California man accuses Jehovah’s Witnesses of covering up childhood sex abuse

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iStock(LOS ANGELES) -- A Los Angeles man filed a lawsuit against the Jehovah's Witnesses organization, accusing an adult elder of sexually abusing him when he was a child.

In the suit, Kevin Ramirez, 26, claims he was molested by an elder at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in San Dimas, California, for years, starting at the age of 6. The suit names various levels of the organization’s global hierarchy, including its eight-member governing body, as defendants.

The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last week, accuses the church of negligence, sexual battery and sexual harassment.

"You are taught to trust these elders with everything," Ramirez told reporters Tuesday. "They are your mentors, they're the equivalent to what a priest would be."

The Jehovah's Witnesses organization told ABC News that it could not discuss pending litigation but that the organization’s practice is to always follow the law. "Watchtower's stand on the subject of child abuse is very clear: we despise child abuse in any form," it said in a statement. "Our hearts go out to anyone who suffered as a result of child sexual abuse."

"In addition, Watchtower’s practice is to always follow the law, and we support the efforts of elders in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses to do the same," it added.

In the complaint, Ramirez alleges one elder used his position in the religious organization to gain the trust of several boys in the congregation and abuse them. He claims he was molested on multiple occasions between 1999 and 2001, when he was just 6 to 8 years old.

"He would fondle, he would touch and vice versa, he would make us touch him," Ramirez said. "He would tell us that these are that things we need to do or if we don't do them we won't make them to what they call paradise."

The abuse allegedly took place after church events, such as field service, bible study and during a Jehovah's Witnesses Assembly, the suit said.

Ramirez, who is suing for an unspecified amount in damages, said he told his parents about the abuse in 2001. His family reported the allegations to the church, which allegedly discouraged them from going to the police, according to the lawsuit.

"Those Elders did not make a mandated child abuse report to law enforcement and affirmatively discouraged [Ramirez] and his parents from making such a report," the lawsuit said.

The suit said the organization "acted with willful and conscious disregard of the rights and safety of others by ignoring warnings and complaints" about alleged sexual abuse involving "unsuspecting minors."

Ramirez' attorney, Irwin Zalkin, said the church and the governing board of the Jehovah's Witnesses failed to protect him and other children.

"They have a pervasive and a severe problem of child sexual abuse within that organization that they've been covering up for decades," Zalkin said Tuesday. “They do have what I refer to as a crisis of silence in the organization, they’re extremely secretive and keep themselves insulated from the outside world.”

Ramirez said he is now atheist and still struggles with trauma related to the abuse.

“Practically every time I drive by a Kingdom Hall I feel disgust because you never know what’s going on behind closed doors. You never know if kids are going through the same thing,” Ramirez said.

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