May 9, 2002 Posted: 7:16 PM EDT (2316 GMT)
Bowen stands in front of his former church in Marshall County near Louisville , Kentucky on January 12, 2001
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (AP) -- As a pillar of his church, William Bowen sat in judgment of fellow Jehovah's Witnesses who went astray. On a few occasions, Bowen supported the ultimate punishment -- expulsion from the tight-knit religious group.
But now the lifelong Jehovah's Witness awaits judgment himself from fellow members of the faith.
The 44-year-old former church elder is among four Jehovah's Witnesses threatened with excommunication -- or disfellowship, as the denomination calls it -- for sowing discord in the faith by speaking out against the church's handling of allegations of child molestation.
Bowen complains that child-sex allegations are generally not reported to secular authorities by the Jehovah's Witnesses because of the church's closed nature and its insistence on handling problems internally.
The Jehovah's Witnesses shun the outside world in many respects. They refuse to bear arms, salute the flag or participate in secular government. They also refuse blood transfusions.
Bowen is to appear before a judicial committee Friday at his church in Draffenville, a small town in far western Kentucky .
Two others, Carl and Barbara Pandelo of Belmar , New Jersey , had their hearing this week and are awaiting a decision.
Barbara Anderson of Normandy , Tennessee , has also been summoned to appear before a committee. Anderson has said she learned about the church's handling of abuse cases while she worked at its headquarters in New York City .
Like Bowen, the Pandelos say the real motivation is to silence them within the denomination, which claims about six million members worldwide, including about one million in the United States .
In a statement issued from their headquarters, the Jehovah's Witnesses said that church leaders are "required by the Holy Scriptures to see to it that the congregation remains clean and unified."
J.R. Brown, a spokesman for the denomination, said that parents are not punished by the church for going to the police first in cases of child molestation.
And he said that anyone found guilty of molestation by a church judicial committee is removed from all positions of responsibility and cannot evangelize door-to-door without being accompanied by a fellow Jehovah's Witness.
Bowen disputed that, saying he has heard of cases in which parents were punished for contacting the police first, and instances in which abusers were allowed to go door-to-door on their own.
Bowen, who spent two years working at the Brooklyn headquarters, said that he took up the cause a couple of years ago, when he read a confidential file alleging a member had molested a child in the early 1980s. He said he was frustrated in his efforts to try to bring the problem to the attention of the church hierarchy.
"They did not want to face child molestation issues," Bowen said. "They did not want typically to turn perpetrators in. And they used the control of the organization as more or less an undisclosed way to prevent that from happening."
Bowen resigned as a church elder in 2000 in protest, and has formed a support group for alleged abuse victims. He said he has heard from thousands of alleged victims in the past year. The allegations involve both rank-and-file members of the church and, like the scandal engulfing the Roman Catholic Church, leaders of the faith.
"I don't think we're trying to hurt the Jehovah's Witness organization," he said. "They claim they have higher moral standards than other religions and other groups. Well, this works to their advantage in every way to elevate their standards."
Bowen warned that the denomination could face a flurry of lawsuits unless it changes its ways. Two lawsuits already filed against the denomination in the past year in New Hampshire and Washington state accuse church elders of failing to follow state laws on reporting suspected abuse to police.
Steve Lyons, an elder at Bowen's Draffenville church of about 60 members, said Jehovah's Witnesses are responsive to allegations of child abuse.
"I think we do as well as we can do," he said. "We comply with all local laws when it comes to reporting. We do our best to protect children in cases where even there's just been an alleged abuse."
The Pandelos' dispute with the denomination dates to 1988, when their 12-year-old daughter said she was molested by her paternal grandfather, also a member of the faith. Carl Pandelo's father has returned to the denomination, while the Pandelos face possible excommunication.
"It's almost like a public stoning," Barbara Pandelo said.
For example, Jehovah's Witnesses caught having contact with the excommunicated can themselves be expelled, she said.
"Nobody talks to a disfellowshipped person," she said. "They'll look right through you as if you're invisible."
Similarly, Bowen said he has been shunned by family members and has seen his candle-selling business hurt.
"While I may have certain personal regrets, if I had it to do over again, I'd do it a thousand times," Bowen said.
Copyright 2002 The Associated Press . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.