Oregon is one of those states where Americans often choose to move to escape heavy traffic, extended droughts, and sales taxes. It is in a beautiful region of the North American continent that also has moderate weather, majestic mountains and beautiful beaches – plus a thriving economy.
While similar to other states in having its fair share of crime and poverty, larger cities like Portland, Salem, Eugene, Medford and Bend have been able to maintain comparatively low levels of violent crimes involving assault, rape and murder. So far in 2014 Oregon ranks 39th among the 50 states in terms of total crime.
As is typical of other American states, crime rates tend to be higher in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Larger cities like Portland and Eugene have rates a bit higher than the state’s average but still well below typical national rates. Portland reports 517 cases of violent crime per 100,000 residents for 2014. Tennessee, a similar sized state geographically but about 50% more population, is ranked first for violent crime (behind the District of Columbia) with 644 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. (Source)
Unfortunately for Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the area, criminal activity within their relatively small population has become an ongoing and growing embarrassment.
Former Jehovah’s Witnesses who lived or were raised in the area admit that a majority of congregations have been shamed by some form of criminal activity at various times over the past 30-40 years. (I’ve provided a group of links at the end of this article relating to some of the more famous and notorious cases that became public knowledge. My contacts within the state assure me that these reports represent just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.)
The most recent case comes out of the community of Hillsboro, a suburban city located about 20 miles west of Portland. On December 1, attorneys for Velicia Alston, 39, joined her in a news conference announcing a lawsuit filed against the Watch Tower Society.
She and another plaintiff are asking for $10.5 million from the Watchtower and her childhood congregation for abuse they suffered from a fellow Jehovah’s Witness when she was still a pre-teen in 1986-87.
Ms. Alston’s lawsuit names Daniel Castellanos as the abuser, but also points much of the blame directly at her local Kingdom Hall’s elders. Why? Because they knew about the threat Castellanos was to children in the congregation, but chose to take no action to protect her or his other victims. Her fellow plaintiff was reported to be only 8-10 years old when he suffered abuse from Castellanos.
Irwin Zalkin, an attorney based in San Diego, California has joined with a team of lawyers who will prepare and present the case to the courts on Ms. Alston’s behalf. Zalkin comes off a recent $13.5 million lawsuit filed against the Watchtower for similar crimes committed by a Jehovah’s Witness in Southern California.
Zalkin and Miss Alston appeared during a press conference announcing the lawsuit. Portions of that press conference are available here and were aired on local television stations.
While Zalkin and his law firm have been very successful in past cases resulting in dozens of settlements, he faces some unique challenges in Oregon courts. Oregon has some contradictory laws that apply specifically to religious organizations.
[UPDATE: Mr. Zalkin clarified the situation in this case. The Oregon confidential communications law described below WILL NOT apply in Ms. Alston’s case. All JW elders and other witnesses in this case have provided pertinent testimony and have not invoked “clerical privilege.”]
Oregon law requires members of the clergy, like teachers and social workers, to report any allegation of child abuse to the police. Another law (ORS 40.260) provides an exception if it is part of a church’s religious practice to keep confidential communications secret between clergy and members.
How does this law apply in real situations involving an admission of child abuse?
While I am not an attorney, the statutes involved are pretty clear. Basically, if a member of the clergy (including JW elders and ministerial servants) suspect that a crime is being committed or get reports of a crime (especially child abuse), they must notify the police about those reports as any other social worker would have to do or any citizen should.
However, if the perpetrator of those crimes against children comes to the local elders or ministerial servants and asks for help or counseling – or even just admits to committing a crime – another law (ORS 40.260 – see reference below) specifically requires silence on the part of the clergy. (Again, please note that this is my unqualified interpretation of the law.)
As a further example of how I think these laws might apply, allow me to offer the following illustration:
A Jehovah’s Witness elder is a witness to a crime being committed – or gets a report that a child has been abused and has been admitted to a hospital. He knows the child and the parents and realizes that something must be done. Like any other citizen, social worker, or medical specialist, he is supposed to report the incident to the police or appropriate authorities. But if he learns of the crime because the perpetrator came to him and admits to his or her involvement, the elder – by law – must not and cannot report that information to the police.
Zalkin and his team are very experienced and successful in handling these issues. Miss Alston has a winning team working for her and her co-plaintiff. Unfortunately for Jehovah’s Witnesses in living in Oregon and for the Watch Tower Society’s leadership in New York, no matter how the case is resolved it will become another scar on their public face and reputation. We expect that this story will be well reported by Oregon’s press and TV stations.
Further reading (on the Hillsboro case)…
- Rawstory.com article
- Oregon Live article
- Friendly Atheist article (by Cedars)
- Christian Post article
- CultSurvivor35 article (by someone who knew Velicia Alston)
Here are some other more notorious cases in recent years in Oregon:
- Child Abuse Case in Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR (2013)
- Whitney Heichl Murder, Gresham, Oregon (2012)
- Frederick McClean: Hiding in Eugene? (2012)
- Murder in Kingdom Hall in Lowell (near Eugene – 2010) and (2011)
- McClean and Alvin Heard (2003)
- Christian Longo, Lincoln County, Oregon (2001)
(1) As used in this section, unless the context requires otherwise:
(a) “Confidential communication” means a communication made privately and not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present in furtherance of the purpose of the communication.
(b) “Member of the clergy” means a minister of any church, religious denomination or organization or accredited Christian Science practitioner who in the course of the discipline or practice of that church, denomination or organization is authorized or accustomed to hearing confidential communications and, under the discipline or tenets of that church, denomination or organization, has a duty to keep such communications secret.
(2) A member of the clergy may not be examined as to any confidential communication made to the member of the clergy in the member’s professional character unless consent to the disclosure of the confidential communication is given by the person who made the communication.
(3) Even though the person who made the communication has given consent to the disclosure, a member of the clergy may not be examined as to any confidential communication made to the member in the member’s professional character if, under the discipline or tenets of the member’s church, denomination or organization, the member has an absolute duty to keep the communication confidential. [1981 c.892 §35; 1999 c.7 §1]