Friday 20th September 2013 was a sunny day in Sacramento as a small band of supporters including Kathleen Conti assembled outside the offices of Governor Brown at the California State Capital.
Despite being few in number, nobody was likely to miss them as they stood proudly with their signs and fluorescent pink and yellow t-shirts.
They were there to voice their backing of the “California Victims’ Act,” or SB 131 as it is otherwise known. If signed, the bill will extend the Statute of Limitation in California for certain childhood sexual abuse victims over the age of 26.*
Also outside Governor Brown’s office to show his own support for the bill was lawyer Irwin Zalkin. For more than two years Irwin has been representing Jehovah’s Witness survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Though Irwin is an experienced lawyer, he has been on a steep learning curve as far as Jehovah’s Witnesses are concerned. Prior to taking on the first Gonzalo Campos case in 2011 he had never been involved in suing Watchtower. That case settled for a “significant” but undisclosed amount (out of respect for the victims’ privacy) – but with hindsight, Irwin was only just getting started.
Irwin’s firm is currently handling no less than eleven lawsuits against the Watch Tower Society across six States. Seven of those have already been filed and are making their way through the courts. Four further cases are due to be filed, and Irwin expects that several more will come forward shortly.
I called the Zalkin Law Firm offices yesterday scarcely able to believe things were really this bad for Watchtower. Kathleen Conti had already told me of Irwin’s glut of lawsuits following her conversation with him during the rally, but I needed to hear this for myself. Irwin was not only kind enough to take my call and confirm what he told Kathleen – he also summarized the actions he is pursuing against the Watchtower. Here follows some information on the complaints filed (or which are planned for filing)…
- J.L. – California – a seventh victim of Gonzalo Campos who was abused when he was eight years old at the Linda Vista Spanish congregation in San Diego, California in 1986. His mother complained to the elders and Campos was privately reproved. Shocked by the lack of action, the victim’s mother immediately left the congregation with her son. By this stage Campos was a known predator with complaints having been made to the elders at Linda Vista Spanish, Playa Pacifica Spanish and the Watchtower dating back to 1982.
- Elizabeth McFarland – Ohio – a former ministerial servant named Scott Silvasy sexually molested Elizabeth when she was a child through her early teens. She reported it to her parents when she was a teenager. Her parents reported it to the elders at the West Congregation in Lorain, Ohio. The case was not reported to police. Silvasy committed suicide on Elizabeth’s birthday. There had been a prior complaint against Silvasy. (Click here for complaint form)
- Monica Lynn Jaramillo – New Mexico – Monica Lynn was abused by Mike Brunner who had also abused her mother when her mother was a minor. In 1986 Monica’s mother told the elders of the Los Lunas Congregation in New Mexico of her abuse by Bruner, who was an elder at Los Lunas in 1986. They told her that she needed to spend more time in service, and needed to forgive him because Jehovah would not have made him an elder if he had not repented. To show her forgiveness she needed to leave her children under his supervision. He raped Monica Lynn on one of those occasions.
- J.W. – California – J.W. was sexually abused by a serial pedophile who was an elder in her Southern California congregation. He abused several girls at a sleep-over party including J.W., and was subsequently criminally convicted for the abuse. (Click here for complaint form)
- T.L. – California – T.L. was abused by Brent Dalluge, a ministerial servant in the Fountain Valley Congregation in Southern California. In 1992 Dalluge was disfellowshipped after admitting to sexually abusing almost a dozen children. Dalluge confessed to drugging some of those boys to accomplish the abuse.
- T.O. – Washington – T.O. was in the Hazel Dell Congregation in Vancouver, Washington where she was abused by several older JW boys, one of whom was the son of a prominent Elder. The elders were informed of the abuse but refused to believe the report, and T.O. continued to be molested by the same boys. One of the boys was subsequently arrested for molesting several young girls. (Click here for media report on the case)
- O.P. – California – an eighth victim of Gonzalo Campos formerly of the Playa Pacifica Congregation in San Diego. O.P. was abused by Campos while he was still an elder. This case has not yet been served.
- Zalkin also represents victims of abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness religion in Connecticut and Utah, as well as two additional cases in California that have not yet been filed.
As you can see, not all of the above victims have been named publicly. One in particular is still a minor, and any media exposure at this stage would make an already traumatic ordeal only worse for her parents. But what they each have in common is that they have all been failed by Watchtower’s serious and systemic mishandling of child abuse, which is now resulting in significant legal pressure being brought to bear on the organization.
And we are not talking about just a few isolated cases. This is no flash in the pan. Not just the number of lawsuits but the fact that they are spread across multiple US States indicates that mishandling of child abuse is “rampant among Jehovah’s Witnesses” (to quote Rick Simons), with negligent oversight by Watchtower leadership a common denominator.
It can now be beyond any reasonable doubt that Watchtower has a serious child abuse problem of epidemic proportions on its hands. If you live in the United States and your own state is not highlighted on the above map, there’s a good chance this is only because there are cases local to you that have not yet come to light.
Nothing has changed
And JW parents shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this is all in the past and their children are now safe. In October 2012 this website reported on Watchtower’s latest reactionary changes to their under-fire child abuse policies, as introduced in an October 1st letter to elders. The changes merely cemented Watchtower’s self-proclaimed total jurisdiction over matters of child abuse, making it impossible for local elders to notify authorities or warn other parents in the congregation without Watchtower approval.
The letter, which Watchtower legally threatened JWsurvey.org for publishing, also confirmed Watchtower’s refusal to let go of the now-notorious “two witness rule,” which means that child abuse is not recognized as having been perpetrated unless witnessed by someone other than the victim.
One minor loophole to this rule allows for an abuser to be disciplined if he is accused by more than one victim, but this provision reduces the first victim to mere collateral in the evidence-gathering process. No consideration is given to the fact that one child abuse victim is one child abuse victim too many.
A bill worthy of support
It is not hard to look back on the Candace Conti victory of June 2012 as a real turning point. Since then the floodgates have opened on Watchtower as far as child abuse lawsuits are concerned. Victims keep streaming forward, confident that justice will be served despite the years that have elapsed since their abuse took place.
And if the SB 131 bill is signed by California’s Governor Brown, there is no telling how many more cases will follow. The Statute of Limitations, especially in States like California, has so far been a major hurdle in allowing victims to pursue justice. “We’ve had to turn away many cases because they don’t fit the criteria for the Statute of Limitations,” Zalkin told me. “California has a somewhat difficult Statute for older victims, and we’re trying to get that changed.”
Zalkin further revealed that, if the bill gets the green light and the Statute of Limitations is increased, additional lawsuits may be possible. “There may be several JWs who we’ve talked with that would fit within that new limitations period if the bill becomes law.”
Devoid of accountability
Apart from the Statute of Limitations, another roadblock to successfully suing Watchtower in certain States has been the organization’s evasive tactic of washing their hands of responsibility for victims when cornered in the courtroom. This strategy has already been deployed in Watchtower’s Candace Conti appeal, in which they are arguing that there was no “special relationship” between the organization and Candace.
“They’ve had some successes in some States like Minnesota that have found that there was no duty owed by the Watchtower,” explained Zalkin. “We have beat that argument consistently because we’ve done a lot of digging into how the organization functions. If you don’t really know this organization, you can get fooled by the way they present their argument. We’ve been able to show how hierarchical it is and the level of control that is exercised by the Governing Body on every aspect of a JW’s life.”
It is reassuring to know that, despite Watchtower’s efforts to dodge responsibility for their own young “sheep” over whom they claim to be “shepherds,” lawyers like Irwin are persistent and studious enough to make sure the legal system isn’t duped.
Even so, it is alarming to think that so many Witness parents place such implicit trust in Watchtower to care for their children’s interests through the elder arrangement, when Watchtower is only too pleased to bail out through their cunning men in suits the moment things turn sour.
A bleak outlook
With Watchtower already stricken financially, as evidenced by their global downsizing initiative, there is no telling how catastrophic the impact of these new lawsuits could prove to be on the organization’s long-term future.
The multi-million dollar Candace Conti case is still in its appeal phase, and Zalkin has now filed seven lawsuits with four pending – and all this after the sizeable settlement he secured in his first case against the Watchtower in 2011.
Even if SB 131 is not passed, the current lawsuits alone could prompt further victims to step forward, such is the serial nature of pedophilia. As Zalkin explained, “These things have a tendency to mushroom. We started out with one Campos victim, and it turned into seven, and there’s going to be an eighth.”
The organization’s financial plight thus appears far from rosy as it looks to bankroll the continued fall-out from its own negligent policies. Don’t be surprised if the Governing Body‘s cries for donations reach fever pitch in the weeks and months ahead.
Clear and present danger
Also at Kathleen Conti’s side for last week’s rally was one of Zalkin’s clients who will directly benefit from SB 131 if it is passed.
John Kirby is now an adult, but he was left emotionally scarred by the abuse he suffered as a young Witness boy, for which he has a signed confession from his abuser.
Under the current law, John is too old to pursue justice for what happened to him. He is therefore throwing his support behind SB 131 in the hopes that this important legislation will give him his long-overdue day in court.
In a conversation with John last night he chillingly told me, “My abuser is still actively hanging with young boys in the congregation and taking them out in service.” If this doesn’t clearly demonstrate that the threat to young Witness children is clear and present, I don’t know what does.
*SB 131 will also open a one year window for victims who were over the age of 26 but were unaware of the causal relationship between their childhood sexual abuse and adult psychological problems in 2003 when California extended a similar one year window.
If you would like to contact Governor Brown to encourage him to sign SB 131 into law, you can find an address and phone number on this link.
- Article on Kathleen Conti’s support for SB 131
- “License to harm” article on Gonzalo Campos
- Article on Elizabeth McFarland case
- Article on Monica Jaramillo case
- JWsurvey articles on child abuse