Abuse awareness group plans vigil for Meza children


By Jason Foster The Herald
(Published September 2 2004)

A group devoted to protecting abused children will spread its message in Rock Hill next week, one month to the day after three Hispanic children were killed in their home, presumably by one of their parents.

Silentlambs, a national support group for Jehovah's Witnesses who are victims of abuse, will hold a candlelight vigil Sept. 9 at the National Guard Armory on Museum Road .

The group wants to bring more attention to the deaths of Jayro, Denise and Denia Meza, who were found dead with their throats cut after a fire destroyed their Crestview Drive home Aug. 9. Authorities say the crime was carried out by one of the parents, Joe "Denis" and Marbely Meza, who also died in the blaze. All belonged to a local Jehovah's Witness church.

Authorities also say Denia was sexually abused within five days of her death. Her father had been arrested a few weeks before on charges he molested her.

"The recent deaths and abuse allegations surrounding the Meza children have been a source of great concern and sorrow in the Rock Hill community," said Faith Lingerfeldt of York, a local Silentlambs representative.

Lingerfeldt said she and other members of Silentlambs believe instances of abuse among Jehovah's Witnesses often go unreported because church leaders don't want the faith to get a bad reputation.

"A lot of times, they keep it between themselves," said Lingerfeldt, 35, a lifelong Jehovah's Witness. "It's just kept quiet."

The deaths of the Meza children were just the latest example of similar crimes involving Jehovah's Witnesses, Silentlambs officials say.

"This makes the fifth family that had died under similar circumstances," William Bowen, Silentlambs' national director, said in a statement. "The public and Jehovah's Witnesses need to be alerted about the importance of proper child protection."

Bowen's statement did not give examples of other similar deaths. However, his group's Web site, www.silentlambs.org, lists the Meza deaths along with what it says were similar crimes involving Jehovah's Witnesses in Atlanta , Oregon and Canada , among others.

Bowen's stance on the Jehovah's Witness church also is detailed on the site, and his allegations about the church have been documented in The New York Times and on CNN, NBC and other media outlets. Bowen, a Jehovah's Witness for more than 40 years, writes on the Web site that he resigned as an elder in the church "in protest of a policy that hides child molesters from everyone."

But church leaders adamantly refute his claims.

"We're still very much grieving the loss of those kids down there," said J.R. Brown, a spokesman at the church's Brooklyn , N.Y. , public information office. "We have no policy that instructs our elders or congregants that cases of child sexual abuse are not to be reported. Our policy states just the opposite."

If a member of the congregation suspects abuse, they are to report to a church elder, Brown said. The elders then consult with church attorneys about whether a particular state requires the allegations be reported to authorities.

In the Meza case, Brown said church leaders were made aware of the abuse allegations and reported it to authorities, per state law. He declined to say how the church learned of the alleged abuse. The Department of Social Services was told of the allegations in May, but officials have declined to say who made them aware. In general, Brown said, abuse complaints can come from a member of the congregation, a family member or through a confession.

"We can assure you or others that our policy was followed," Brown said. "Child abuse is a crime, so that should be reported to authorities."

Silentlambs plans to set up a Meza Children Memorial fund for the community to make donations in their memory. The group will be joined at next week's vigil by two other victims advocate groups, SNAP --

Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests -- and Linkup, a clergy abuse support group.

"The No. 1 ally for sexual abuse is secrecy," said David Fortwengler of Charlotte, a SNAP representative.

Fortwengler said his group wants to stop abuse by members of any clergy, no matter the denomination. The deaths of the Meza children have helped form bonds among victims' advocates, he said.

"I can only imagine the pain that the Meza family went through," he said. "All of us grieve for a situation like this. The best we can hope for is lessons learned."

Jason Foster 329-4066