Excommunicated Jehovah’s Witnesses speak out on church’s handling of child abuse

Excommunicated Jehovah’s Witnesses speak out on church’s handling of child abuse

This story appeared on the AP national wire and ran on Page A20 of The Washington Post.

September 26, 2002, Thursday, BC cycle
Excommunicated Jehovah’s Witnesses speak out on church’s handling of child abuse

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: Domestic News

LENGTH: 728 words

DATELINE: TULLAHOMA, Tenn.

Joe and Barbara Anderson have been abandoned by their peers. Their son won’t talk to them, and won’t let them see their 3-year-old grandson.

For more than 40 years, Joe and Barbara Anderson were faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses, preaching door to door and winning more than 80 converts to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

But now the Andersons are outcasts, excommunicated from the religion they served.

The couple’s transgression: Sowing discord in the faith by alleging that the denomination has protected pedophiles and concealed hundreds of child molestation cases.

“Our son and daughter-in-law think what we’ve done is so horrible,” Barbara Anderson, 62, said at her sycamore-shaded rural cottage about 65 miles southeast of Nashville.

Like the Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses are dealing with their own sex scandal that involves both rank-and-file and leaders of the faith.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses shun the outside world in many respects and refuse to participate in secular government. Critics fear that child-sex allegations are generally not reported to police because of the church’s insistence on handling problems internally.

Four Witnesses, including Barbara Anderson, were excommunicated after NBC’s “Dateline” aired their concerns in May. Joe Anderson, 67, was disfellowshipped, as the church calls it, in July over a letter to headquarters questioning his wife’s treatment.

Barbara Anderson worked as a researcher at Watchtower headquarters in the early 1990s and a church official asked her to look into the handling of sexual abuse cases. She said she found hundreds of allegations on record, but kept secret, in church files.

She said church elders used Scripture to argue “you’re not to make an accusation against an older man unless there are two or three witnesses,” she said. “No molester is going to have any witnesses, that’s for sure.”

Watchtower spokesman J.R. Brown defended Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policies.

“Clearly, with us having 95,000 congregations around the world and three to five to six elders in each, mistakes may have been made,” he said. “But that does not mean that we don’t have a strong and aggressive policy that shows we abhor child molestation.”

Brown said that anyone found guilty of molestation by a church judicial committee is removed from all positions of responsibility and cannot evangelize door-to-door without being accompanied by a fellow Jehovah’s Witness.

Undeterred, Barbara Anderson co-founded Silentlambs, a support group for church victims. She expects to lead a rally outside Watchtower headquarters in New York City on Friday. Protesters plan to carry stuffed lambs to symbolize the children who have been hurt.

Silentlambs, headed by former Kentucky church elder Bill Bowen, claims the denomination keeps molestations secret, won’t let victims warn other members about abusers, and shuns those who speak out.

The church puts its membership at 6 million worldwide, including 1 million U.S. residents. Silentlambs has received calls and e-mails from 5,000 Witnesses reporting mishandled molestation cases, Bowen said.

In the closed society, anyone who is a Witness must cut off contact with disfellowshipped members, even relatives.

“They will not speak to you,” Joe Anderson said. “I mean, if you are lying on the road, they will drive right past you.”

Their son, Lance Anderson, 41, a church elder in Mishawaka, Ind., said the intention isn’t to punish his parents but to lead them to repentance.

“I have never seen a situation come up in which we have not handled it legally and biblically the best way possible,” he said.

The son said pedophilia is a global problem but that only God – not man or government – can stop it.

“I love my parents dearly, but the message they have chosen to accomplish this is harming good people,” he said. “They are putting themselves, really, in harm’s way.”

For the first time, Joe and Barbara Anderson say they’re reading religious books and trying to draw their own conclusions.

“It’s not that we don’t believe the Bible or don’t believe religion or don’t believe God,” Barbara Anderson said. “But we’re having fun … having the freedom to look around and to think about it.”