Two people who say that as children they were sexually abused by a leader in a Hillsboro Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation filed a $10.5 million lawsuit Monday – among the first in Oregon to accuse the religious organization of hiding decades of sexual abuse.
Attorneys for Velicia Alston, 39, and an unnamed man said the Jehovah’s Witnesses leadership continues to cover up sexual abuse against children by leaders. They say it is more than a decade behind other organizations, such as the Catholic Church, that have been forced to address their problems through many years of civil litigation.
“There is a crisis of silence in the Jehovah's Witness organization," said Irwin Zalkin, one of several attorneys representing Alston and the man. Zalkin described the religious organization as "more concerned about protecting its reputation than it is about protecting its children."
For example, Zalkin said the seven men who make up the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Governing Body have a policy requiring a confession from the perpetrator or two eyewitnesses to the abuse before leaders will take any action.
“Even if they do disfellowship a perpetrator, they don’t tell the congregation why,” Zalkin said during a news conference Monday in Portland. “No one but the elders can ever know that there is a child predator lurking in that congregation.”
Zalkin said Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders don’t call police. Rather, Zalkin said, they take the position that although Oregon law defines clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse, they don’t need to report the abuse because it was a privileged religious communication.
“At some point, it becomes too expensive to keep doing this,” Zalkin said. “That’s what civil litigation is about.”
An attorney for the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mario Moreno, said he hadn't yet seen a copy of Monday's lawsuit and couldn't offer comment.
Zalkin, an attorney from San Diego, said this is the first case of its kind that he knows of in Oregon. His firm has 14 active cases against the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in other states that include California, Connecticut and New Mexico. Several others also are pending in the U.S.
Portland attorneys Kristian Roggendorf and Paul Mones also are representing the two plaintiffs who filed Monday’s lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
The suit alleges that Daniel Castellanos, who held the equivalent position of a baptized ordained minister in the North Hillsboro Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, molested Alston in 1986 or 1987 when she was 11 or 12 years old. The suit claims Castellanos also molested a boy, described only as John Roe in the suit, when the boy was 8 to 10 years old.
Alston said she chose to use her name and speak to reporters Monday because she wants to give victims a voice. She said filing civil litigation in hopes of changing the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policies did not amount to committing an act against God, even though her attorneys say the Jehovah’s Witnesses might shun her for doing so.
"I know that there are other victims," said Alston, who now lives in San Diego. "I know that you're scared because you're worried about being punished by God. But God would never do something like this. So it's OK to say something. Because if you don't say something it's going to keep happening."
The suit alleges Alston was kissed and fondled under her clothes multiple times by Castellanos, a piano teacher, while he was supposed to be giving her piano lessons at his house. She eventually told her mother, who went to the Hillsboro congregation’s elders. Alston said the elders told her and her mother to tell no one – including police.
Zalkin said Castellanos was ousted from the congregation for three to five years but eventually let back in.
Castellanos was married and had children at the time of the abuse, Alston said. She and her attorneys don’t know how old he is or where he lives, but they believe it’s outside of Oregon. They said they don’t think he has any criminal history.
Oregon's statute of limitations doesn't allow Castellanos to be criminally prosecuted because too many years have passed. But state law does allow alleged victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits up until age 40 or within five years of when they realize the damaging effect the abuse has had on their lives.
Castellanos couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Several weeks ago, a California judge awarded $13.5 million to a man who said he was molested as a child by a San Diego Jehovah's Witnesses leader.
Jehovah's Witnesses count about 8 million people within more than 113,000 congregations.