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Since the late 1990s blue envelopes from Jehovah’s Witness congregations across the country have been sent to the organization’s headquarters. But, it’s the information inside those envelopes that contain damaging secrets.
The blue envelopes contained detailed reports of members within the religion accused of child molestation. Officials scanned those documents into a database of files for each congregation, according to a sworn deposition by an official with The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society obtained by Reveal, the website for the Center for Investigative Reporting.
But the specific details within that database have largely remained a secret—despite court orders and calls from the public to release its contents, leading some to accuse the organization of concealing suspected child abusers.
The child abuse files were collected after the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society—the organization that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses—sent a request in March 1997 to all of its United States congregations requesting that each congregation write a detailed report about anyone within the religion who had been accused of child molestation and send it to the headquarters in the special blue envelope, according to The Atlantic.
Watchtower has maintained the database, which includes the names, congregation locations and details of the allegations against those suspected of abusing children, for more than two decades, according to Reveal.
San Diego Attorney Irwin Zalkin first sought the database during the lawsuit he filed in 2012 on behalf of José Lopez, according to The Atlantic.
Lopez said he was just seven years old when he was molested by Gonzalo Campos, an adult mentor recommended by his congregation’s elders.
The elders suggested Campos as a mentor even though they allegedly already knew Campos had a history of molesting boys. Lopez told his mother of the abuse and she reported it to local elders. Campos eventually admitted in a deposition to molesting Lopez and others, according to The Atlantic.
Lopez decided to file a lawsuit against Watchtower and requested officials turn over any documents related to Campos or other known abusers.
Initially, the Watchtower claimed it did not have the capabilities to sort through the documentation.
The official testified in court that the documents were stored in an easily searchable Microsoft SharePoint database, The Atlantic reports.
However, Watchtower still did not comply with releasing the documents and a judge eventually awarded Lopez a $13.5 million award. An appellate court later overturned the ruling, but the case confirmed the existence of the database.
Zalkin also brought up the database in another 2016 case against Campos. Once again, the Watchtower was ordered to hand over the documents but this time the organization was ordered to pay a fine of $4,000 for each day they failed to comply with the demand. Watchtower accrued fines of $2 million before the case was later settled. (After settlement, the Watchtower apparently did not have to pay those fines.)
“They do everything to protect the reputation of the organization over the safety of children,” Zalkin, who has represented numerous victims of sexual abuse by Jehovah’s Witnesses, told Reveal in 2016.
The organization’s refusal to hand over the documents seems to align with other policies that have been in place by the organization for more than three decades that seemingly encourage leaders—or elders —within the congregations not to report the abuse to law enforcement officials.
One 1989 memo obtained by Reveal to all elders within the United States stressed the importance of secrecy in these type of matters.
“Often the peace, unity, and spiritual well-being of the congregation are at stake,” the letter said according to a 2015 Reveal article. “Improper use of the tongue by an elder can result in serious legal problems for the individual, the congregation, and even the Society.”
Another from 1997 allegedly instructed elders to inform other elders if a known child sex abuser moved from one congregation to another but to withhold the information from others in the congregation, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Former elder Roger Bentley confirmed to the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit earlier this year that he had read internal memos from Watchtower that gave elders instructions on how to respond to alleged child abuse.
To violate the instructions or call police would have been like going against God’s word, he said.
"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 now, acknowledging that he had been “complicit” in an organization he now believes had a bad policy against child abuse.
In some states, clergy are exempted from mandatory child abuse reporting laws when they learn of the abuse through a confidential, spiritual communication, and Watchtower leaders have always maintained that they follow the law.
“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,” they said in a statement to the Hearst investigative unit.
Zalkin eventually gained access to some of the documents from the database as part of another legal case against the organization, but was ordered by a judge not to speak about the contents of the documents as part of a protective order issued in the case, according to the investigation by Hearst.
“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 of its contents.
A five-year investigation into the child abuse policies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting is the subject of “The Witnesses.”
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