Two women filed a civil suit Tuesday alleging they were sexually abused as young girls by a fellow member of a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Annandale, Minn.
The women, both now 22 and living in the Twin Cities, say the religion’s very tenets make it virtually impossible for victims to come forward, because at least two witnesses are required to corroborate any act of wrongdoing.
“After these incidents,” said the women’s attorney, Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, “these women went to the elders, and they were told, ‘We don’t really believe you, because we require two witnesses to this for it to have happened, and if there aren’t two, you are giving false testimony.’ ”
At issue is Jehovah’s Witnesses’ understanding of the Bible, specifically Deuteronomy 19:15, which says a single witness shall not suffice in convicting a person of a crime or wrongdoing.
Although Jehovah’s Witnesses do not interpret every passage of the Bible literally, they base their beliefs solely on principles found in the Bible.
“If the accused … denies the charges and there are no others who can substantiate them, the elders cannot take action within the congregation at that time,” says an official statement called “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Child Protection,” posted on the organization’s Web site.
Both plaintiffs allege that while they were between 10 and 12 years old, they were fondled by a man who was eight years older and a member of the congregation.
Named as defendants are Derek Lindala, 30, of South Haven, Minn., who is alleged to have fondled the girls on separate occasions either in his family home or while on church-related activities; the Annandale Kingdom Hall, or congregation; and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ incorporated headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Officials in New York had not reviewed the suit filed in Wright County, Minn., Tuesday afternoon, and Lindala did not return a telephone message left at his home.
Richard Olson, presiding overseer of the Annandale congregation, said the elders were to meet Tuesday night to discuss the matter. One of the elders, Paul Lindala, is the defendant’s uncle and was identified in the suit but is not a defendant.
“We don’t think it’s especially appropriate right now to comment on legality or various details,” Olson said. “We’re going to get to the bottom of it, but it will just take a day or two before we have an answer that will satisfy everybody.”
The plaintiffs said they eventually brought their charge against Lindala to the elders of the congregation and an investigation ensued.
“They determined I had misinterpreted the entire incident, were the exact words told to me,” said one plaintiff, Heidi Meyer of suburban Minneapolis, “and I needed to be careful about what I said about this because I did not have two eyewitnesses to the event.”
Meyer, who said she was fondled on several occasions, said she was told that if she spoke publicly, she could face a judicial committee for slander or gossip and ultimately could face “disfellowship,” or excommunication.
“That’s a very powerful threat, one powerful enough to have kept me silent for this long,” she said. “But it needs to be spoken out about. I need to tell this story for my own healing and hopefully to inspire other victims of the same type of abuse to speak out about their own story.”
A general statement given to the Pioneer Press by Watch Tower headquarters in New York, which calls its sexual abuse policy “progressive” but “not perfect,” said victims “should never be told by elders not to report their allegations to authorities.”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses are good people as a religion,” said William Bowen, a Jehovah’s Witness elder who founded a group — “silentlambs” — for those molested by members of the religion. “They’re just misinformed. They don’t understand what happens when molestation issues arise.”
The other plaintiff, who said she was fondled once, said she chose to remain anonymous so that other potential victims would know they could come forward and do the same.
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