Jehovah's Witnesses are confronting allegations of a widespread child sexual abuse coverup, mostly centered around a database of abusers that critics say are managed by their Brooklyn Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters, a property recently purchased by Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Trey Bundy, a reporter for investigative radio program Reveal, has spent the last few years following the case, and he recently sat down with WNYC to share some of his most recent findings. Bundy claims that Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is a highly secretive organization with underground tunnels that link it to at least 30 other properties in the area. Inside, he says, leadership can access a roll call of sexual abuse cases involving Jehovah's Witness members.
"It's the nerve-center of a multi-billion dollar corporation that has interests in publishing, in real-estate....it's the head of a religion with eight million members, but it's this very secretive place."
Bundy alleges that Jehovah's Witness leadership has been ordering its congregation to keep incidents of sexual abuse within the church for at least 25 years. He references a series of memos that Watchtower has emitted: one, from 2012, makes the statement, "Not every individual who has sexually abused a child in the past is considered a 'predator.'" Another recent one from 2014 shows a continued push to keep such inquiries within the organization.
"In some cases, the elders will form a judicial committee to handle the alleged wrongdoing that may also constitute a violation of criminal law (e.g., murder, rape, child abuse, fraud, theft, assault). Generally, the elders should not delay the judicial committee process, but strict confidentiality must be maintained to avoid unnecessary entanglement with secular authorities who may be conducting a criminal investigation of the matter."
Bundy says that Jehovah's Witnesses have refused to do an interview with him, instead issuing a blanket statement claiming that they comply with all sexual abuse reporting laws. It's a statement that Watchtower has stuck by for at least a decade: a fax to the BBC in 2002 argued that the secrecy of the database was actually due to how wide-reaching it was. Giving the public full access, they said, would open them up to a wave of libel lawsuits.
"You have been told that here in the United States we have compiled a list of 23,720 names of child abusers. That is false. First of all, the total number of names in our records is considerably lower than that. In addition, it is not meaningful to focus on the number of names we have in our records. This is because our figures include the names of many persons who have only been accused of child abuse whereas the charges have not been substantiated... Christian parents can rightly feel secure in the knowledge that SUCH EFFORTS ARE MADE TO SCREEN OUT possible child abusers FROM APPOINTMENT to responsible positions within the congregation."
Some former child sexual abuse victims claim that such measures from the Watchtower do not adequately protect against predators. Jose Lopez, who was molested by a Jehovah's Witness at the age of 7, was awarded $13.5 million in court in 2015 after his abuser not only was not prosecuted but managed to rise in church leadership.
"The community does not know of all this and there was no publicity about this. Everything took place in the congregation and because of that he was not prosecuted."
If Bundy's claims are accurate, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and the Jehovah's Witnesses who run it seem to be using a First Amendment defense to allow it to run its own internal court system when it comes to child sexual abuse. After selling off their Brooklyn headquarters to Jared Kushner earlier this year. They plan to move operations upstate, according to Brooklyn Paper.
[Featured Image by Seth Wenig/AP Images]