Two sisters raised in Vermont filed lawsuits Tuesday against the Bellows Falls congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, alleging that an ordained minister of the church sexually abused them as children.
Miranda Lewis, 23, said she was in a church meeting when she was around the age of four when Norton True – at the time a "ministerial servant" in the church – held her back as everyone else left.
“He waited for the room to clear out, and that’s when the abuse started,” Lewis said. She didn’t go into detail about the abuse, but the lawsuit, to be filed in Windsor County Superior Court, alleges that True lifted her dress and touched her.
In the case of Miranda’s sister Annessa Lewis, the complaint says that True was babysitting her on his property (years before the incident with Miranda allegedly happened) and took her to his barn and, when lifting her up “to be able to see horses located in a horse stall,” put his hands under her underwear and touched her.
Both cases allege that True molested the Lewis sisters on “multiple occasions.”
The sisters’ mother, Marina Mauvoleon-Folsom, says she reported the abuse to church elders. The suit alleged they didn’t take any action against True, didn’t warn anyone else in the congregation about True’s alleged activity and “chose not to report the abuse to any child protective or police agency.”
Mauvoleon-Folsom said the church maintained a culture of silence around child sexual abuse.
"They wanted me to be quiet about what had happened. Because they were not willing to do anything in the congregation, they allowed us to move to another congregation," she said. "It was very strange. It was a very strange thing. There was almost no support for myself or my family, or any understanding at all."
At the Jehovah’s Witnesses center in Bellows Falls, a man who answered the phone said he “can’t address the issue” and that he was “not the person you need to talk to,” and hung up.
It’s unclear if True is still part of the church in any capacity.
Mauveleon-Folsom said she did report the incident to police, and ended up working with the state’s child protection agency, but no charges were ultimately filed.
Irwin Zalkin, a San Diego based lawyer specializing in sexual abuse cases, said it’s fairly common for police not to pursue charges in sex abuse cases involving young children.
“They’re tough cases for [law enforcement],” he said. “They have a high standard, a high burden of proof. They’re very different than the civil cases.”
In these cases, both civil lawsuits, the sisters seek unspecified damages and trial by jury.
The two cases against True aren’t Zalkin’s only pending lawsuits against Jehovah’s Witnesses. He has been involved with more than 20 such cases across the U.S., six of which were settled out of court for confidential but “substantial” amounts, he said.
Zalkin joined forces for the Vermont cases with Jerry O’Neill, the attorney who sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington in a number of child sex abuse cases, leading to millions of dollars in settlements.
In those cases, documents kept by the church showed that officials were aware of the sex abuse. Zalkin said Jehovah’s Witnesses keep similar records, but have refused to disclose them under court order.
In one California case, Zalkin said that refusal led to a default judgment against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
O’Neill said a similar refusal in Vermont would likely not be seen as acceptable by the courts.
“I don’t think it’s going to go well for [the defendants],” he said. “The courts are not willing, in my experience here, to permit the shielding of relevant information. So I anticipate – don’t know until it happens – that the courts here are likely to order the production of those documents. They’re relevant documents that are not privileged in any way. I think they’ll be required to produce them.”
Annessa, 27, now lives in Texas. Miranda Lewis lives at home with her mother. She says she’s coming forward now to force the church to confront the issue of child sex abuse and to save other children from being abused.
“I hope it helps make them pay attention,” she said. “I mean, I guess that’s the best I can say. I just hope it makes them pay attention and just think about it a little bit more than they have in the past.”