An astonishing new report in The Atlantic has revealed the alleged existence of a decades-old database of accused pedophiles within Jehovah’s Witnesses, a sect of Christianity with more than 1.2 million members in the United States. The database, which has reportedly been kept for decades, contains up to tens of thousands of names and addresses of accused child molesters within the organization, as well as detailed reports of the specific allegations against them.
The database was allegedly prompted by a 1997 letter that leaders at the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit organization that heads up Jehovah’s Witnesses, sent to all U.S. congregations. The letter contained instructions to all congregation leaders to write a report about all known predators, and send it to Watchtower headquarters in a sealed blue envelope without telling anyone, including the authorities. The letters were reportedly compiled to form a Microsoft SharePoint database of all known predators within the religious organization. (“Our policies on child protection comply with the law, including any requirements for elders to report allegations of child abuse to authorities,” Watchtower’s Office of Public Information told The Atlantic. We’ve reached out for additional comment, and will update if we hear back.)
According to the Atlantic, the existence of the database was made public in 2012, when a man named Jose Lopez filed a lawsuit alleging that an adult church member named Gonzalo Campos molested him when he was seven years old. When he reported his abuse to his mother, she immediately told the church, which not only failed to report it to the police but allowed Campos to later become a church elder. (Campos later admitted that he had molested Lopez and a number of other boys in a deposition.)
When Lopez’s lawyer Irwin Zalkin demanded that the church turn over all of its documents about Campos and other accused child abusers within the organization, the church said that it lacked such documentation. After a senior church official testified to the existence of the Microsoft SharePoint database, the church continued to refuse to turn over the documents. (Lopez was awarded $13.5 million, a ruling that the church appealed; he later settled for an undisclosed amount.) In 2016, Zalkin represented another plaintiff accusing Campos of abuse, and again requested that the church turn over the database. Again, the church refused, prompting a judge to rule that they had to pay a fine of $4,000 for every day that went by without the church turning over the documents. Ultimately, Watchtower paid $2 million total before settling the case out of court.
The alleged mishandling of sexual assault allegations within the church first became national news last year, when 69 pages of stolen church documents were made public by the website FaithLeaks. The documents reveal how two women reported to church elders that their father had sexually abused them as children; although the elders found the allegations credible, they did not report the man to the police, instead disfellowshipping him (essentially, a step above excommunication) and reinstating him into the church a year later.
To date, there has been no formal criminal investigation into Watchtower in the United States. In 2016, Australia established a royal commission investigating the church’s mishandling of sexual abuse, which found that it failed to report more than 1,000 accused sexual abusers within the church over the course of almost 60 years.