Tue Jan 22,12:48 PM ET
RITZVILLE, Wash. Jan. 22 /U.S. Newswire/ -- Child molesters in the Brooklyn-based Jehovah's Witness church are "routinely given sanctuary, protection, sympathy and support" from church officials according to a new civil sexual abuse lawsuit filed today in Washington state. The leadership of the 1 million member denomination was charged with negligence in the suit.
A Sacramento woman is seeking damages from a Jehovah's Witness leader who repeatedly raped her during childhood and from the New York-based denomination.
Erica Rodriguez, 23 years old, is suing Manuel Beliz, the Othello Washington Spanish Jehovah's Witness congregation, and the church's official national governing body. Last August, Beliz was convicted of raping and molesting Rodriguez and was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Rodriguez says that Beliz abused her approximately once a week from the time she was four until she was 11, when her family moved to California.
The case is significant because it is one of a relatively small number filed against the Jehovah's Witnesses' national headquarters.
"The criminal case was to protect other kids from a dangerous molester," said Rodriguez. "This case is to protect many more kids from a dangerous denomination." She contends that "perhaps thousands" of youngsters are victimized because official Jehovah Witness policies enable known molesters to avoid detection and criminal prosecution.
During the three-day criminal trial last year, Rodriguez testified that she reported the abuse to two Jehovah's Witness elders in Sacramento, Carlos Chicas and Milton Malendez. The men pressured Rodriguez to keep quiet, threatened to "disfellowship" or excommunicate her, and promised "we will take care of it," the lawsuit indicates. Chicas contacted Othello elder John White but no action was taken.
After hearing Rodriguez' allegations, the Othello congregation protected Beliz as an elder within the church and shunned her family, Rodriguez said.
Eventually, Rodriguez contacted the Sacramento police and Beliz was questioned and later prosecuted.
"This pattern of forbidding abuse victims to contact police or 'outsiders' is standard operating procedure all Jehovah's Witnesses must follow, by direction of the national organization in New York," said Rodriguez' attorney, Timothy Kosnoff of Bellevue, Washington.
By failing to contact civil authorities, the Jehovah's Witness elders violated Washington's mandatory child abuse reporting law, Kosnoff said.
Rodriguez is also represented by Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minnesota, who has filed more than 400 cases of sexual abuse cases against clergy across the nation. Last summer, Anderson filed a civil suit against Jehovah's Witness leaders in New Hampshire for failing to report two women's abuse allegations to civil authorities.
"The Jehovah Witness church and the Watchtower Society must protect kids and not molesters," said Rodriguez. "A lot of pain and suffering could be prevented if they would forget about the church's image, take sexual abuse seriously and start reaching out to the victims."
Rodriguez believes Beliz molested other girls too and hopes her suit "will encourage them to seek justice and begin healing as I have."
Two juries found Beliz guilty of victimizing Rodriguez. His first conviction was overturned when the deputy prosecutor admitted trying to exclude younger women during jury selection. An appellate court then ordered a re-trial.
At both trials, dozens of Othello Jehovah's Witnesses and Beliz' family members spoke or wrote to the judge urging a lenient sentence. At the second trial, fifteen current and former Jehovah's Witnesses from across the country came to support Rodriguez and express their disapproval of the church's hierarchy.
Rodriguez' backers were led by church elder William Bowen of Calvert City, Kentucky, who quit his job last year to lobby for improvements in Witness policies towards abuse victims. Bowen heads "Silent Lambs," the only national support group for men and women abused by Jehovah's Witness officials (http://www.silentlambs.org, 1-800-WTABUSE).
"It took a lot of courage for Erica to overcome her trauma and speak out," said Bowen. "She should be praised for helping to save other children. Instead, her church has vilified her. Witnesses have treated other victims in the same way, and this 'shooting the messenger' has to stop."
Today's civil suit, filed in federal court in Washington's Eastern District, seeks unspecified monetary damages.
Beliz is now incarcerated at the Washington penal institution in Walla Walla.
There are approximately one million Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States and six million across the world.
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