|Woman speaks about abuse at Jehovah Witness lawsuit meeting Friday, August 1, 2003|
By MARSHA DORGAN
Register Staff Writer
Just a smattering of people showed up at Thursday's meeting in downtown Napa hosted by a Sacramento law firm aimed at gathering information about alleged sexual molestations by Jehovah Witness elders.
Last week, the law firm of Nolen Saul Brelsford filed civil lawsuits against the Jehovah Witness in Napa, Yolo and Tehama counties, accusing elders in the organization of molesting children entrusted in their care more than 20 years ago.
So far, the law firm is representing eight clients named in the three lawsuits.
The law firm has held town meetings in all three counties in hopes of encouraging additional victims and those with information about the alleged molestations to come forward. Just 10 people came to the Napa meeting.
The Napa County civil lawsuit alleges the late Edward Villegas used his position as an elder in the Jehovah Witness congregation in Napa to sexually abuse children, attorney William Brelsford said.
"And even though numerous reports were made by parents to the elders accusing Villegas of sexually molesting children, the accusations were never reported to law enforcement," Brelsford said.
Villegas' wife Marsha, ran a day care from their Napa home. The two plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit, Charissa Hopkins Welch, who is now 34, and Nicole D., who is now 31, attended the day care.
At Thursday's meeting, Welch, who is a victim of a sexual abuse, gave the Register permission to use her full name. Nicole H., also a sexual abuse victim, asked that the Register only use her first name.
According to the lawsuit, Villegas began sexually abusing Welch when she was 3 or 4. He is accused of fondling her, digitally penetrating her and forcing her to perform oral sex on him.
The molestation continued for more than 10 years, the lawsuit claims.
Villegas molested Nicole only once when she was 7, according to the lawsuit. The victim was at Villegas' house for a sleepover, and he allegedly forced her to perform oral sex on him.
The children told their parents about the molestations, and in turn, they notified Jehovah Witness elders.
The lawsuit claims the elders did not report the allegations to law enforcement and allowed Villegas to remain in his position of leadership, giving him access to additional abuse victims.
The allegations finally were reported to law enforcement when one of the victims told a school employee, who notified police.
Villegas was arrested in November 1993 and charged with five felony counts of lewd and lascivious acts with minors. He was 53 years old when he was arrested.
In April 1994, Villegas entered no-contest pleas to three counts of molestation against three different victims.
In December 1994, Villegas was sentenced to 12 years in prison for molesting several girls. The judge handed down the maximum sentence allowed.
Villegas, who was in failing health at the time of the sentencing, died from kidney problems seven months into his prison sentence.
Philip Brumley, general counsel with the Jehovah Witness legal department in New York, told the Register on Thursday they were notified of the civil lawsuits just a couple of days ago.
"Our policy is not to comment on ongoing litigation," Brumley told the Register on Thursday.
However, Brumley agreed to talk about the organization's procedure in dealing with sexual abuse allegations against leaders in the religion.
"If we're informed that child has been sexually abused, our first concern is for the welfare of the child," Brumley said. "It is very rare for a young victim to report abuse to an elder. He or she most likely will inform their parents, who then, inform the elders."
Brumley said if a parent requests the abuse not be reported to the police, and the congregation is not bound by law to report the incident, authorities are not notified. "It's not uncommon for parents to request that the allegations not be reported to law enforcement," he said.
"Not all states mandate child sexual abuse be reported to police, Brumley said.
California does require such reporting.
There are exceptions to the law, Brumley said.
"If the perpetrator admits the abuse to an elder and does not want it reported to authorities, we can honor that request because a communication between a person and their spiritual adviser is confidential," he said.
Also if a sexual relationship took place between two children aged 15 through 18, it is not mandated it be reported to law enforcement, Brumley said.
"And this is the law now. I am not sure what the law was 20 or 30 years ago."
Brumley said the Jehovah Witness elders take accusations of child abuse very seriously.
"We talk to the alleged offender, and we don't do it in a nonchalant way. We are very aggressive about the way we handle it," he said.
"Two elders are assigned to conduct an investigation. If we have reason to suspect something happened, that person is removed from leadership in the ministry, and precautions are taken to make certain he never has any dealings with children in the organization."
At Thursday's Napa meeting, Welch spoke to the 10 people who attended.
The daughter of a single mom, Welch was left in Villegas' day care while her mother attended to the ministry.
"For 10 years Ed repeatedly molested me. My parents divorced when I was very young, and I looked to Ed as a father figure," Welch said.
"Instead of showing me love and guidance, Ed repeatedly took advantage of me. And the effect has been low self-esteem, loss of trust in others and feelings being let down and isolation," Welch said.
"I am here tonight to ask you for help to stop this horrible thing from happening to others."
Craig Hellberg, 43, a victim from Tehama County, made the trek from Red Bluff to address the sparse crowd at the American Legion Hall.
Hellberg said he was molested by a Jehovah Witness elder at least three times a week for five years while he was a member of the congregation in Red Bluff.
"It's different for men who are molested. It's harder to come forward. I don't trust anyone anymore. It hard on kids just to hear the words sexual molestation. It makes my skin crawl. Living it is a whole other ballgame," he said. "If any of you have any information about the molestations, I urge you to come forward."
The Jehovah Witnesses are well known for promoting their Watchtower publication and door-to-door evangelism.
Witnesses' religious views are different from other Christian churches, such as their denial of the Trinity and their belief that only 144,000 true believers will achieve sainthood when the world ends, according to Jehovah Witness Website www.eskimo.com