'Silentlambs' speak out about sex abuse

Seattle Times/September 6, 2002
By Christine Clarridge

Several former Jehovah's Witnesses stood outside a Kingdom Hall church near Green Lake yesterday with a tiny toy lamb whose mouth was covered with black electrician's tape.

The symbolically silenced lamb - delivered to the door of the fellowship hall - represented the 5,000 members of the 6 million-member church who claim to have been sexually abused by leaders or others in the church. They further claim to have been silenced or ignored when they sought the church's guidance and protection.

The news conference was one of about 16 across the country called to bring attention to "silentlambs," an organization planning a march on church headquarters in New York on Sept. 27.

Started by a former church member who said he was dismayed by the way the church covered up allegations of abuse, silentlambs is calling for changes in church policies.

"We want to open the doors, " said Bruce Baker, a former Jehovah's Witness leader in Oregon. "We want Watchtower headquarters to turn cases of abuse within the church over to the police and let the police handle it.''

National church leaders could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman recently told The New York Times that the church's policies on sexual abuse were based on the Bible and were exemplary.

"We're not trying to say we handled everybody in the right way and our elders are all-knowing, all-perfect. But we say, if you take what our policy is for keeping our organization clean morally, it far outpaces anybody else's," spokesman J.R. Brown said.

Jehovah's Witnesses is a Christian denomination that emphasizes biblical literalism and the imminent end of the world. Members are best-known in the secular world for giving out religious tracts and for not celebrating holidays and birthdays or allowing blood transfusions.

Former members said the church's policies and culture conspire to conceal abuse.

The small group of activists in Seattle included several ex-church members who have been "disfellowshipped" or excommunicated, as well as one woman who claimed the church did nothing to protect her and her sister when they came forward with claims of abuse.

She said she went to her church leaders to ask for help because her stepfather, who had also sexually abused her, was abusing her younger sister.

Her stepfather, who has since been disfellowshipped by the church, never paid a legal price for what she said were years of abuse.

The scope of abuse within the denomination is a matter of debate. The church has recently been sued by eight people in four lawsuits around the country - including one filed in Spokane - alleging abuse.

According to Bill Bowen, founder of silentlambs, there have been more than 5,000 current or former members nationwide who say that the church mishandled allegations of child sexual abuse.

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