion dollar global corporation and maybe millions in damages does not really scare them. Maybe that is a worthwhile investment to them to try to protect the protection of the religion over protection of children. Trey thank you for bringing this to our attention. Trey Bundy is a reporter for Reveal.

The leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses has boldly defied court orders to turn over the names and whereabouts of alleged child sexual abusers across the United States.

Since 2014, courts have slapped the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ parent corporation, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, with multimillion-dollar judgments and sanctions for violating orders to hand over secret documents.

The documents could serve as a road map to what are likely thousands of alleged child abusers living freely in communities across the country, who still could be abusing kids. The files include the names of known and suspected perpetrators, the locations of their congregations and descriptions of their alleged crimes.


“I’ve been practicing law for 37 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said attorney Irwin Zalkin, who represents victims of sexual abuse by Jehovah’s Witnesses. “They do everything to protect the reputation of the organization over the safety of children.”

Zalkin said he believes that state and federal law enforcement agencies have a moral obligation to investigate the Watchtower’s child abuse policies and seize its files.

“It’s a public safety issue,” he said. “At this point, this needs to be investigated.”

This undated photo shows Irwin Zalkin, who represents victims of sexual abuse by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Adithya Sambamurthy / Reveal
This undated photo shows Irwin Zalkin, who represents victims of sexual abuse by Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting made repeated attempts to interview officials from law enforcement agencies who could potentially obtain search warrants for the documents, the New York and California attorneys general and U.S. Department of Justice. None of the agencies agreed to talk.

For more than 25 years, Jehovah’s Witnesses officials have instructed local leaders — known as elders — in all of the religion’s 14,000 U.S. congregations to hide sexual abuse from law enforcement. Instead, abusers were to be handled internally.


That secrecy is a tenet of the religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught to avoid the outside world. They don’t vote or serve in the military and usually don’t go to college.

Predators purposefully exploit that isolation, said Kathleen Hallisey, a London attorney spearheading similar civil lawsuits in England.

“I think they choose those types of environments very carefully, where they know they can operate with impunity, and unfortunately, the policies of the Watchtower allow them to continue to do that again and again and again,” Hallisey said.

In 1997, the Watchtower issued a directive calling for elders to report alleged child sexual abusers to the religion’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. The form was to be mailed in a special blue envelope.

That directive is the foundation of a database the Watchtower has collected and maintained for almost two decades, according to Watchtower documents.

“Written, demanded, commanded policy. Very different. The Catholic Church, it was unwritten. They called it ‘viva voce,' by voice only. They didn’t have it written down anywhere, it was just understood,” Zalkin said. “Here, it’s in writing. I mean there’s no question.”

Zalkin is quite familiar with the details of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal. In 2007, he negotiated a $200 million settlement for more than 100 victims of clergy abuse. After that case made news, he began receiving calls from victims of abuse in all sorts of institutions, including universities and the Boy Scouts of America.

About a dozen of those calls came from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. Several of them named the same abuser: Gonzalo Campos. Those cases led Zalkin to the Watchtower’s secret documents.

Campos was a Jehovah’s Witness who sexually abused at least seven children in San Diego congregations in the ’80s and ’90s. During that time, Watchtower leaders knew Campos was abusing children but did not report him to law enforcement, according to testimony by congregation elders. Instead, they promoted him to the position of elder.

Campos would groom his victims for abuse during Bible study sessions, according to court records. One of those victims was Jose Lopez, who was 7 when Campos abused him.

“The Watchtower or the organization, I think they should have contacted the authorities and, you know, had this guy behind bars,” Lopez said.

This undated photo shows Jose Lopez — who was 7 years old when he was abused by Jehovah’s Witness Gonzalo Campos, who admitted to molesting children in San Diego congregations — in a sworn deposition.
Adithya Sambamurthy / Reveal
This undated photo shows Jose Lopez — who was 7 years old when he was abused by Jehovah’s Witness Gonzalo Campos, who admitted to molesting children in San Diego congregations — in a sworn deposition.

Campos has admitted to abusing Jehovah’s Witness children in a sworn deposition.

In 2012, Zalkin filed a lawsuit against the Watchtower on behalf of Lopez.

During the case, Zalkin formally requested all the letters the Watchtower had received in response to the 1997 directive. He wanted to prove a pattern, and the documents would show what the Watchtower knew about the scope of child abuse in the organization.

In 2014, San Diego Superior Court Judge Joan Lewis ordered the Watchtower to hand over the documents. The California Supreme Court upheld the order. The Watchtower refused.

Lewis kicked the Watchtower out of court and awarded Lopez $13.5 million in damages. She expressed her own frustration with the Watchtower’s tactics in her decision.

“Watchtower’s actions or omissions were ‘reprehensible.’ I think ‘disgraceful’ may be synonymous with ‘reprehensible,’ but I think ‘disgraceful’ doesn’t say enough about it,” she wrote. “The award of punitive damages against them will hopefully send a message to Watchtower and its managing agents, the governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that their handling of sex abuse cases within their congregation was absolutely reckless.”

The Watchtower didn’t get that message. In Zalkin’s next case, he again requested the Watchtower’s child abuse files. Again, the Watchtower refused. This time, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Raquel Marquez threw the defense out of court. The cost of withholding the documents: $4 million.

Finally, in Zalkin’s next case, it looked like the Jehovah’s Witnesses had acquiesced. They agreed to hand over the documents. But with a caveat: Zalkin could not share them with anyone.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss agreed, and the Watchtower began sending the documents to Zalkin.

But as they arrived, he noticed something was wrong. The Watchtower had only sent four years’ worth of files, instead of the 19 years the court had ordered. And the Watchtower had redacted some of the most crucial information in the documents: the names of the perpetrators and the congregations.

In June, Strauss ordered the Watchtower to pay $4,000 a day until it complied with the court’s order. The Watchtower is appealing.

“They’ve made a business decision not to produce these documents,” Zalkin said.

Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders have refused to discuss the cases. Last year, they issued a statement saying they abhor child abuse and comply with all child abuse reporting laws.

The Watchtower appealed the $13.5 million ruling in the Lopez case. The appeals court ruled earlier this year that the judge should not have thrown the Watchtower out of court before trying less extreme measures, such as daily fines until it produces the documents.

But the court also upheld the order for the Watchtower to hand over all its child abuse files, unredacted except for the names of the victims. The case is back in the lower court.

Meanwhile, Zalkin currently has 18 lawsuits pending against the Watchtower.

He also has four years of redacted documents locked in a filing cabinet in his office. The judge’s protective order prevents him from saying how many documents he received or describing what they reveal about child abuse in Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations.

“It’s very frustrating to have seen what I’ve seen and to know what is going on in this institution and this organization,” Zalkin said. “It’s very frustrating when I’ve got a gag in my mouth. It’s pretty hard. We’re trying our best to expose this truth, and they’re doing everything they can to interfere with that effort, to block that effort.”

Copyright 2016 Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.