SPOKANE — Two Spokane men are suing a South Hill Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation claiming a leader of the church sexually abused the men while they were boys in the 1970s.
The complaint for damages filed Aug. 4 in Spokane County Superior Court alleges John Earl Jones used his “positions of trust and authority” as ministerial servant and elder to “groom and sexually abuse” the boys.
“We intend to leave no stone uncovered in this lawsuit in terms of who was abused, how many people were abused and why they were abused at this particular Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation,” said Michael Pfau, a partner at Seattle-based Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala Attorneys at Law, which is representing the victims.
From about 1973 to 1980 — when victim one was 8 to 15 years old — Jones’ sexual abuse against the plaintiff included, but was not limited to, Jones “fondling, masturbating, and orally copulating” the victim, according to the complaint. Around 1975 — when victim two was 11 to 12 years old — sexual abuse by Jones against the victim included, but was not limited to, Jones “humping and fondling” the boy, the suit says.
Jones is 72 years old and lives in California, Pfau said. He has been convicted at least twice of charges stemming from child sexual abuse.
The abuse mentioned in the suit happened on property owned and/or operated by the defendants, who are listed in the lawsuit as “South Hill Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” “Southeast Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses” and “Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Inc.” Jones’ alleged abuse happened during activities that were sponsored by the congregation or directly as a result of the sponsored activities, according to the lawsuit.
Pfau said Jones was not listed as a defendant in the lawsuit because the complaint is focused on what knowledge church officials had of Jones’ sexual abuse and how they failed to protect children.
The South Hill Congregation is a successor in interest to the Southeast Congregation, the complaint said. The Christian Congregation managed and operated Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in Washington, including the one on the South Hill.
Ben Watson, an associate attorney at the law firm, said the two boys attended the Southeast Congregation, which Watson said was located at 1317 E. 12th Ave. Another church not affiliated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses occupies that address today.
Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the active Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation on the South Hill at 2405 E. 57th Ave., could not be reached for comment.
In 1976, victim one told one of the accused congregation’s elders that Jones was sexually abusing him, the complaint said. Pfau said the elder refused to take action and told the victim he needed witnesses to substantiate the abuse, which Pfau called “really appalling.”
“Despite these alarming reports of sexual abuse, the Defendants continued allowing John Jones to have access to their minor religious members, including Plaintiffs, through his positions as a Ministerial Servant and Elder,” the complaint said.
Pfau said his firm is in contact with other victims who claimed Jones sexually abused them.
“At all relevant times the Defendants, through their agents, servants, and employees, knew or should have known that John Jones was a sexual abuser of children who would use his positions with them to sexually abuse Plaintiffs and other children,” the complaint said. “The Defendants knew or should have known that John Jones was likely to sexually abuse children, including Plaintiffs, because prior to John Jones’ sexual abuse of Plaintiffs, the Defendants had received reports of John Jones’ inappropriate and sexually abusive behavior against children.”
Jones molested a 14-year-old Kootenai County boy in 1984, according to a Spokane Chronicle story. Jones pleaded guilty to lewd and lascivious conduct, and a judge sentenced him to five years of probation. Pfau said Jones was convicted of child sexual abuse in Sacramento County sometime after the North Idaho conviction. He said Jones was sentenced to prison for that charge.
The lawsuit said the defendants “failed to take reasonable steps to protect” the two boys from Jones.
“The Defendants, through their agents, servants, and employees, concealed the sexual abuse of children by John Jones in order to conceal their own bad acts in failing to protect children from him, to protect their own reputation, and to prevent victims of such sexual abuse by John Jones and other church volunteers from coming forward, despite knowing that John Jones and other abusers in their ranks would continue to molest children,” the complaint said.
Because of “wrongful acts” by the defendants, the two plaintiffs sustained physical and psychological injuries, including but not limited to, “severe emotional and psychological distress, humiliation, fright, dissociation, anger, depression, anxiety, family turmoil and loss of faith, a severe shock to their nervous systems, physical pain and mental anguish, and emotional and psychological damage …”
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages against the congregations to be determined at trial.
“The Defendants intentionally and/or recklessly caused severe emotional distress to Plaintiffs due to the Defendants’ extreme and outrageous conduct that went beyond all possible bounds of decency and can only be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” the lawsuit said.
Pfau said victims often come forward about their abuse late in their adult life, such as in this case, because shame, guilt and other feelings prevent them from telling their story sooner. He said it takes a tremendous amount of courage for people, like the two Spokane victims, to come forward.
“It makes life safer for other children because it raises awareness,” Pfau said, “and it’s a deterrent, I think, for the perpetrators and institutions that foster them.”