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Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in Othello sued in sex abuse case

This story was published 1/23/2002

By Shirley Wentworth
Herald Basin bureau

OTHELLO -- A lawsuit was filed Tuesday against the Othello Spanish Jehovah's Witnesses congregation and its New York governing body, alleging they covered up the sexual abuse of a child.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Spokane by Erica Rodriguez, 23, now of Sacramento, Calif., also seeks unspecified damages from Manuel Beliz, the man who abused her, and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

Rodriguez, who testified in Adams County Superior Court that she was raped weekly between the ages of 4 and 11 by Beliz, won two criminal court trials. Beliz, 49, first was convicted in 1998, but that conviction was overturned. He was convicted a second time last year, and his 11-year sentence was reinstated.

Although the Herald usually does not report the names of people who report sexual assaults, Rodriguez has gone public in her quest to save other children from pedophilia.

Rodriguez said after she moved to California at age 12, an elder in the church she attended there also began abusing her, which went on for four years. She said when she reported the abuse to church elders, the man was removed as an elder but not disfellowshipped from the church.

When she told the elder that she planned to go to the police, she was told she'd be disfellowshipped. She did contact Sacramento police, who contacted Othello police, who arrested Beliz. Rodriguez also has filed criminal charges against the Sacramento elder, but that case has not yet gone to court.

Although Beliz was disfellowshipped from the church, he was reinstated as an elder shortly before the trial. Rodriguez said she called the Watchtower legal department to ask why. "This guy said, 'It's none of your business, don't call again,' " she said.

Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., the lead attorney in Rodriguez's suit, said he has sued just about every church denomination for covering up child sex abuse over the last 20 years.

This is the second such suit he has filed against the Jehovah's Witnesses, with the other in New Hampshire.

"The vast majority have been Catholic; I stumbled over that phenomenon in the early 80s," Anderson said. He filed the first pedophile case against the Catholic Church in 1982.

Anderson said pedophilia is most likely to occur in "hierarchical, insular, religious organizations that are paternalistic and sexist and repress healthy sexuality."

"They are secret ... they are run by one male or a small group of men," he said.

Under Jehovah's Witness church policy, congregation members report transgressions of other members to a judicial committee made up of three or more church elders -- none of whom are women.

The committee decides what disciplinary action to mete out, often using disfellowshipping as punishment. Disfellowshipping means the congregation -- including family members and friends -- shuns the culprit, who becomes invisible to them.

When allegations of misbehavior are taken before the elders, at least two witnesses are required if the accused denies the charge -- which is particularly difficult to provide in accusations of sexual abuse.

Rodriguez's lawsuit alleges the elders tell the victim not to talk to other congregation members or to report the abuse to law enforcement authorities under pain of sanction or disfellowshipping.

However, Watchtower spokesman J.R. Brown, who had not yet seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment specifically, said the church does not interfere with the reporting of a crime.

He said church elders are supposed to contact headquarters if they have questions about a case.

"When we are contacted, we tell elders if they are in a state where (reporting pedophilia) is required," he said. "We want to make sure we are legally compliant."

Brown said he is aware that numerous cases have been posted on Internet sites such as www.silentlambs.org or www.freeminds.org detailing pedophilia within the Jehovah's Witnesses church.

But he maintains most of the stories were posted by people who underwent abuse back in the 1980s, when all of society was grappling with the issue.

"Regrettably, many children probably were molested," he said.

He said the church has made strong policy changes since then, including taking suspected or convicted pedophiles out of any position in the church, not allowing them to be alone with children and various other restrictions.

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