NEW YORK, Oct. 12 (AP)--An organizational shakeup under way among theJehovah's Witnesses may have been ordered by the faith's leaders toshield themselves from lawsuits over the group's religious practices,dissenters say.

A spokesman for the group denied the allegation.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, as thegroup is officially known, had been run by a Governing Body. But onSaturday, president Milton Henschel, 80, and the six other boardmembers resigned, and it was announced that religious and administrativeduties will be divided, with three newly formed corporations runningU.S. operations.

Under the changes, the religious leaders will not be officiallyinvolved with the Watchtower society.

Though the Witnesses say no important cases are pending, defectorsfrom the religion have talked about suing the society, headquartered inBrooklyn, over various grievances.

Those could include lawsuits over church members who died orsuffered because the denomination opposes blood transfusions. Also, theorganization could face lawsuits over its practice of expelling members.

Raymond Franz of Winston, Ga., the only Governing Body member everto quit and write about the religion's inner workings, also noted thatFrance has a new law targeting religious organizations accused of mindcontrol, while German law requires severance pay for church workers wholeave.

"They are trying to find means to protect themselves legally," Franzsaid.

A webpage operated by former Witness Randall Watters of ManhattanBeach, Calif., said that the current duties of Witness officials willnot change and that the new structure "clearly is meant to provideisolation of guilt" in light of "the litigious days ahead for the Watchtower organization."

James N. Pellechia, public affairs director for the religion, deniedthat potential legal problems had anything to do with thereorganization. He said the Governing Body is simply being relieved ofadministrative tasks so it can "concentrate more on the ministry of theWord."

An official statement said decentralization would also allow theWitnesses to keep pace with growth. The Witnesses reported 5.9 millionactive members as of last year, 980,000 of them in the United States.