Super Lawyers
Illinois State Bar Association
Justia Lawyer Rating
Million Dollar Advocates Forum
Avvo Rating
Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers BBB Business Review

Jehovah’s Witness Sexual Abuse Lawsuit

Recent lawsuits and investigations have uncovered decades-long sexual abuse in the Jehovah's Witness church. Survivors and witnesses have spoken against church elders and members, as well as the organization itself and its parent corporation, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

Sex abuse in the Catholic church and other religious sects is nothing new. Thousands of lawsuits are being brought by victims and their families, revealing the horrifying gravity of abusers' malicious actions.

If you or a loved one are victims of Jehovah's Witnesses' sexual abuse, don't hesitate to seek help. At Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers, LLC, our personal injury attorneys defend victims' legal rights, holding abusers accountable for the harm and suffering they have caused.

Contact our sexual abuse lawyers at (888) 424-5757 for a free consultation.

What Are the Jehovah's Witnesses?

The Jehovah's Witnesses congregation is a millennialist restorationist Christian denomination with nontrinitarian beliefs. Believers honor Jehovah, the God and Creator of all things. The church shares some traditional views with the Catholic church but holds several unique ones, including the belief that there is one God, not a Trinity.

Today, there are approximately 8.7 million Jehovah's Witnesses around the world. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, a non-profit organization headquartered in New York, oversees and supports the congregation's activities.

How Do the Jehovah's Witnesses Handle Child Sexual Abuse Allegations?

In March 1997, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WBTS) sent a letter to each congregation containing instructions on handling an alleged abuser. The instructions included questions like "Does the accused have a history of child sexual abuse?" and "Does anyone else know about the alleged abuse?"

Furthermore, the Jehovah's Witnesses policies require accusers to have two witnesses (one aside from themselves) before church elders would hear their case. The rule is rooted in Deuteronomy 19:15, stating that "no single witness may convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit." Supposedly, the church made this policy to ensure that people aren't falsely accused.

If the accuser could not adhere to the two-witness rule, elders would sometimes punish them for making false accusations. The most severe punishment was ex-communication from the church.

In most cases, proceedings were held with the victim and the accused in the same room. The accuser would have to confront the abuser, which would be traumatic to anyone, especially a child.

Most pressingly, the letter instructed church elders to keep a copy of the report within the congregation's confidential files and not to share it with anyone else, including law enforcement. Lawsuits against the organization revealed that in addition to the 1997 instructions, the Watchtower distributed letters in 1989 that discouraged elders from reporting wrongdoing to civil law enforcement. The letters cited Ecclesiastes 3:7; 5:2--"Improper use of the tongue by an elder can result in serious legal problems for the individual, the congregation, and even the Society."

In other words, the WBTS instructed congregations to report child sexual abuse to them instead of the police. As the church's secret unravels, investigators estimate that the organization has been hiding two decades' worth of sexual abuse cases, including child abuse allegations.

The Clergy-Pertinent Privilege

The Jehovah's Witnesses elder's manual, updated in 2022, acknowledges that elders may be obligated to report allegations to secular authorities but does not encourage them to do so unless mandatory.

Most states require clergies to report child abuse. In 18 states, any person who suspects child abuse must report it. However, many states have laws that exempt religious elders from reporting suspected abuse, known as the "clergy-pertinent privilege."

It is unlikely for elders to be held liable for failing to report an alleged abuser, even if they live in a state where reporting is legally required. However, it is possible.

Jehovahs Witness Lawsuit

Lawsuits Uncover Decades of Abuse Within the Organization

The organization's outdated system of dealing with sex abuse prevented many victims from coming forward--until recently.

The Candace Conti Trial

Candace Conti was nine years old when the Jehovah's Witnesses paired her with Jonathan Kendrick for weekend field service. They were supposed to go door-to-door to preach the Word of God, but instead, Conti stated that Kendrick would take her to his house and molest her. The abuse went on for about two years.

After Conti left the organization years later, she found Kendrick's name on the registered sex offender list. She went to the elders to report the abuse but was barred by the two-witness rule.

Conti sued the Watchtower, Kendrick, and her former congregation. Jurors awarded her a $22 million verdict for the lawsuit filed in 2012.

Conti's verdict is one of the most significant awards for a single victim in a child sexual abuse case against a religious sect.

The José Lopez Trial

Another lawsuit filed by a child victim brought attention to the organization's secrecy regarding child sex offenders.

In 2012, José Lopez filed a lawsuit against the Watchtower for the abuse he endured from Gonzalo Campos, a fellow church member that molested him when he was seven years old.

Church elders recommended Campos as a mentor, despite being aware of his alleged history of sexually abusing children. Lopez told his mother, who immediately informed the church elders. However, the church told her not to call the police and did nothing to punish Campos.

According to the lawsuit filed by Lopez, Campos was removed from the church but was later allowed by elders to return, claiming he had been "reformed." Campos continued to rise in the ranks and eventually became a church elder. He confessed to molesting Lopez and at least seven other boys in a deposition in 2010.

Lopez's lawyer, Irwin Zalkin, requested all documents related to Campos from the Watchtower. At first, the organization refused, stating it did not have the resources to find such information. Zalkin brought a software expert that testified that the organization should be able to locate documents with a simple search, but Watchtower did not comply.

As a result, the judge prevented the Watchtower from mounting a defense. The court awarded Lopez with a $13.5 million verdict. An appellate court later overturned it, but the parties settled the case for an undisclosed amount in 2018.

Starting in April 2016, the 4th District Court of Appeal enforced a $4,000 daily fine against the Watchtower for failing to produce records.

Convictions Reveal Cover-Ups of Child Sex Abuse Cases

Several more cases support the claim that the church conceals sexual abuse from civil authorities and the rest of the world.

The Deryk Terril Case

In 1973, 8-year-old Deryk was molested by John Earl Jones, a church elder at a Spokane congregation. Unfortunately, it was not the first time it happened.

Jones sexually assaulted Terril for six years. During this time, Jones molested other boys, including Daniel Enholm. The boys' parents reported the abuse to elders but found no justice. According to Terril, "they turned me into the perpetrator and treated me like I was guilty of something."

The church did not notify the police. According to an InvestigateWest report, the Spokane Police Department stated that there was never any report alleging child molestation against Jones in the '70s.

Jones was finally ex-communicated by the church in the late 1970s.

However, the church welcomed him into another congregation in the early 1980s. The Jehovah's Witnesses repeatedly failed to punish Jones, and the sexual assault continued. He pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a young boy in 1984 but was only sentenced to probation.

In 1993, the former longtime Jehovah's Witness moved to Placerville, California, where he sexually assaulted a 12-year-old neighbor. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2007 for continuous sexual abuse of a minor.

The Moriah Hughes Case

Moriah Hughes formed a friendly relationship with Elihu Rodriguez at worship meetings in Milton, Washington. Rodriguez groomed her and then raped her at least six times over several months. At first, Hughes kept the abuse a secret but later told elders at a Fairfield congregation.

"They had used the Bible to victim-shame me for what I had done, and they never did anything to him," Hughes told NBC news.

Hughes told her mother about the abuse, who later told the church. However, the elders victim-shamed Hughes by using the Bible. Instead of holding Rodriguez accountable for his actions, the meeting was because of Hughes' sinful act of having sex before marriage. Hughes believed it was her fault, partly because she did not run away from Rodriguez or scream.

The Jehovah's Witnesses teach that screaming means a woman did all she could to resist. Not screaming means the woman is guilty. The elders made Hughes feel that she was a willing participant in her rape.

In 2018, Hughes filed charges against Rodriguez through the King County Superior Court. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to three counts of third-degree felony child rape. According to court records, he was sentenced to five years and ordered to register as a sex offender.

The abuse significantly impacted Hughes's life, causing her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, and suicidal ideation.

Jehovahs Witness Sexual Abuse Lawyers

Child Sex Abuse Plagues Jehovah's Witnesses Congregations Worldwide

Child abuse cases among the Jehovah's Witnesses are not limited to the United States. In Australia, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual abuse uncovered more than a thousand reports that the church hid from law enforcement since the 1950s.

In the United Kingdom, at least 20 former Jehovah's Witnesses sued the organization for historical sex abuse from clergy members and elders.

Two class-action lawsuits were filed against the Jehovah's Witnesses in Canada. Plaintiffs from Quebec and Ontario sued the church and the Watchtower, stating that the Jehovah's Witnesses covered up cases and failed to report sexual abuse.

civil claims filed alleging sexual abuse

What is Sex Abuse and Its Effects on Victims?

By legal definition, sexual assault or abuse is non-consensual sexual contact with a victim. It includes but is not limited to the following:

  • Unwanted touching or groping
  • Coerced nudity
  • Explicit photography
  • Exposing one's genitals
  • Verbal sexual harassment
  • Rape

Child sexual abuse includes:

  • Forcing a child to touch one's genitals
  • Exposing one's genitals to a child
  • Exposing a child to pornography
  • Watching a child undress or use the bathroom
  • Encouraging a child to engage in sexual acts
  • Performing sexual acts in front of a child
  • Rape

Assault or abuse can significantly affect a victim's physical and mental well-being, especially a child. Abused children or adults may suffer the following effects:

  • Sexually-transmitted diseases
  • Unwanted pregnancy
  • Physical injuries, e.g., vaginal or anal bleeding, bruises, cuts
  • Anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders
  • Susceptibility to substance abuse
  • Increased risk of self-harm and suicide
  • Poor work or school performance
  • Inability to form relationships with others
  • Reduced self-esteem and self-worth
  • Self-isolation
  • Difficulty eating and sleeping
  • Persistent fear and paranoia
  • Risky sexual behavior with others
Lawyers for Jehovahs Witness Sexual Abuse Claims

Among victims of childhood sexual trauma, these consequences may continue into adulthood.

How to Report Abuse

If you experience abuse or witness child molestation, here are your options:

  • Call 911. Call emergency services immediately if you or someone else is in danger.
  • Contact the police. Call the local police department or visit the station in person.
  • Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline. The hotline is available at 800-656-HOPE (4673). A representative will help you get help and report to the authorities.
  • Go to the hospital. If you are being treated for injuries, tell your provider that you wish to report a crime. You also have the option to undergo a forensic exam.

You might want to inform the parents or legal guardians if you witness child abuse. If you are not a Jehovah's Witness, it may be best to avoid reporting the alleged sexual abuse to church members or elders. Go to the authorities instead; they will investigate sexual assault and prosecute abusers accordingly.

How to Take Legal Action for Child Sex Abuse In The Jehovah's Witnesses

So far, hundreds of cases against the Jehovah's Witnesses alleging the organization covered up sex crimes and, in the process, failed to protect children and other members.

If you or a loved one were a victim of child sexual abuse while in the Jehovah's Witness church, you have the right to take legal action. You can file a case against the Jehovah's Witness that abused you, the congregation, and the church.

In most lawsuits, plaintiffs sue individual Jehovah's Witnesses congregations for keeping abuse allegations confidential and failing to protect children.

Jehovahs Witness Sexual Abuse Law Firm

The Burden of Proof

To file a child sexual abuse case, you must prove that:

  • The defendant owed a duty of care to you. The Jehovah's Witness church has a duty of care to protect its members, especially children, from all kinds of harm.
  • The defendant breached this duty of care. The 'breach' can be an act or failure to act, e.g., failure to report abuse committed by a Jehovah's witness.
  • You suffered an injury. You must prove that you suffered significant physical, emotional, mental, or financial harm from the abuse.
  • The defendant's actions directly led to your losses. You must prove that the defendant's actions (or lack thereof) caused your damages, e.g., medical bills, emotional pain, etc.

Who Can File a Lawsuit?

The following individuals can hold the Jehovah's Witnesses accountable for protecting known child sex offenders:

  • Child victims who are now adults
  • Parents or other family members
  • Legal guardians

Victims suing Jehovah's Witnesses organizations include non Jehovah's Witness children abused by members or elders. Our attorneys can help identify alleged victims and take appropriate legal action.

Who is Liable?

Any current or former Jehovah's Witness could be liable in a child abuse case if they:

  • Commit assault or abuse
  • Witness the abuse but fail to report it
  • Deliberately cover up the abuse

Liable parties may include church members, elders, family members, and the WBTS. Any person suspecting child abuse must report it, and failure to do so could lead to accountability.

Evidence

Proving child sexual abuse can be complicated, especially against a Jehovah's Witness and if the incident happened many years ago. Nevertheless, your lawyer will help you gather viable evidence, such as:

  • Medical records
  • Photos of injuries
  • Police reports
  • Church records

The Jehovah's Witness organization continues to hide records of accused child molesters within the church. Thus, it may be challenging to procure proof of the abuse. You will need an experienced lawyer to ensure you have the evidence to hold your abuser accountable.

Compensation

Most Jehovah's Witness lawsuits help plaintiffs recover financial compensation for their losses, including:

  • Medical Expenses: Costs of hospitalization, surgery, medication, emergency transportation, therapy, future medical bills, etc.
  • Pain and Suffering: Compensation for physical and emotional injuries, including physical pain, emotional trauma, mental anguish, etc.
  • Loss of Quality of Life: Compensation for the quality or enjoyment of life lost due to abuse.
  • Wrongful Death: Funeral and burial costs, pre-death medical bills, loss of consortium, and other related damages if the victim dies from the abuse or commits suicide.
  • Punitive Damages: Compensation awarded on top of compensatory damages to punish the Jehovah's Witness congregation for gross negligence and deter similar behavior in the future.

Settlements for child sex abuse cases vary, mainly depending on the extent of the victim's damages. Your lawyer will estimate the potential value of your payment so that you know how much you deserve in compensation.

What is The Statute of Limitations For Child Sex Abuse?

Most states have no statute of limitations for child abuse cases. In New York, where the WBTS is headquartered, the statute of limitations law used to require victims to file lawsuits before they were 23 years old. This law made it difficult for many victims to seek justice.

Child Victims Act

In 2019, New York's Governor Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act into law. This act has three components:

  • Victims can bring civil lawsuits against alleged child abusers until their 55th birthday.
  • Criminal prosecution of child abusers is possible until the victim is 23.
  • Victims who could not file a lawsuit by the time they were 23 years old can revive old cases within a one-year window; there is no age limit to take legal action within this period.

The Child Victims Act allows more survivors to take legal action against Jehovah's Witness elders, members, and other liable parties responsible.

Other states have signed the Child Victims Act into law and other reforms to their statute of limitations.

If you or a loved one were a victim, report abuse and take legal action as soon as possible, even if you are in a state with no statute of limitations. Filing a case earlier will help prevent the loss of evidence, a delay in legal proceedings, and other untoward events.

Discuss Your Case with a Child Sex Abuse Lawyer Today

Sex abuse is a common problem in organizations wherein adults have a custodial role over children, especially religious sects. The Jehovah's Witness congregation is a prime example of how abuse can occur within close communities and be covered up by people in power.

As long as the Jehovah's Witness organization continues to abide by its policies, it will remain deficient in protecting its members from harm.

Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers, LLC advocates for child protection in all religious or community settings. If you or a loved one were a victim, our experienced attorneys could help you seek the justice you deserve.

Contact our personal injury attorneys at 888) 424-5757 or use the contact form for a free consultation. All confidential or sensitive information you share with our legal team will remain private under an attorney-client relationship.

The attorneys from our law firm handle all accepted cases on a contingency fee basis. This agreement ensures you only have to pay our legal fees if we win your case.

Resources

Client Reviews
★★★★★
Jonathan Rosenfeld was professionally objective, timely, and knowledgeable. Also, his advice was extremely effective regarding my case. In addition, Jonathan was understanding and patient pertaining to any of my questions or concerns. I was very happy with the end result and I highly recommend Jonathan Rosenfeld. Michonne Proulx
★★★★★
Extremely impressed with this law firm. They took control of a bad motorcycle crash that left my uncle seriously injured. Without any guarantee of a financial recovery, they went out and hired accident investigators and engineers to help prove how the accident happened. I am grateful that they worked on a contingency fee basis as there was no way we could have paid for these services on our own. Ethan Armstrong
★★★★★
This lawyer really helped me get compensation for my motorcycle accident case. I know there is no way that I could have gotten anywhere near the amount that Mr. Rosenfeld was able to get to settle my case. Thank you. Daniel Kaim
★★★★★
Jonathan helped my family heal and get compensation after our child was suffered a life threatening injury at daycare. He was sympathetic and in constant contact with us letting us know all he knew every step of the way. We were so blessed to find Jonathan! Giulia
★★★★★
Jonathan did a great job helping my family navigate through a lengthy lawsuit involving my grandmother's death in a nursing home. Through every step of the case, Jonathan kept my family informed of the progression of the case. Although our case eventually settled at a mediation, I really was impressed at how well prepared Jonathan was to take the case to trial. Lisa