The founders of MormonLeaks, a transparency organization that has released hundreds of controversial documents related to inner-workings of the Mormon Church, recently launched FaithLeaks, an ambitious and far-reaching project that aims to expose corruption and abuse across other religious organizations. Today, the new group has published dozens of pages of documents related to sexual assault allegations within the Jehovah’s Witness Church, documents which are presumably part of a database that church officials have refused to relinquish in an unrelated sexual molestation trial, resulting in a one and a half year legal battle and millions of dollars in fines.
The 69 pages of documents detail how Jehovah’s Witnesses authorities and church officials handled allegations of repeated sexual assault by one of its local leaders. The interviews and detailed notes compiled by church authorities about molestation and rape allegations are horrific. The 33 documents also provide a staggering play-by-play of how the Watchtower Tract and Bible Society—the parent corporation and governing body for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, often simply referred to as “the Watchtower”—handled the case internally over the course of nearly a decade—playing therapist, prosecutor, jury, and judge—and the lengths to which they went to keep these accusations away from the “worldly court of law.”
The documents show that in 1999, a committee of Jehovah’s Witnesses elders found allegations from two women that their father had sexually abused them to be credible, yet held off on forming an internal judicial committee to take their own form of judicial action against the alleged abuser because one of the daughters was not willing to face the father and formally make the accusations against him, as judicial committee policy requires. Once she went through with the process years later, a spiritually guided trial was held and he was disfellowshipped. However, a year later he was reinstated. The documents show that Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders cast shade on one accuser and her husband for trying to take this matter to secular law enforcement.
Almost immediately after starting MormonLeaks, the founders were encouraged to expand the scope. “I spoke on MormonLeaks at Defcon [hacker conference] this summer,” said Ethan Dodge, the lead engineer of MormonLeaks and co-founder of FaithLeaks. “And I can’t even tell you how many people I was contacted by after Defcon wanting to set up something similar.”
Dodge created FaithLeaks with Ryan McKnight, who first established muckraker clout when he played a major role in the leaking of a new Mormon policy that excluded children of same-sex parents from baptisms and blessings.
McKnight says that FaithLeaks, which receives funding from donations made through its site, is most interested in pushing religious organizations to be more transparent in three categories: financials, corporate policies and procedures, and information on sexual abuse allegations. “This could come in the form of an annual report that institutions release to the members that would simply tabulate the number of accusations that have occurred in their area,” McKnight said, and could include financial information on any settlements made by the church.
Essentially, McKnight believes that church members should know what their tithing and donation money are going to, and if it’s being used to quietly settle sexual abuse allegations out of court. “Every organization, whether it’s religious or not, is going to have people who do bad things,” McKnight said. “So the mere fact that there may exist some sort of sexual abuse in a church is not automatically a condemnation of that organization. What it boils down to is how they handle it.”
With that mission in mind, it seems fitting that the first major leak that came to them was from Watchtower.
Several recent court cases have shed light on the pervasiveness of sexual assault incidents within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization and the efforts
by the group to keep those cases from reaching the public or law enforcement. As Reveal News notes, church leaders are required to report allegations of child abuse in most states, but 32 states have laws with a loophole that allows clergy to withhold information obtained through communication with members of their congregation. California is one of those states. (Reveal News’s extensive reporting on Watchtower’s handling of child sexual abuse can be found here.)
In 2014, a San Diego judge ordered Watchtower to award $13.5 million to George Lopez because he was abused by church leader Gonzalo Campos in 1986 when Lopez was 7. Six others sued Watchtower claiming that Campos had molested them, but the cases were settled out of court. Church elders (who oversee congregations) had recommended Campos mentor Lopez, because Lopez’s father and stepfather were not members of the church. Evidence used in the case showed that elders knew at this time that Campos had already molested a boy and was a pedophile. Lopez’s mother reported the assault to the church, and was told not to tell law enforcement. Trial evidence shows that a church committee investigated the allegations but allowed Campos to continue serving in the Church. In 1995, Campos was removed after another victim accused him of abuse. Campos was reinstated in 2000.
During the trial, Jehovah’s Witness senior official Richard Ashe revealed to Lopez’s attorney, Irwin Zalkin, that the institution had a database filled with scanned documents detailing decades of abuse allegations and internal investigations related to them, as reported by Reveal News. The judge ordered Watchtower to present the documents, but the organization did not comply. The case worked its way to the California Supreme Court, which also held that it must produce the documents. It didn’t. The Jehovah’s Witnesses organization appealed, arguing the judge’s measure was too harsh, and an appeals court sided with Watchtower reversing the $13.5 million judgement. The case is still in litigation.
In Zalkin’s next case against Watchtower, the organization agreed to share the files but only sent four years worth of documents instead of the full 19-year span expected, all with the names of alleged abusers redacted. After Watchtower refused to turn over the rest of the information, a judge ordered the organization in June 2016 to pay a fine of $4,000 a day until it complied. The continued refusal has cost the church over $2.2 million as of publication, if the payments are still happening.
Zalkin told Gizmodo he could not comment for this story due to court orders that limit him from discussing anything related to these documents.
Today, FaithLeaks has released a small portion of what is presumably in that massive collection—several documents that show years of investigations and deliberations into a local leader who was alleged to have physically and sexually assaulted his two young daughters and another young girl in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
In this trove of documents, the first-ever leak by FaithLeaks, the organization has censored all names out of respect for the privacy of the women, now adults, who brought forth their accounts of sexual assault. Gizmodo viewed un-redacted versions of the documents and was able to confirm with the alleged abuser at the center of these documents that he was the focus of internal investigations within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization.
The batch begins with a 1999 letter written to Watchtower from three elders in the Palmer Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Brimfield, Massachusetts, about their investigation into the accusations. They interviewed both daughters, then in their 20s and 30s, looking specifically to determine whether their accounts of assault and molestation were uncovered “repressed memories” or not. One daughter spoke of being physically abused for years and sexually abused for months beginning when she was 5 years old. In her statement she alleged that her father repeatedly touched her genitals and examined her vagina. Later documents show that the accuser admitted to church officials that he tied his young daughter to her bed in order to inspect her vagina for signs of masturbation.
The letter also describes an interview with the younger daughter, whose alleged experiences included being molested by her father as early as the age of 3 and “4-years of continued rape” beginning at the age of 8, according to the memo. “She described that her father would sit on the bed afterward and cry as he prayed with her,” the elders wrote. “She was told by her father that if she ever told her mother or her sister that ‘someone would get hurt.’”
The elders determined that the accusers “were both quite rational” and remarked, “It certainly appears that these were real events. It did not seem that they had conferred together on their ‘stories.’” The men acknowledged that the daughters “expressed concerns for any contact that their father may have with any children. ”
Despite believing that the stories were credible and hearing both accusers express strong concern for the harm that their father could cause, the elders decided they couldn’t take the issue to an internal judicial committee because one of the daughters was not “emotionally prepared to defend herself before” her father, the alleged abuser. In order for a case to be “pursued judicially” within the Jehovah’s Witness Church, an accuser has to confront and charge their alleged abuser.
However, the information was enough to justify stripping the alleged abuser from his duties as a ministerial servant (a position that assists the elders, similar to a deacon in the Catholic Church), though he remained in the congregation.
Handwritten notes from April 2003 show that the husband of the younger accuser told elders that she was still not ready to confront her alleged abuser face-to-face so that the case could go through the church’s judicial process at that time, but that state police were investigating the alleged abuser “as a suspect in an abuse case.” The person writing the notes wrote “Probe the state police thing!” seemingly concerned that the secular law enforcement would get involved with a church affair.
However, the daughter was ready to officially charge her father within the Jehovah’s Witnesses system over the phone with elders listening. That phone charge led to a judicial hearing on May 2003, the schedule of which is included in the documents and reads like something out of The Handmaid’s Tale:
-READ DEUT. 19:15
-PRESENT DETAILS OF ‘TESTIMONY’ OF WITNESSES ONE AT A TIME...
-IF GUILT ESTABLISHED, REPROVE SCRIPTURALLY
-DISMISS AND DETERMINE REPENTANCE
The outcome is not explicitly stated in the documents but later memos suggest that this hearing led to the alleged abuser’s disfellowship, an action that is similar to excommunication, because he admitted to the allegations examining his older daughter for signs of masturbation when she was a child.
A confidential memo written by three overseers (regional leaders who govern multiple congregations and are appointed by the governing body of Watchtower) in 2004, describes an incident in which police showed up to a church building because one of the accusers and the alleged abuser were both present, despite the accuser having been granted a restraining order against her father. The accuser’s husband (who was an elder) made the call to police. The memo “seriously questions” the accuser’s husband’s “arbitrary action of bypassing theocratic organization because of his personal feelings and, considering the above circumstances surrounding this matter, his qualifications as an elder.”
The memo writers seems to show more concern for the alleged abuser than the accuser and her husband: “No doubt [the alleged abuser] was publicly humiliated by the manner of this arrest.”
Another memo written by an overseer shows that a “reinstatement committee” met a few months later to discuss whether the alleged abuser’s disfellowship should be reversed. They chose only to focus on the accusations of the older daughter who reported that the alleged abuser had inspected her for signs of masturbation. The reinstatement committee noted that the alleged abuser “displayed considerable amount of remorse over his actions” towards that daughter. According to the report, the alleged abuser told the committee that, in his opinion, his daughter “has been damaged” and his belief that his actions had “adversely affected how she could relate to her husband.”
As for the younger daughter who had reported being raped by her father, her charges, which were made over the phone, were deemed “inadequate” by the reinstatement committee, which had more questions for her. “Since [the daughter] had filed a restraining order on her father and was willing to face him in a worldly court of law, it was felt that she should be willing to talk with the committee,” the reinstatement committee wrote. (Gizmodo was not able to locate a record of the legal proceedings by the time of publication).
That same month, a leader wrote a memo addressed to one of a member of the reinstatement committee. The memo included an interview with another woman who accused the alleged abuser of raping her when she was a child, years earlier. Though she stood by her claims, the memos about the investigation show that Jehovah’s Witnesses elders doubted the validity of her statement partially because she said her eyes were closed when he was sexually assaulting her.
The daughter who alleged that her father raped her made yet another official statement against him within the church in October 2004. In 2005, a committee determined that the alleged abuser could no longer perform duties like handling audio equipment or literature. He was allowed to remain in the congregation.
Watchtower did not respond to a request for comment on these documents, and did not answer questions about whether this information is included in the trove of documents that the Watchtower is withholding from courts at the cost of $4,000 a day, and if the documents show that the Watchtower is protecting accused child sexual assaulters.
The daughters chose not to comment for this story. Gizmodo asked the alleged abuser if there was an internal Jehovah’s Witness investigation into the accusations of sexual assault against him. He initially denied knowing about it, but once provided with more details, he confirmed that he was aware of an internal investigation into him with the Jehovah’s Witness Church but claimed that the allegations were untrue. He told Gizmodo, “All I’m going to tell you is this: It’s been settled in court. The allegations were untrue.”
Gizmodo did not get the opportunity to ask him about his own admission, mentioned in one document, that he had tied down one of his daughters and inspected her for signs of masturbation.
FaithLeaks plans to release more documents pertaining to the Jehovah’s Witnesses authorities’ handling of other alleged sexual misconduct in the upcoming weeks.