SAN DIEGO — A San Diego judge has found that the governing body of the Jehovah’s Witness church covered up years of sexual abuse by a local church leader and continued to put children in danger of being molested, a ruling likely to echo across the country as alleged victims from other congregations take similar cases to court.
The church’s hierarchal body, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, was ordered Wednesday to pay Jose Lopez $13.5 million in damages for the abuse he suffered in 1986 at the age of 7 as part of the church’s Linda Vista Spanish congregation.
Six other men and one woman who said they also were molested by the same man, church leader Gonzalo Campos, have also sued the Watchtower but settled their cases out of court.
Mario Moreno, associate general counsel for Watchtower, denied the cover-up allegations in a statement: “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts. The trial judge’s decision is a drastic action for any judge to take given the circumstances of this case. We will seek a full review of this case on appeal.”
An earlier version of this story said there were an estimated 7.9 million members nationwide. It’s been changed to say worldwide.
The church, known for its door-to-door preaching, has some 14,000 congregations in the United States and an estimated 7.9 million members worldwide.
The theme of sexual abuse and cover-ups by the church has appeared in lawsuits from here to Britain. In 2012, a court in Alameda County handed down a $21 million judgment in the similar case of abuse against a 9-year-old girl. The amount was later reduced to $8 million. Twenty other lawsuits are pending in California, Ohio, New Mexico, Connecticut and Vermont, according to the San Diego-based Zalkin Law Firm. And on Thursday, six adults filed a lawsuit claiming molestation in North Texas by church elders in the 1990s.
The emerging allegations have been compared to the Catholic Church clergy sex abuse scandal, with at least one major exception: “We were embroiled with a long slog with the Catholic Church around the country … but they accepted on some level that they committed these errors, that this was a problem,” said Lopez’s lawyer Irwin Zalkin, whose firm negotiated more than $200 million in settlements in Catholic abuse cases. “At least they said ‘mea culpa.’”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have not, he said.
“These guys will deny and deny, they are belligerent, they are arrogant, they treat victims as adversaries,” Zalkin said. “This is not an organization that is ready to accept the reality of what they have been doing.”
According to the church’s policy at the time, there must be two eyewitnesses or a confession by the abuser before the church can act on a claim. In most of the cases, members claim the church did not punish the abusers, allowed them to have contact with children and never warned the congregations.
Lopez, now 36, attended the Kingdom Hall in Linda Vista with his mother as a child. Because his father and stepfather were not part of the church, elders suggested a male leader, Campos, would be a good Bible teacher for the 7-year-old boy. By then, according to evidence revealed in the case, church elders knew Campos was a pedophile and had molested a boy as early as 1982, but they chose to do nothing about it. In its statement Friday, The Watchtower disputed that Campos held any responsibility within the congregation at the time