A former Jehovah’s Witness Elder and Headquarters member is scheduled to stand trial in July after his arrest on four counts of second-degree felony sexual assault. Roderick G. Watkins, 56, of Heber Springs Arkansas, was taken into custody following a November 21st 2018 arrest warrant issued by the Cleburne County Circuit Court.
The charges against Watkins stem from allegations of sexual assault of at least four minor victims, claims which were brought to the attention of Detective Jenifer Osborn of the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Department.
All of the victims interviewed appear to be connected to Watkins through the local Arkansas Jehovah’s Witness congregations where he was a known and respected elder. Reports indicate that the children assaulted ranged in age from 6 to 16 years at the time of the crimes.
Detective Osborn documented the timeline leading up to the arrest, which begins with a detailed conversation with a local resident and mother of the first victim named.
The following police report by Osborn has been redacted by JW Survey to protect the names of the victims and their immediate family members.
The Police Report, Victim #1
“On October 9th, 2018, [The mother of victim #1] contacted the Sheriff’s office regarding sexual abuse of her son. [She] sounded distraught as she explained that her 12-year-old son named [victim #1] had disclosed to her, one week ago, that a trusted family friend had touched him inappropriately on his inner thigh. [She] said that the family friend is Roderick Watkins [who] lives in Heber Springs.”
“[The Mother of victim #1] told me that she had reported her son’s disclosure to her pastor and her pastor had told her he was reporting the incident to the child abuse hotline. [She] said that today, her son told her that Watkins had touched his privates. [She] told how this shocked her because she had thought her son had only been touched on the leg. She said she asked her son to tell her exactly what happened and she said her son told her that he had been at “Rod’s house”, downstairs, which is located in, Cleburne County, at 1310 N Broadway, Apt 13. Her son reported they watched a movie and Rod came in and rubbed his feet. She said her son, [victim #1] , said Watkins stopped rubbing his feet and ran his hand up his shorts and into his underwear. He said Watkins then rubbed his private parts for a few seconds. [The mother] said [victim #1] told her he got up and walked away. She said her son told her this had happened only that one time and it had been about a year ago.”
“[The mother] said that she doesn’t know what to do and said that she just wanted to let someone know that he had disclosed additional information. I asked her if she has spoken to anyone from CACD or DCFS since the pastor made the call and she said she had not I advised her that I would call and report this information and that I will be opening a criminal investigation. Case # 18-01126.”
“On October 11th, 2018, a forensic interview was conducted and recorded with [victim #1] . [victim #1] gives a detailed discloser [sic] about being touched on his genitals by Roderick Watkins at Watkins’ home. He tells how Watkins is a trusted family friend, babysitter and is a member of his Kingdom Hall. Watkins is trusted by everyone because he is a church elder.”
The Second Victim
“On October 12th, 2018, I was contacted by CACD and advised that another report of sexual contact by Roderick Watkins was called into the hot line and a forensic Interview was being scheduled for this victim, 15-year-old [victim #2]. [victim #2] disclosed touching of his genitalia and other sexual contact by Roderick Watkins that continued for years on multiple occasions at Watkins’ home and at [victim #2] ‘s home. [victim #2] disclosed threats by Watkins to [victim #2] ‘s dog, electronic toys, and a young friend if he disclosed the sexual contact. The circumstances surrounding the incident were similar to those of [victim #1] in that his family was also in the same church and had a close relationship with Watkins and Watkin’s wife.”
“On October 19th, 2018,[The parents of victim #2] came to the Sheriffs Office to file an official report on the behalf of their 15-year-old son [victim #2]. Report# 18-01220. The [parents] advised that Roderick Watkins was an Elder of their congregation and a Pioneer. They said he was very involved in the congregation and helped everyone. They also advise that Watkins is [victim #2]’s uncle by marriage and he has been a strong influence to [victim #2] for most of his young life. The [parents] do not know the details of [victim #2] ‘s disclosure, which I had already reviewed. They tell me that [victim #2] ‘s behavior and demeanor changed drastically when he was about 7 years old. This matches [victim #2]’s account of the first incident [victim #2] had with Watkins in 2010.”
“On October 19th, 2018, Roderick Watkins and his wife agreed to come in to discuss the allegations. Later this same day, instead of the Watkins’ coming, an attorney called and advised he was representing Watkins who declined to make a statement. Also, on this day, a search warrant for the residence of Roderick Watkins was executed and items of evidence were collected.”
The Third Victim
“On October 21st, 2018, [mother of the second victim] came to the Sheriffs Office with her 18-year-old daughter, [victim #3]. CCSO report # 18-01225. [victim #3] told me how when she was approximately 9 years old, she was sitting on Roderick Watkins’ Lap under a blanket at Watkin’s home in Cleburne County, and he touched her genitalia under her clothes. She said Watkins was a trusted member of their church congregation. She said she told no one about that incident and a few months later, it happened again the same way in Independence County at her home on [redacted address], Arkansas.”
“[The mother of victim #3] tells how even though her daughter had not told her about this incident until about a year ago, she had noticed her 9-year-old daughter sitting on Watkins’ lap and he had his hands under her blanket. [victim #3] said she told another member of the congregation about it at that time and this member confronted Watkins about not letting the child sit on his lap anymore.[The mother] goes on to say that once her daughter told her what happened to her, they reported it to the Elders and an investigation began. She said they were told by church elders that Watkins had done this unintentionally. She said nothing was done at first other than some suspension of his duties, but then when another unknown child came forward later, Watkins was disfellowshipped from the congregation.”
“As the investigation progressed, several people called in and came by the office and gave statements about seeing Watkins touch the above-mentioned victims inappropriately. Many of them tell how Watkins is a very affectionate touchy person towards children. They all agree that Watkins had a large influence and authority over this congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
The Fourth Victim
“On November 1st, 2018, [victim #4] came to the Office and CCSO. Report #18-01246. [victim #4] give detailed disclosure of being touched on his private areas under his clothes on two occasions back in 2011 when he was 16 years old by Roderick Watkins at [address redacted] in the summer and on November 2011 at War Memorial Stadium in Pulaski County during an event. The circumstances and actions of the two incidents with Watkins that [victim #4] detailed was similar to those of [victim #1] , [victim#2], and [victim #3]. [victim #4] tells how he reported his incidents to the Elders of his congregation soon after the second incident occurred. [victim #4] tells how he was not believed by the Elders and how he was told that he had “perceived” the incidents inaccurately. He said he and his family were treated differently after this. He said Watkins was one of the main Elders and he provided significant resources for the congregation. [victim #4] said when he turned 18 he stopped going to the meetings at the Kingdom Hall because he could not stand to watch as others continued to trust Watkins unconditionally.”
“At this point in the above-mentioned investigations, I believe probable cause exists to arrest Roderick Watkins for four counts of Sexual Assault in the 2nd degree. It is therefore prayed that a warrant to arrest be issued. “
“I swear the allegations contained herein are the truth, to the best of my knowledge, information and belief.”
Detective Jenifer Osborne (Signed)
Following the news of Watkins’ arrest, JW Survey received additional details related to the investigation.
Shockingly, the mother of victim #1 told the police she had entrusted the care of her two young children to Rod and Becky Watkins while she underwent extensive hospital treatment for stage 4 breast cancer.
In her statement, the mother said: “They were very trusted friends and we spent a lot of time at their house cooking and hanging out. He had been a trusted pastor until the church removed him from that position last year when 3 kids said he had touched their upper leg, making them uncomfortable.”
“He fooled all of us, all of our friends into thinking that’s how he is with everyone. that he loves us and is very touchy-feely. My son [victim #1] said he rubbed his feet when my younger son [redacted] went to the bathroom, he put his hand up his leg and rubbed his penus.”
“He thought it was a mistake and pushed as hard as he could his hand away and moved to the end of the [couch].”
The distraught mother went on to tell police “He has always shown a sweet, concerned side of him. Two weeks ago when everything started coming out, he showed a very arrogant scary side of him. He has always driven by and walked around our house. [My son] is afraid he will do that again, and he’s afraid Rod will take him from his family.”
At the end of this police petition, the mother of victim #1 checked the box which says “There is an immediate and present danger of domestic abuse to [victim #1]”, adding “the investigation may take 45+ days and we don’t know where Rod is.”
The Proximity of Watkins to the Kingdom Hall
The investigation of Watkins has taken a few interesting turns. Court documents obtained by Survey reveal that the address provided by Roderick Watkins is directly linked with the Heber Springs Arkansas Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The proximate location of Watkins to the local Kingdom Hall appears more than mere coincidence. Congregation Elders holding key positions sometimes use their own address as the Kingdom Hall address. This practice can lead to the mixing of Kingdom Hall locations with the home addresses of elders.
More importantly, if correspondence from other congregations or from Headquarters were sent to a home address, letters involving allegations of abuse from other locales could theoretically be intercepted before they ever reached the body of elders.
Whatever the case, it’s clear Watkins lived just a short distance from the church where his victims attended meetings.
Watkins, a Traveling Elder
Diverse sources report that Watkins was a career Jehovah’s Witness Elder who migrated from the Southern United States to multiple congregations around the country.
A North Carolina native, Rod “Roddy” Watkins arrived in Brooklyn New York in the mid-1980s where he served as a dining room waiter to the expanding Bethel family. In 1988, Watkins left Watchtower headquarters, married, and eventually settled in Sedalia Missouri where he and wife Becky began their newlywed life together. The Watkins shared a residence building with other Witnesses who relocated to help the local congregation.
Having left Missouri for unknown reasons, Watkins and his wife made their way to Indiana, where they attended the congregation in West Harrison, on the Ohio border. Roderick and Becky were considered by Indiana Witnesses as pillars of the organization.
A Reddit user who prefers to remain anonymous remembers Watkins’ going-away party in Indiana, where according to this former Witness, “[He] was considered the finest elder from the Indiana circuit.”
A second Indiana source said “We went to the same congregation near Lawrenceburg, Indiana during my teen years. I never would have imagined this about him. He and his wife Becky were the pillars of the congregation.”
After 2000, the couple decided to move to Arkansas, presumably to be near his wife Becky’s family in Mountain View. Rod and Becky eventually settled into the Heber Springs Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Watkins, a distinguished Elder, and Pioneer minister, served in the special capacity of Service Overseer, a position that placed him on the “Service Committee” along with the Presiding Overseer and Secretary.
The Service Committee of Jehovah’s Witness Congregations governs the activity of each congregation, and is responsible for making sure Watchtower policies are carried out, including the formation of judicial committees and the handling of child abuse allegations by congregants or appointed elders. Watkins’ position created a deeply disturbing conflict of interest within the elder body.
Several sources with knowledge of the case suggested that the number of victims may well exceed the four who gave statements to the police in Heber Springs. They said: “there was a previous [Kingdom] Hall in Arkansas where an accusation was made and the 2 witness rule kept it from going further.”
If the allegations are correct, Watkins could be implicated in the cover-up of his own crimes, since letters of introduction from other Congregations he attended would necessarily follow his transfer into Heber Springs Arkansas.
As a long-time Elder in the church, he would be well aware of the July 1, 1989, and March 14th, 1997 letters from Brooklyn Headquarters. The 1997 letter specifically required all congregations to submit any instances of known child abusers to the religions New York office, as reported in the Atlantic article from March 2019.
The organization continues to compile data related to child abuse cases using its secure internal computer network.
One Family’s Plea for Help
The wake of devastation left by Roderick Watkins is significant. One Arkansas family has placed their home up for sale after victim #2 attempted suicide. Just 15 years old at the time of Watkins’ arrest, victim #2 described sexual abuse spanning half his young life, and which included threats to his dog, his toys, and even his friends if he ever told anyone what happened.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to cover $100,000 in expenses for the therapy and treatment of this young victim. Both Witnesses and Ex-Witnesses have contributed.
The father of victim #2 posted: “Our son, [redacted], spent most of January in the hospital for suicidal thoughts/attempts. He could not see past the depression that he has been suffering from because of some horrible acts towards him. “
Who Reported the Abuse?
It is unclear at this stage whether any elders in any congregation ever reported the accusations of abuse to local or state law enforcement. All indications from the police report suggest that it was the families of the victims themselves who compared notes, then decided to speak to Arkansas police.
Details are still emerging in the case, but an analysis of the police report and other evidence indicates that Watkins was only disfellowshipped from the congregation following at least three reports of sexual assault by Watkins. The mother of victim #3 states that Watkins was disfellowshipped after another child reported abuse “later”- but victim #4 – the oldest victim – had already reported his abuse to the elders.
This provides substantial cause to conclude that congregation elders not only hampered this investigation, but their obstruction of their own internal policies led to the sexual abuse of a minimum of two additional children in Heber Springs.
Of course, it did not help that Watkins remained an appointed elder in the congregation until he was reportedly defrocked as elder in 2017, then disfellowshipped in 2018.
What’s the Reporting Law?
Arkansas law currently states that “Clergy must report suspected child maltreatment except to the extent the clergy member has acquired knowledge of suspected child maltreatment through communications required to be kept confidential pursuant to the religious discipline of the relevant denomination or faith ” – Ark. Code Ann. § 12-18-402
While Jehovah’s Witness elders are mandated reporters, in every case they seek out the loophole which permits them not to report pursuant to their own “religious discipline.” In other words, if their internal practices declare communications with any congregation member as “confidential,” they immediately take the position that they are under no obligation to report.
Elders are instructed not to report abuse whenever this loophole exists, rendering mandatory reporting laws useless and toothless. Any elder who defies Watchtower’s procedural edicts are subject to deletion as elders, or worse.
If ever there were a reason for the Jehovah’s Witness organization to maintain secrecy with regards to their growing database of child abusers, this case highlights their disturbing concern. Watkins was a trusted, appointed servant to Watchtower, having passed multiple layers of theocratic oversight in his rise to authority and prominence.
He was described as well-respected- a pillar in the congregation – so much so that families frequently left their children with this man, only to have their world shattered by these shocking discoveries.
The sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses is guided by the belief that these men are appointed by “God’s Holy Spirit”, and that congregation elders act upon this force, which weeds out that which is unholy or in opposition to God’s will. Yet the cold reality is that no artificial “spirit” has ever prevented a child from being molested.
In fact, the religion itself appears to harbor these individuals while twisting and obstructing the very civil laws designed to give clergy members the ability to report child abuse and protect their congregations and the community.
Pending a plea bargain, Watkins criminal trial is set for July 17th-19th, 2019 and will be closed off to the public and reporters.
Editor’s Note: In keeping with the policy of JW Survey, the names of minor victims have been redacted, even though court documents reveal such information. Adult survivors of abuse are welcome to share their stories if they wish, but we do not solicit survivors for information. Victims are encouraged to immediately contact law enforcement and qualified, professional therapists to protect the public and assist in recovery.
Anyone with information regarding allegations of sexual abuse by Roderick Watkins should contact the Cleburne County Sheriff’s Office in Arkansas, or the police jurisdiction where the crimes may have occurred. If in doubt, call 911 immediately to be transferred to the appropriate law enforcement office.
- Arrest Warrant for Roderick Watkins
- Felony Information, Arkansas v. Watkins
- Bail Bond Document for Roderick Watkins
- Motion for Continuance 5-20-2019
- Order of Continuance 5-20-2019
Please note that JW Survey will not publish the Affidavit for Arrest Warrant for Roderick Watkins as it contains the names of minor victims of Watkins as well as family members. While it is a publicly available document, it is our policy to protect the identities of these individuals.
Image Credit for Featured Image: Jason Wynne