Published April 30th, 2021
Attorneys representing Alexis Nunez have filed a motion to compel the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York to turn over at least 10 pages of detailed database records involving abuser Max Reyes and three of his victims, including plaintiff Nunez.
According to documents tendered to the Sanders County Montana Court, Watchtower attorney Joel Taylor emailed three of the ten pages in question to the Nunez team on the eve of the final day of the 2018 trial held in Thompson Falls Montana. Taylor purportedly presented the sensitive documents as part of his strategy for closing arguments the next day.
The database pages reveal the shocking extent of Watchtower’s internal child abuse investigations, including the disclosure that Watchtower Legal Department directors register whether or not victims of child abuse are “willing participants” in their own sexual abuse.
The documents combine notes taken by Jehovah’s Witness elders with answers to questions posed by the Watchtower Legal Department in New York, blended with additional data used by the Witnesses’ Service Department to determine how abusers and victims should be managed inside the congregation.
Minor victims designated as “willing participants” are treated as adults and subjected to judicial hearings and disfellowshipping.
Watchtower Star Witness Identified As Additional Abuser of Nunez
In the 112-page motion to compel Watchtower to produce database documents, Nunez’s legal team revealed that Watchtower’s star trial witness, Peter McGowan, had confessed in 2014 to elders in Polson Montana that he too had molested the plaintiff, Alexis Nunez.
This information was not made public until now.
During the 2018 trial, Peter McGowan testified as a witness for Watchtower, stating that in 2004 he disclosed to his sister that he had been sexually abused by his stepfather Max Reyes. Watchtower attorney Joel Taylor elicited testimony from Peter to establish that his communications with Thompson Falls elder Don Herberger were confidential. Taylor also asked Peter about a conversation with his sister Holly McGowan in which Holly mentioned a possible lawsuit against Max Reyes.
Peter stated: “She called me and she wanted to participate in a lawsuit that her and my father were trying to put forward against Max. And I didn’t really feel comfortable. I just wanted — I told her I wanted to leave everything in the past and move on with my life.”
Peter McGowan’s trial testimony in 2018 appears to shed considerable light on the reasons Peter declined to participate in any litigation against the Watchtower organization. Notwithstanding the fact that he chose to remain in the church, his admission that he sexually abused his own niece places him in an untenable position.
The jury in the 2018 trial never heard evidence that Peter McGowan had molested the defendant. This information was outside the scope of legal negligence argued by Nunez, where the issue was Watchtower’s failure to report under Montana law. The circumstances have changed now that the case is back in the Sanders County Court where plaintiff Nunez is suing Watchtower for common law negligence.
The 2018 trial focused on evidence that Thompson Falls elders had violated Montana’s abuse reporting laws when they learned of the abuse of Holly and Peter McGowan, the aunt and uncle of Nunez. Nunez argued that this failure led to her own abuse before, during, and after the disfellowshipping of Max Reyes, her step-grandfather. Watchtower appealed the verdict, and in January of 2020, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the Jehovah’s Witness elders were legally exempted by the reporting requirement. Jehovah’s Witnesses argued that their church could take advantage of a confidentiality exception in the Montana law.
Nunez immediately brought the case back before the Sanders County Court, contending that since Judge Manly had ruled in 2018 that elders violated the reporting laws, she never had the opportunity to argue her claims of common law negligence. In other words, while Watchtower’s elders were legally exempted from reporting Nunez’s abuse, the congregation and Watchtower can still be held liable for their negligence.
Why Demand the CM Database Pages?
As the Watchtower Organization continues to collect vast amounts of data related to sexual crimes, criminals, and victims, survivors are demanding answers for why this information is held by a religious institution and not promptly turned over to the relevant authorities.
Jehovah’s Witnesses currently subscribe to a policy where local elders are prevented from reporting child abuse unless the parent corporation Watchtower is unable to find a legal exception to the reporting requirement. The Church’s Legal Department has taken the position that what’s good enough for the Catholic Church is good enough for Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Witnesses believe they can project the Catholic confessional model upon all communications between members and their elders, regardless of whether the communications occurred in a confessional setting.
The Catholic model was originally set up to protect communications between a single confessor and his priest, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses expand the definition of protected communications to include their entire body of elders and all conversations with anyone involved in alleged wrongdoing.
In addition to the clergy-penitent confidentiality claims argued by the Witnesses, attorney-client privilege has become a decisive factor and key reason why Witness elders are instructed to promptly call Watchtower’s Legal Department when they learn of child abuse allegations – instead of calling the police.
In Montana, attorneys for Nunez demonstrated that Watchtower attorney Joel Taylor waived attorney-client privilege when he emailed 3 pages of Child Maltreatment (CM) data records just before midnight on September 25th, 2018. The strategy involved a last-minute attempt to support his closing arguments, but this tactic exposed the existence of 7 additional pages of comprehensive data including the abuse of Lexi Nunez by Watchtower’s key witness, Peter McGowan.
In the April 2021 Motion to Compel, Nunez argues:
“During the discovery phase of this case (before trial), Defendants refused to produce a certain ten-page document from their CM database on the basis that it was protected by the attorney work product and attorney client privilege… However, during trial, Defendants chose to waive their privilege claim by voluntarily disclosing privileged content from the document. Defendants produced substantial portions of the document to Plaintiff, hopeful that Defendants could use part of the document to benefit their case while withholding the remainder of the document that harms their case. Despite their voluntary waiver, Defendants now claim all ten pages are still privileged, including the three pages they produced.”
Watchtower Plays Semantics
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Watchtower organization continues to deny that it maintains a database of child molesters and victims by arguing over the very definition of the word “database.”
On February 4th 2021, plaintiff Nunez ordered the discovery of multiple documents from Watchtower files, including a description of the “CM Database.”
The Jehovah’s Witness legal department responded by declaring that the documents demanded are not part of any kind of database, and that labeling it a database is a mischaracterization of the facts. Court records disclose Watchtower’s responses to the requests:
“INTERROGATORY NO. 1:
Describe the CM database by providing the following information. What is the name or designation the JW Defendants give to the database?
Generally describe the information contained in the database.
When was the database created?
ANSWER: [from Watchtower] Defendants object to this request because it is vague and ambiguous in that the term “CM database” is defined by a mischaracterization of what the documents attached as Exhibit A are: entries from the Watchtower Legal Department’ s electronic telephone record keeping system reflecting privileged communications with clients. Defendants further object to this interrogatory on the grounds that it is not reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible information.”
It is difficult to imagine that the Court will not see past the semantics game played by Watchtower, given the awareness that the information collected by this “electronic telephonic record keeping system” is shared with the Service Department of Watchtower. The Service Department of Jehovah’s Witnesses maintains a “Hub” database of Jehovah’s Witness information that is designed to consolidate member data for more than 8 million adherents, known as “publishers.” That information contains extensive personal information about each member, including internal judicial documents such as the S-77 Notice of Disfellowshipping or Disassociation.
In 2017, sensitive documents and videos were leaked from inside Watchtower headquarters, revealing the extent of their data collection schemes. A program called HuB (Headquarters-unity-Branch) was announced as the replacement for their preceding global database and management system known as “Admin.”
Also announced was the “Records Management” system for maintaining vast amounts of organizational data in a centralized database. Old paper records were scanned into this new system using highly sophisticated equipment and character-recognition software, further enhancing the Organization’s ability to track every aspect of the Witnesses’ corporate empire, including sensitive personal data.
Judge Elizabeth Best now presides over the Montana case and will rule whether or not Watchtower will be compelled to turn over the 7 pages of data in question. The release of those documents may well have an adverse impact on the Jehovah’s Witness defense.
The trial date has been set for September, 2022.
UPDATE: On August 31st, 2021, both sides settled the case for an undisclosed amount and signed a Stipulation for Dismissal With Prejudice.