“We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. Practice and policy. Show me the church manipulated the system so that these guys wouldn’t have to face charges. Show me they put those same priests back into parishes time and time again. Show me this was systemic, that it came from the top down…
…We’re going after the system.”
– From the 2015 film Spotlight
On August 14th, 2019, multiple civil lawsuits were filed in the State of New York, naming the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses as co-defendants.
The all-male eight-member ruling authority faces accusations of negligence by controlling an institution which carelessly abused its power, resulting in the sexual abuse of a large number of minor children.
Attorney Irwin Zalkin is going after the system.
In an interview with JW Survey’s editors, New York and San-Diego-based Zalkin identified the core reasons for naming the self-appointed Governing Body as defendants in the latest round of lawsuits.
“They are now going to be named defendants in a lawsuit. They are headquartered in the State of New York. They direct all of the activities of the Jehovah’s Witness Organization from the State of New York. They are very hands-on. The Governing Body is very hands-on in making policy and practice for the organization in issuing directives to elders including directives related to their sexual abuse policy. “
Among the directives approved by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is the 274-page secret elder’s manual known as Shepherd the Flock of God. An entire chapter has been devoted to managing child abuse, with the very first subheading titled “Legal Considerations.”
While Jehovah’s Witness elders claim that they endeavor to cooperate with law enforcement, they are neither permitted nor encouraged to immediately phone the police when they become aware of child molestation allegations.
Instead, they are under strict instructions to promptly phone Watchtower’s legal department in Patterson New York, where anonymous men type detailed allegations into their child abuse database. Before handing the call off to the religious Service Department, legal advisors decide whether mandatory reporting laws apply to clergymen in the state where the crimes occurred.
Despite clergy-mandated reporting in nearly every State, Watchtower’s legal department relies heavily upon a broad interpretation of clergy-penitent privilege, a loophole which Watchtower leaders exploit in virtually every child abuse case.
The quandary is, courtrooms across the United States disagree with the liberal interpretation of clergy privilege. Watchtower claims that all conversations between elders and victims, perpetrators, Circuit Overseers, Appeals Committees, and New York Service Department elders are covered by this privilege.
However, clergy privilege was intended to protect the confession of a perpetrator to his priest or elder, It was never intended to protect an internal investigation initiated by a body of elders within a congregation. Attorneys for Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they are being unfairly held to the Catholic Church model, where privilege only applies to a confession made between the penitent and his priest.
Multiple Lawsuits Filed
In the wake of the newly-enacted Child Victims Act legislation, dozens of lawsuits were filed on behalf of victims seeking justice. While a significant number of cases target Catholic New York Dioceses, Jehovah’s Witness abuse survivors are also lining up seeking justice, compensation, and validation.
The New York law sets aside Statute of Limitations restrictions for a period of one year, opening the door for victims previously barred from suing organizations which covered up abuse.
Because Jehovah’s Witnesses are an insular religious community, very few cases were ever brought before criminal or civil courts. Witnesses are encouraged never to bring reproach upon the “name of Jehovah” by straying outside of the organization to resolve matters involving church members. Such matters include allegations of child abuse.
While parents are sometimes advised by elders that they are free to report abuse allegations to the authorities, under no circumstances are they implicitly directed to do so.
Survivors Michael Ewing and Heather Steele know all too well what it’s like to have their lives destroyed by appointed members of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. Both have sought the aid of the Zalkin Law Firm after decades of suffering the after-effects of their abuse and the corresponding cover-up.
Court documents describe evidence that church leadership intentionally tried to circumvent law enforcement in an effort to reduce notoriety.
The abusers in both cases were appointees of the Governing Body, including an elder and a ministerial servant. Both are considered agents of the church.
Attorney Zalkin outlines a long history of non-compliance and non-cooperation with law enforcement, citing numerous secret church mandates sent only to congregation elders.
In both complaints, Zalkin states:
“Notwithstanding the reports received in response to the March 1997 and July 1998 letters which continue to be sent to this day, defendants WATCHTOWER and GOVERNING BODY left intact a longstanding Jehovah’s Witness policy dating to a July 1989 policy letter that required elders to frustrate law enforcement efforts to investigate child molestation, and to contact defendant WATCHTOWER’S Legal Department about child abuse allegations instead of cooperating with law enforcement or reporting child molestation allegations to the police. Similarly, victims were still to be discouraged from seeking any form of therapy where Jehovah’s Witness molestations may be disclosed to non-members. Despite being staffed with ministers, defendant WATCHTOWER’S Service Department has never made a mandated child abuse report to law enforcement.”
Attorney Zalkin seeks to hold the top officials for Watchtower responsible, specifically the eight members of the Governing Body. In 2014, Zalkin filed a motion to compel the deposition of the longest-standing member of the Governing Body, Gerrit Losch.
In defiance of this motion, Losch used two law firms outside of Watchtower to quash the motion to compel, with Losch claiming that he did not answer to Watchtower or create any of their corporate policies. Watchtower’s attorneys compared Losch to the Dalai Lama.
Zalkin intends to prove that Losch’s professed detachment from Watchtower’s corporate structure is an attempt to evade accountability for the creation of dangerous and influential policies which affect over 8 million Witnesses worldwide.
While the Governing Body removed itself from the legal corporations owned by the religious empire in 2000, the new lawsuits indicate that this was merely a legal formality and that there are no policies which do not fall under the jurisdiction of the ruling body.
The Governing Body and their corporations are in fact, alter egos of each other.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, two more abuse victims have come forward as a result of the abuse of Heather Steele and her sister.
Plaintiffs Lynn Hagan and Tarah Bird have filed a 30-page civil lawsuit in which they allege that their own biological father, Donald Nicholson, sexually abused them for twenty years. Nicholson was the same prominent church elder who molested Heather Steele.
Nicholson had been arrested and found guilty of molesting the two daughters of Jehovah’s Witness elder Lee Steele, who was a New York State Trooper at the time. Nicholson pled guilty in 1982 and spent 3 1/2 years in prison.
Nicholson Re-Offends While Incarcerated
Approaching the end of his prison sentence, Nicholson was transferred to the Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York, which had just initiated a family visitation program for qualifying prisoners. During recurring overnight visits, four-year-old plaintiff Tarah Bird was regularly forced to endure sexual assaults while her mother, Gail Nicholson, watched.
Gail Nicholson died October 3, 2018.
According to court documents filed on behalf of Nicholson’s daughters, the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses harbored a known child molester from 1974 to 2010. Attorneys for Hagan and Bird state:
“Additionally, upon information and belief, a known child molester was appointed to the Governing Body in 1974, and he controlled Watchtower Defendants’ database of molesters, policies toward their judicial cases, and non-reporting to authorities until his death in 2010”
The Governing Body member referred to is Theodore “Ted” Jaracz. It is unclear whether the law firm of Bochetto and Lentz will present physical documentation to substantiate the allegations against Jaracz.
Additional Lawsuit Filed Against Governing Body and Watchtower
On August 15th, 2019, attorney Irwin Zalkin filed yet another civil lawsuit against the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, this time in the Superior Court of California, Los Angeles County.
The new case alleges that Kevin Ramirez was molested by Humberto Ramirez (not his father) between 1999 and 2001, when Kevin was between six and eight years of age. The documents state:
“Humberto molested Plaintiff on numerous occasions, including during and after Church events such as field service, bible study, and during a Jehovah’s Witness Assembly.”
Humberto Ramirez was a congregation elder, appointed at through the oversight of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to the complaint, in 2001 Kevin finally revealed to his parents that he was being abused by Humberto Ramirez. His parents reported the allegations to congregation elders, who discouraged the family from reporting the matter to the police.
Congregation elders opted not to pass on the allegations to law enforcement officials, despite being mandated reporters. The filing also revealed:
“Humberto used his position with Defendants to ingratiate himself with Plaintiff’s family. Without Humberto’s position with Defendants, he would not have had access to Plaintiff or the ability to commit the acts of molestation alleged herein. Humberto threatened that Plaintiff would not be accepted into paradise if he did not allow the molestations to occur. Indeed, Humberto used his position to molest multiple boys in Defendant Congregation”
All of the cases filed represent a growing cross-section of the Jehovah’s Witness community, a place where trust for congregation elders, ministerial servants, and the underlying organization has become increasingly dangerous.
The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is principally silent on the matter of child sexual abuse, but in 2015, Stephen Lett issued the following statement:
“Think about the apostate-driven lies and dishonesties that Jehovah’s organization is permissive toward pedophiles. I mean, that is ridiculous, isn’t it? If anybody takes action against someone who would threaten our young ones, and takes action to protect our young ones, it is Jehovah’s organization. We reject outright such lies.”
Additional Information: Please watch and share the latest Watchtower in Focus episode, where the JW Survey editors interview Attorney Irwin Zalkin from his New York Office: