Church protects pedophiles, victim charges in lawsuit

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A California woman who was sexually abused as a child by a leader of a Jehovah's Witnesses church in Eastern Washington filed a civil lawsuit yesterday against the congregation as well as the church's national organization, alleging they protect pedophiles.

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Spokane, attorneys for the 23-year-old woman claim the church mishandled her complaints that she was sexually abused by a leader of the Othello Spanish Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Adams County from the time she was 4 years old until her family moved to Sacramento when she was 11.

Elders at her California congregation notified an elder at the Othello church when she told them of the abuse, but they discouraged her from calling police, the suit says.

Her abuser, 48-year-old Manuel Beliz, who served as a ministerial servant and an elder for the congregation, was briefly disassociated from the Witnesses but was reinstated, according to the suit. Beliz, who is also named as a defendant in the suit, was convicted in August of raping and molesting the woman and was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

"They knew he was a pedophile and they ignored it," Bellevue attorney Tim Kosnoff, one of the lawyers representing the victim, said of the church.

J.R. Brown, a spokesman for the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based denomination, said he could not comment on the lawsuit because lawyers had not received paperwork.

But "we have designed a policy to protect the victim of child molestation; to protect innocent children and not to allow pedophiles to circulate among us," he said of the church, which is officially known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

The victim's lawyers paint a different picture in the civil suit, which seeks unspecified damages.

They say the Witnesses' policy requires two eyewitnesses to the abuse "before a matter can be established," and requires the victim to produce witnesses or "tangible proof" such as photographs or DNA if the accused denies the allegation.

Church elders are responsible for investigating accusations of child abuse, and accusers are required not to discuss the situation with anyone, and are often intimidated or discouraged from reporting suspected abuse to anyone outside the organization, the suit says.

The church's policy "protects the predator and fails to protect the children," Kosnoff said. "Our primary goal is to change the way this church does business."

At Beliz's sentencing, an elder admitted that the congregation knew Beliz "was a bad man in the 1980s and 1990s but told the court if you punish Beliz now, he will be punished for the man he was, not the man he is now," the suit says.

Brown said the church — which has about 6 million members worldwide, including 1 million in the United States — requires two witnesses because the Bible requires that for establishing a sin.

"Where the state requires that this be reported, we comply fully," he said.

Janet Burkitt can be reached at 206-515-5689 or Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.