Saturday, October 5, 1996

The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington/Coeur d'Alene, Idaho

Ex-Jehovah's Witnesses tackle custody issue

Weekend conference first to address legal difficulties of leaving the sect

By Kelly McBride, Staff writer

Former Jehovah's Witnesses are gathering in Spokane this weekend to discuss child custody disputes and other bitter results of leaving the apocalyptic religious sect.

"The trauma of leaving this church is so destructive that people often implode or explode," said Jim Penton, a retired religion professor and ex-Witness. "There is a lot of breakdown, emotional and spiritual."

While former church members have met to commiserate for years, this conference is the first to address the legal difficulties encountered during divorce and custody proceedings.

"It's becoming the issue for people who have left the church but still want to have some say in the way their children are raised," said Penton, who is among the few dozen people attending the conference. "The church can be pretty ruthless. They train children to alienate non-Witness parents."

Richard Rawe, a Soap Lake, Wash., resident excommunicated from the church in 1977, has been helping other ex-Witnesses since then. He said he is increasingly contacted by parents frustrated by their dealings with the church during legal proceedings.

"The church has a gaggle of about 60 attorneys which they will dispatch to members who need legal assistance," Rawe said. "It doesn't make a very even playing field."

Merton Campbell, a Jehovah's Witness spokesman in Brooklyn, N.Y., would not comment on Rawe's allegations. Local church authorities also declined to comment.

Campbell and other church leaders, though, said they didn't know about the sponsors of the conference, Biblical Research and Commentary International, whose board is composed entirely of former paid church officers.

Church officials said they never advocate their followers violate court orders or state laws. But they acknowledged their doctrine of shunning former members leaves little room for non-Witness parents in the lives of children who are active in the church.

Jehovah's Witnesses tell children they can associate with their non-Witness parents until they are adults, said Campbell. But once they become adults, they must choose between continuing that association or remaining part of the church.

"We believe that we are obeying what the Bible has to say on that," Campbell said.

Jehovah's Witnesses, also known by their corporate moniker, the Watchtower Society, are a Christian sect that preaches the end of the world is near. The church has prepared for Armageddon on four different dates this century, but each time the believers have been disappointed.

In addition to their practice of proselytizing door-to-door, they are most often noted for their refusal to accept blood or organ transplants, salute the flag or serve in the military.

The church teaches that governments and other worldly organizations are agents of the devil. Members consider holidays or birthday celebrations forms of idolatry.

Catholics and Protestants generally regard Jehovah's Witnesses as heretics, because of their unorthodox beliefs, including the teaching that Jesus was a mere human being and not divine. Witnesses in turn believe the rest of Christianity has lost its true meaning and followers are being misled by Satan.

At the conference, which continues today and Sunday at Cavanaugh's Fourth Avenue hotel, attendees stood up one by one to share their moment of epiphany when they decided to break with the church.

Rueben Mercado of Spokane said that going to the funeral of a mother of five who bled to death during childbirth because she refused a blood transfusion raised questions in his mind.

His wife, Marlene, a third-generation Witness, said she watched her youngest son become socially isolated because the church teaches that children should not be involved in any extracurricular activities.

Sherry Veitenheimer, also from Spokane, said she was shocked to hear an elder proclaim that an abused woman should stay married to her abuser, but that divorce was acceptable if one spouse prevented the other from attending church.

"Once you accept that someone else is speaking for God, to doubt that source is the same as doubting God," she said.

Because former members are shunned, choosing to leave the church is often just as painful as staying, said Ron Frye, president of the ex-Witness group holding this weekend's convention.

Former church members have formed several of their own organizations, such as the Biblical Research and Commentary International, and are widely represented on the Internet's World Wide Web.

Penton encouraged former church members to continue speaking out. but not to dwell on the bad experiences of others.

"I read these accounts on the Internet and it's like opening up old wounds," he said. "We don't want to be spiritual scab pickers. It does no good. We need to be positive about it."

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