Skeletons in the closet

Catholics aren't the only ones with something to hide.

ERICA RODRIGUEZ, now 23, was 4 years old when her Eastern Washington church leader, Manuel Beliz, began abusing her. She says she was molested or raped once a week until she was 11.

When a teenage girl asked her bishop to stop her stepfather's sexual attacks, the church in Federal Way allegedly refused to help or call police.

Jeremiah Scott was in grade school when he was first molested by Franklin Curtis, an elderly man placed in his home by a Portland church despite allegations that he was a pedophile.

None of the above is Roman Catholic.

"It's not just the Catholic Church in crisis," says attorney Timothy Kosnoff, who represents the aforementioned claimants in their lawsuits—Rodriguez's is against the Brooklyn-based Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. (Jehovah's Witnesses) and both Jane Doe's and Scott's are against the Salt Lake City- based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church). "Abuse can be widespread regardless of denomination."

Kosnoff, a Bellevue attorney, has been working with lawyers across the U.S. for the past two years, targeting Protestant church leaders and even members with abuse claims. He represents more than a dozen non-Catholic plaintiffs in current suits, with more to come.

"We have probably three or four cases in various stages of preparation we'll file in Oregon in the next 60 days and up to a dozen cases involving multiple victims we'll file in Utah, both against the Mormons," Kosnoff said last week. In January, he filed one of his largest suits, seeking $120 million from the Mormon Church for 12 people who claim that Franklin Curtis molested them in the late '70s and '80s.

The Mormon Church paid $3 million to Jeremiah Scott last September. Scott claimed that church officials knew that Curtis was a pedophile when they arranged for him to move into Scott's home with the then-grade-schooler and his mother. Curtis was later convicted of repeatedly sexually abusing Scott, now 22.

Officials of the 11 million-member Mormon Church admitted no wrongdoing and insist they have no Catholic-sized abuse problem. As in the Catholic scandal, reputations and millions of dollars in potential settlements are at stake for Protestant institutions as more claims emerge. The potential liability they face is also shifting. In the Scott case, a federal court in Portland decided that the Mormon Church could be held responsible for the actions of not just church officials but its membership. It was the first such ruling in the U.S., and the Mormon Church said it settled to head off a possibly larger jury award.

IN THIS CLIMATE, almost all denominations are thought to be consulting with attorneys as a precaution. According to The Boston Globe, some Hare Krishna temples have gone so far as to file for bankruptcy in anticipation of facing sizable abuse claims.

Though rabbis, ministers, and religious gurus have all been charged with molesting congregation members in recent years, the Globe said there's likely no equivalent to the Catholic Church's scandal. After all, an estimated 2,000 U.S. priests have been accused of abuse in the past half-century.

But one of Kosnoff's fellow attorneys, Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, who has filed more than 400 sexual abuse cases against mostly Catholic clergy in the U.S. since the 1980s, says his targets are increasingly non-Catholic institutions and predicts a tide of Protestant victims is about to sweep in.

An example, he says, is the Jane Does case Kosnoff recently filed here against a Mormon ward in Federal Way. The victims, two sisters, have asked that their names not be publicly known.

The older girl endured years of molestation by her stepfather (now in prison for the attacks). When the younger sister was attacked, she sought the help of a Mormon bishop, according to the suit. The bishop allegedly neither alerted authorities nor informed the girls' mother, who was also a church member, and the abuse continued. The church is contesting the allegations.

Erica Rodriguez's Spokane lawsuit against the 6 million-member Jehovah's Witnesses breaks new ground, says Kosnoff, as one of the first abuse cases filed against that church. Rodriguez sued after Manuel Beliz, an elder of the Spanish-speaking congregation in Othello, was convicted last year of raping and molesting the girl and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Her seven years of abuse ended only when her family moved away, says Rodriguez, who now lives in Sacramento. Rodriguez says she reported the abuse to church elders in California but was pressured to remain silent under threat of "disfellowship" (excommunication). The Othello congregation eventually heard of the accusations against Beliz but protected him, her lawsuit claims (several members testified about Beliz's good character during his criminal trial).

Bill Bowen, a former Witnesses elder who resigned last year after criticizing the church for covering up what he called its pedophilia problem, says Rodriguez "should be praised for helping to save other children. Instead, her church has vilified her." He offers advice and support on a new Web site (silentlambs.org); he says he has already had 1,000 inquiries from possible victims. "Our denomination is now where the Catholic Church was 20 years ago," says Bowen, "right on the edge of a crisis."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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