Longtime readers of JW Survey will be aware of the ongoing lawsuit against the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society from Jose Lopez.
Lopez is one of a number of abuse survivors who was assaulted as a child by Jehovah’s Witness Gonzalo Campos, who Lopez claims was able to abuse him partly due to negligence from the Watchtower organisation.
It was claimed that Watchtower knew Campos was an abuser and a danger to children, yet failed to inform the authorities of Campos’ attacks on children or warn the parents in the congregations in which Campos resided. Compos was even allowed to act as a mentor and Bible study teacher to Lopez.
Lopez filed a lawsuit against the religion six years ago and Watchtower, rather than settle the suit, decided to fight it in a court of law. However, news has just been released in the Sandiego Reader that Watchtower have abandoned their legal defence and have agreed to settle the case.
This is not only a victory for abuse survivor Jose Lopez, but is also a humiliating climb down for Watchtower after six years of hearings that have been, to put it plainly, brutal and bruising for the religion in financial and PR terms.
Watchtower in Court: A financial and PR disaster
Over the course of these hearings we have seen astonishing and appalling behaviour from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society; behaviour that many faithful witnesses would struggle to reconcile with the benevolent image of the religion’s leadership that they have in their heads.
For example, we saw Governing Body member Gerrit Losch make astonishing claims in order to escape testifying; writing a letter to the court essentially stating that he had nothing to do with the Watchtower organisation. Watchtower also came under heavy legal and media fire related to its now infamous database of Witness child abusers.
For those not familiar, Watchtower possesses a database of every accused and confessed child molester who has been a member of the religion. Watchtower has admitted to the existence of this database in court cases like this one, and the Australian Branch of the religion was forced to make public its part of the database in 2015 by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. The ARC found that of the 1006 Australian abusers contained within, none had been reported to the police by Watchtower and many had gone on to abuse repeatedly. Obviously, access the US database would be pivotal to Lopez in proving a pattern of negligence from Watchtower and thus proving his claims in this suit.
The court agreed and ordered Watchtower to produce its database.
Watchtower refused, at first making weak excuses that production was impossible due to technical reasons, excuses that failed to stand up in court. Afterwards Watchtower simply folded their arms and point blank refused to co-operate with instructions from the court.
As a result of Watchtower’s blatant refusal to comply with valid orders, the Judge terminated Watchtower’s defence and awarded Lopez $13.5 million in damages. Watchtower later appealed this judgment and won, but only because the appeal Judges felt that less punitive sanctions should have been levied on Watchtower first. The appeal Judges completely agreed with the trial Judge that Watchtower absolutely had to produce these documents, and that continued refusal should result in termination sanctions and a punishing financial award against them. Watchtower, however, was making it clear that it still had no intention of producing the documents. It had looked as though the legal battles would continue, but events were taking place in another court case that would possibly prove pivotal in the outcome of this one.
Watchtower’s database: Secrecy at all costs
Another survivor of the Gonzalo Campos attacks, Osblado Padron, has launched an identical suit against Watchtower, and his case is also going through the court system. It too was blocked at the issue of the database; Padron’s team had demanded it, the court had agreed that it must be produced, and Watchtower had point blank refused.
This time, rather than terminate sanctions and award the case to Padron, the Judge tried the lesser sanctions that had been recommended in the Lopez case, fining Watchtower $4000 a day until it complied with the order, and making it clear that this figure could start going up if Watchtower continued to refuse. Watchtower appealed this decision.
For a whilst both cases have been going through appeal, but in November a final ruling was made in the issue the $4000 a day fine Padron case:
You can see the JW Survey team discuss this ruling in the video below
So in the Padron case, whatever else happens, Watchtower knows it has a choice. Face escalating legal and financial penalties (currently over $2 million and rising) and probably lose the case anyway, or produce a database of secret child molesters that looked set to sink its case and possible do horrific damage to its public reputation. The Padron case is still ongoing, but the fact that only two months after this judgement, Watchtower has abandoned its guns and settled the identical Lopez case is, to my mind, very telling.
Though the details of the settlement are closed, the circumstances point towards a figure that will not have been in Watchtower’s favour to say the least as the religion clearly knew it was not negotiating from a position of strength in this matter. Irwin Zalkin, Lopez’s lawyer, probably had an open goal to shoot for given the legal, financial and PR massacre that awaited Watchtower in open court should they refuse a settlement offer.
In conclusion I think we have two important takeaways; firstly that in the matter of the Campos cases, Watchtower’s choice to fight the survivors in court has proven both to be financially painful, legally incompetent and a disaster in PR terms. The religion has, in my opinion, come across as both incompetent and cruel in its handling of child abuse accusations and in the treatment of survivors. I’m curious to see now what happens with the Padron case, and whether Watchtower will even try to fight other such cases in future, and it’s very hard to see how Watchtower could ever claim that Jehovah was guiding or blessing its actions in this matter given the debacle it became.
But secondly and most importantly of all I am so very happy for Jose Lopez. He has been through an appalling ordeal, and his bravery in choosing to fight Watchtower in court is inspiring. After six years of legal battles, he finally has a settlement that will hopefully go some way to compensate him for the dreadful trauma that has been inflicted on him, and Watchtower’s humiliating climb down is clear vindication; showing that the religion knows it cannot successfully answer his claims in open court.
The JW Survey team wish him the greatest of happiness for the future as he goes on to rebuild his life.
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