A year-long investigation by the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit has uncovered new allegations of child sexual abuse and decades-long cover-ups inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization in the United States.
The allegations span states, congregations, and generations and have been the subject of inquiries by attorneys general offices in at least three states, the National Investigative Unit has learned – inquiries that have not been previously reported.
The findings shed new light on the burgeoning number of people accusing the Jehovah’s Witnesses of systemic shortcomings in the protection of children within its religious communities.
Fifteen people who grew up in the organization’s teachings and are now adults living in cities from the West Coast to the upper reaches of New England agreed to talk on the record for these reports; 13 of them gathered this spring in Sacramento, Calif., for the largest television group interview of its kind.
Part 1: Silent No More
When asked how many of them were telling their stories for the first time on television, most members of the group raised their hands – determined, they said, to be silent no more.
An equally broad majority acknowledged having had previous thoughts of harming themselves because of the circumstances they allege occurred during their upbringing while members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Kameron Torres said he was 6 years old when he began being abused.
He said he and his mother told the leadership of his congregation – men known as elders – about the abuse.
"And the elders didn't do anything. They said, 'we'd look into this, we'll take care of it, we'll leave it in God's hands,'” he recalled during the interview.
“They haven't done anything” in the past quarter-century, said Torres, who earlier this year testified before a California Senate committee.
Star Pahl, who filed a police report in August 1991 that was obtained by the National Investigative Unit, alleged long-term abuse while she was a child. Pahl subsequently decided not to pursue the case and the matter was closed.
"This organization is a culture that doesn't protect our children. It's dangerous. It's very, very dangerous,” Pahl said during the group interview, sitting two chairs away from Torres.
"We were silenced,” declared Megan Lynn, a fifth-generation Jehovah’s Witness who asked not to use her last name since she did the on-camera interview without her family’s knowledge or approval.
Speaking with tears running down her cheeks, Megan Lynn said, "I hope to God they understand that I love them and I'm not doing this because I hate them. I'm doing this because I love children and I want them to be safe and this is the only way for them to be safe. For us to put ourselves on the front lines.”
When asked whether she was willing to speak publicly for the first time even if her congregation subsequently dis-fellowships her for doing so, also putting at risk contact with her biological family members who are still Witnesses, Megan Lynn simply replied, “Yes."
‘Endeavor to Comply’
There are an estimated 1.2 million followers of the religion in the U.S., many of whom hand out literature or have gone door to door, trying to convince more people of their belief in an "approaching apocalypse"; that in the resurrection, only true believers will be saved by Jehovah – their name for God.
In literature from May 2019 titled “Love and Justice in the Face of Wickedness” published online, the Jehovah's Witnesses call child abuse "an especially repugnant wicked deed,” and say elders "endeavor to comply" with laws requiring allegations of child abuse be reported to authorities.
But this investigation found that is not always true.
Avoiding the police – followers, elders, memos, and hundreds of pages of court transcripts reveal – was the expectation from the very top of the organization.
Internal documents and letters from headquarters going back 30 years directed its approximately 13,000 congregations across the United States to handle abuse internally, send copies of files to headquarters -- not police -- in "special blue" envelopes, and destroy documents laying out past policy.
‘I was complicit’
Roger Bentley was a longtime elder at a Kingdom Hall in California who says he remembered reading the internal letters from headquarters instructing local bodies of elders how to respond and who to contact in cases of alleged child abuse.
The memos, dating from between 1989 to 2012, do not tell elders to contact secular law enforcement authorities.
In an interview, Bentley says he read and followed the written orders when he was an elder and now says he was "blinded" by the religion.
"By learning of child abuse – even an allegation – and not reporting it, that is covering up child abuse. That's not a tough question,” Bentley said.
Asked if the act of calling police would be like going against God’s word, Bentley replied: “Sure, yeah. Yes. Yes.”
He said it was “correct” that it would be “almost unthinkable” to disobey the Governing Body, the panel of men who oversee the organization worldwide, and contact law enforcement anyway.
“I was complicit… with an organization that really had a bad policy towards child sexual abuse,” said Bentley.
Watch an extended clip of an interview with former Jehovah’s Witnesses elder Roger Bentley; Hearst Television
Attorneys general inquiries
Now authorities want to know more about that policy.
The National Investigative Unit contacted the offices of all 50 state attorneys general in the United States and learned that at least three have been looking into the Jehovah's Witnesses organization, its policies and allegations against it. Among the individuals contacted by law enforcement recently: whistleblowers and followers who allege abuse.
- In Delaware: which reached a settlement with a congregation in the city of Laurel to pay more than $19,000 and take a "Stewards of Children" training program after its elders failed to report alleged child abuse to authorities in violation of the state's mandatory reporter law. The congregation did not admit liability in that settlement.
- In California: which sent an investigator to meet with an alleged victim north of Los Angeles in April who tells us she was threatened by elders with dis-fellowshipping if she reported her alleged abuser.
- In Pennsylvania: which has now interviewed at least one person who alleges abuse when he was a child.
The interviews in California and Pennsylvania could be the precursor to opening a formal investigation or grand jury probe. Both offices declined to comment, although California’s Attorney General directed journalists’ attention to a website it set up to solicit “information from the public regarding complaints” of sexual abuse of children “by members of clergy or religious organizations.”
According to documents obtained by the National Investigative Unit, a Pennsylvania Attorney General senior supervisory special agent looking into some of the allegations is Gary Tallent, the same child predator section investigator who helped lead the state's blockbuster probe into the Catholic Church that last year revealed 301 priests accused of abusing 1,000 children.
Secret database of accused abusers
Those same Pennsylvania investigators could now seek access to a secret Jehovah's Witnesses database of accused and convicted abusers filled with reports sent to the organization in those "special blue" envelopes.
Irwin Zalkin, a San Diego-based attorney who has also represented Catholic abuse victims, got a decade’s worth of documents from the database files, but can’t disclose details due to a California judge’s protective order shielding the files from public view for now.
In an interview in an ornate, wood-carved courtroom at his alma mater, California Western School of Law, Zalkin called the documents he’s seen “disturbing.”
“There are a lot of children that are being affected. Very, very badly… It's hard to know what's in that and not be able to talk about it,” Zalkin said.
Despite a court order requiring disclosure, lawyers for the Jehovah's Witnesses organization are still fighting, appealing to heavily redact the files.
Zalkin says that in his experience, the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been more defiant than the Catholic Church when it comes to disclosure of files detailing years of alleged abuse and the hierarchy’s response to it.
Zalkin's team, which is believed to represent the largest number of alleged Jehovah's Witness abuse victims of any firm in the country, about three dozen, is now asking a judge to sanction the organization for the delays.
Watch an extended clip of an interview with attorney Irwin Zalkin; Hearst Television
Lawmakers aren’t waiting.
In California, a bill passed the Senate in May that would strip away clergy-penitent privilege, requiring religious leaders of all faiths to report alleged child sex abuse.
Twelve states currently have such a requirement, leaving 38 states with less protection for victims, according to a fact-sheet distributed by the office of state Sen. Jerry Hill, the sponsor of SB 360.
"This exemption has caused a lot of abuse of children and we need to stop it,” the senator said in an interview just off the floor of the chamber.
"What we want to do is protect children. And that's what this bill does,” Hill said.
‘A moral obligation’
All 13 participants of the television group interview with people who grew up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious doctrine said they supported the legislation.
And they also said they’re in favor of passing on a warning that children are “at risk every single day,” as Candace Conti, who says she was abused as a child, expressed.
"We need to protect our children. -- we have a moral obligation -- We have an obligation to our children,” another participant added.
‘Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse’
The National Investigative Unit repeatedly contacted the headquarters of the organization for comment over several months, sending its representatives a detailed list of 22 questions, specific names and allegations, and requests for granular discussions of past and current policies. In addition, a television crew subsequently visited three Jehovah’s Witnesses nationwide administrative sites, located in New York state, to provide its leaders an additional opportunity for comment.
But in a three-paragraph statement, the organization’s Office of Public Information declined to make anyone in leadership available for an on-camera interview with Hearst Television, saying, “out of respect for the privacy of all involved, it is not appropriate for our office to comment on specific legal cases.”
The Organization did not accept an offer for signed privacy waivers from the people interviewed to allow it to more fully discuss their cases.
The statement continued: “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse as a sin and crime. Our policies on child protection comply with the law, including any requirements for elders to report allegations of child abuse to authorities. Our organization will continue to promote child protection education for parents.”
Efforts to reach all of the individual congregations named by the group interview participants by mail either did not result in a response or resulted in the certified letters returned unopened.
Part 2: The Verdicts
Inside a courthouse in Thompson Falls, Montana, the Jehovah's Witnesses organization in September suffered its greatest court defeat in a U.S. child sex abuse case.
Dan Stinnett helped bring down Lady Justice's hammer.
"Everybody agreed they were guilty,” Stinnett recalled recently from his home.
Stinnett, in his first interview about the case, explained how he and eight other Sanders County jurors found the Jehovah's Witnesses governing organizations negligent and "guilty of malice" in the child sexual abuse of Alexis Nunez, awarding her $35 million.
Through her Texas-based attorney, Neil Smith, Nunez declined an interview request because the church has appealed to the state’s highest court.
"I believe they were trying to cover [abuse] up, yes. I have no doubt about that,” Stinnett said.
When asked if he was trying to send a message with his jury vote, Stinnett responded, “Why, absolutely. We as jurors and as society really don't condone … any of this.”
Investigation finds new allegations
The Nunez case is one of dozens tallied by the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit as part of a yearlong investigation that uncovered new allegations of child sexual abuse and decadeslong cover-ups inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization in the United States.
As reported by Hearst Television, the allegations span congregations, states and generations.
The findings are contained in a three-part Hearst Television series of reports called “Silent No More” and shed new light on the growing number of people accusing the religious organization of systemic shortcomings in the protection of children.
The Jehovah's Witnesses organization, which goes by several names including Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and the Christian Congregation and is headquartered northwest of New York City, has fought and settled cases coast to coast.
‘I’m a Survivor’
One of the longest-running court battles involved Candace Conti.
"I'm a survivor,” Conti declared during a joint television interview with 12 other people who grew up in the religion and allege they were abused as children, many of whom were sharing their accusations publicly for the first time.
Conti refused to initially settle her case seeking damages against Watchtower, her congregation, and a fellow Jehovah's Witness for sexual abuse and negligence.
The case went to trial. In a headline-making decision, a California jury awarded her $28 million, the largest verdict against the organization at the time.
"There's a strange validation that came from that. Having the jury not only say that they believe you, that they know that this happened, but that the organization was in the wrong in the first place,” Conti said.
Growing emotional, Conti continued: “And I am so sorry to everyone behind me and to everybody who's fighting right now… I wish – I wish above all else – that they could have that same validation that I did. I really do.”
Conti says she went to the elders – the typically six to eight men who compose each congregation's leadership – a decade ago to urge them to set "Megan's law" alerts for automatic notices when convicted child molesters move into a new congregation, which would give leadership in the new Kingdom Hall a photo of the person.
"What I wanted was to help fill this gap in their policies and their procedures to help ensure that this is not going to happen to somebody else,” Conti recalled.
“They wouldn't even listen to my idea.”
‘Abhor Child Abuse’
The state’s appeals court later slashed Conti's award amount dramatically after finding that, under state law, the Jehovah's Witnesses had no "duty to warn" a congregation about confessed or convicted child molesters. Both sides reached a confidential agreement after the case reached the state’s Supreme Court.
Through its Office of Public Information, the organization’s governing body leaders and its spokesperson declined to do an on-camera interview about the Conti case or the organization’s policies in general and did not address any of a detailed list of 22 questions submitted to it.
Instead, in a statement, they said, "Jehovah's Witnesses abhor child abuse as a sin and crime. Our policies on child protection comply with the law, including any requirements for elders to report allegations of child abuse to authorities. Our organization will continue to promote child protection education for parents."
Efforts to obtain comment by a television crew that visited three of the Jehovah’s Witnesses nationwide administrative sites in New York state were rebuffed.
In addition, letters sent to all of the individual congregations named by the group interview participants – a total of 20 – were either returned unopened or did not elicit a response.
The scrutiny on the organization is increasing.
The National Investigative Unit has learned Attorneys General offices in three states – California, Pennsylvania, and Delaware – have been looking into allegations of child sexual abuse in the Jehovah's Witness organization.
Lawmakers are taking notice, moving bills forward in New York, Pennsylvania, California and other states that would require clergy of all faiths to report allegations of abuse, add training or extend the statute of limitations for victims to come forward.
For Dan Stinnett, the juror in Montana who helped find the Jehovah's Witnesses negligent for failing to protect Alexis Nunez, justice may be blind – but he says his Creator is not.
"I believe [the Jehovah’s Witnesses] are going to be judged, and I believe it's going to be harsh. Judgment's coming, and it's coming on people just like the people that violated these girls,” Stinnett warned.
Part 3: The Reckoning
For sisters Lynn Haggan and Tarah Bird, this is a day of reckoning.
"We're survivors of sexual abuse,” Haggan, 54, of New Jersey said calmly in an interview recently, her younger sister sitting at her side.
Due to the age of the allegations, both women had been barred from filing legal claims against the man they say abused them decades ago when they were children, a former Elder in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization.
But under the Child Victims Act in New York state, which took effect in August, both can now sue during a limited window in the state’s statute of limitations that allows past claims such as theirs to be brought during the next 12 months.
Just minutes after midnight, their attorney, Kiersty DeGroote at Bochetto & Lentz in Philadelphia, filed their complaint against the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and its Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania in one of the first lawsuits to be brought in the opening hours of the Act’s window.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses “need to be exposed for what they're doing,” Bird, 40, of Massachusetts, told the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit in her and her sister’s first interview about their alleged abuse.
“Children need to be protected – and they're not.”
‘Widespread and massive scheme’
The sisters’ 30-page lawsuit claims a “widespread and massive scheme to cover up childhood sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses institution and its officers.”
That allegation tracks closely with the accusations from more than two dozen current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses contacted by the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit as part of a yearlong investigation that uncovered new allegations of alleged child sexual abuse and decades-long cover-ups inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization in the United States.
‘Comply with the law’
The Office of Public Information for the Jehovah’s Witnesses declined repeated requests for an on-camera interview about allegations regarding 15 people interviewed on camera by Hearst Television and did not address of 22 detailed questions submitted to it.
Its response to the Haggan and Bird lawsuit has not yet been filed in court.
In a statement, a spokesperson said, "Jehovah's Witnesses abhor child abuse as a sin and crime. Our policies on child protection comply with the law, including any requirements for elders to report allegations of child abuse to authorities. Our organization will continue to promote child protection education for parents."
In an official publication posted online, the Jehovah's Witnesses say its families "are free to report an allegation of abuse" to police.
‘We want the world to know’
But Bird and Haggan, the two sisters who filed suit Wednesday, say in their cases, that was not true.
"They kept just badgering nature to stop lying to tell the truth, [saying] 'You're bringing reproach upon Jehovah's name,’” Haggan recalled during an interview.
"We want the world to know what's been going on behind closed doors,” DeGroote, their attorney, said.
“There are countless children out there who were silenced and shamed for the things that are happening to them,” she added.
Multiple attorneys representing different clients tell the National Investigative Unit they expect hundreds of lawsuits to be filed against a wide array of organizations during the one-year filing period that began Wednesday.
Travis Sherwin, April Chunko, Patricia Nieberg, Noah Broder, and Beccah Hendrickson contributed to this report.
To report suspected sexual abuse, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.
To help those who may be considering harming themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Know of allegations of child sexual abuse inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization? Send investigative tips, information, and documents about this topic to the National Investigative Unit at firstname.lastname@example.org.