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Spotlight Report

Suit charges church coverup

Jehovah's Witness group is blamed in abuse of girl

By Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff, 1/1/2003

A 14-year-old Dorchester girl and her parents are suing the Jehovah's Witnesses, arguing that the religious group covered up the girl's sexual abuse by a Bible study leader and discouraged her parents from reporting the abuse to police or prosecutors.

The girl, allegedly molested in her house by the son of a church elder from the Columbus Park Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Dorchester, was so traumatized by the abuse that she has spent most of the past three years involuntarily committed to local psychiatric hospitals, the lawsuit alleges. Her mother says that while church leaders coddled her daughter's abuser, they socially ostracized her for notifying law enforcement authorities and pressing criminal charges, according to court papers.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Suffolk Superior Court, highlights a sexual abuse scandal that has begun to envelop a religious group other than the Catholic Church: Jehovah's Witnesses, who claim 1 million followers in the United States and 6 million worldwide.

Those who have filed lawsuits against the church - calling themselves ''silent lambs,'' because they say the church has discouraged them from getting help - argue that doctrine requiring alleged sexual abuse victims to produce witnesses to their molestation breeds an environment that favors abusers and allows abuse to thrive. They also charge that the church's policy of investigating complaints on its own, and discouraging reports to authorities, is illegal.

Officials at the Columbus Park Congregation could not be reached yesterday. At the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., also a defendant in the Suffolk lawsuit, an employee in the media center yesterday referred inquiries to the church's Web site, where church officials speak in general terms about their policy on child abuse.

The church's third priority, after protecting victims and seeking help for perpetrators, is seeing that secular authorities are informed about the accusation, says Philip Brumley, general counsel for Jehovah's Witnesses, in a Web site video. A spokesman at the New York office did not return phone calls yesterday afternoon.

The group was also named in a 2001 lawsuit in New Hampshire Superior Court involving two half-sisters who accused a man - the father of one, the stepfather of the other - of sexually abusing them as children in the 1980s. The man, now serving a 56-year sentence for sexual abuse, was a member of the Wilton (N.H.) Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Although the women's mother repeatedly voiced suspicion of sexual abuse to church elders, they told her to keep it within the church, the lawsuit charges. The women charge that New Hampshire state law required the church leaders to report the abuse to authorities.

The Suffolk lawsuit outlines similar charges that church elders in Dorchester tried to keep quiet allegations of sexual abuse. The suit alleges that William Broadard, an elder in the Columbus Park Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, appointed his son as a ''pioneer'' in the church, even though he knew his son was a threat to children.

The suit alleges that Ronald Broadard had a history of sexually and physically abusing children.

Ronald Broadard went to the girl's home in Dorchester, specifically asking to ''talk about God with the kids,'' according to the lawsuit. When the girl's parents agreed, he began meeting with the girl in their home in 1998, when she was about 10. But while he was visiting her from 1998 to 2000, they charge, he was molesting her. The girl's parents alerted authorities in the fall of 2000. The Globe's policy is not to name alleged victims of sexual abuse unless they agree to be identified.

Even though Massachusetts did not then require clergy to report suspected child abuse - a law was passed last year after the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal erupted - the girl's family argues that the church leaders were ''guidance or family counselors,'' who were required to report potential child abuse.

The girl's parents did not learn about the abuse until their daughter's therapist told them the girl had been trying to kill herself. The girl, who had always done well in school, started having trouble. ''She became suicidal and started acting out and no longer was the angelic, well-behaved child that she used to be,'' said Stephen M. Born, the family's lawyer.

In October 2000, Broadard was arrested and charged with two counts of indecent assault and battery on a child and one count of assault and battery. But the charges were dismissed the following year. The lawsuit alleges the charges were dropped because Broadard was found incompetent to stand trial. Suffolk County prosecutors could not ascertain yesterday afternoon why the charges were dropped.

Meanwhile, according to the lawsuit, the local Jehovah's Witnesses elders, including Broadard's father, decided only to ''reprove'' him. He kept his title and responsibilities within the church, the lawsuit charges.

And when the girl's mother told church leaders about the abuse, they told her she should not talk about it. The church elders told her they would handle the matter and urged her to ''pray more about the situation,'' the lawsuit charges.

The girl was committed to psychiatric institutions after she was diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the abuse, Born said. ''This is almost like a fresh wound,'' he said. ''The effect of it, the trauma, has been dramatic.''

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 1/1/2003.
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