Feb 1, 2018

Jehovah's Witnesses cover-up

Canadian survivors of childhood sexual abuse are coming forward to reveal how their church failed them — and protected their predators

Kristy Woudstra
United Church Observer
January 2018

This article original was published in The United Church Observer.

“I’ve given a lot of thought into how I should start this. I don’t really know if there is a good way to start it. So I’m just going to come out and say the toughest part to begin with, and that is: My name is Melissa*, and I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse from the ages of six, possibly younger, to 14, and during that time, I was being raised a Jehovah’s Witness.”

This is how Melissa begins her first video blog divulging some of the horrific abuse she endured at the hands of her father while her family was living in Ontario and British Columbia. Her voice trembling but filled with conviction, she talks for 23 minutes from her living room in Edmonton in November 2016. “I will say my earliest memory is coming home from school sick,” she confides. “[My dad] went out and got me McDonald’s. He said I would get it after we cuddled for a bit. Well, we didn’t cuddle.”

At this point in the video, Melissa pauses as the weight of her words settles on viewers. She doesn’t share “the nitty-gritty,” as she calls it, because “nobody needs to hear that.” Instead, she explains how the rules and structure of the Jehovah’s Witnesses allowed the abuse to continue despite her mother reporting the situation to elders in multiple Kingdom Halls (their place of worship).

“My anger is more at the church than him,” the now 34-year-old said in a recent phone interview. “I know that might sound ridiculous, but I’ve only ever known my dad to have a severe brain injury, and that resulted in his lack of impulse control. I don’t forgive him, but I do hold the organization more accountable.”

Melissa remembers how, at age 12, she disclosed to an elder what was happening at home. His response? She should keep quiet and respect her parents, or else she’d bring shame on Jehovah (God). This scared Melissa because, like all Witnesses, she believed in Armageddon, an imminent battle between God and worldly enemies that only God’s true servants will survive. Melissa thought that if she mentioned the abuse again, Jehovah would literally kill her. So the preteen didn’t reach out to anyone, even though she suffered from depression, experienced learning delays and felt isolated.

“I’m hoping that it will at least let others know that they’re not alone,” says Melissa on why she finally shared her story so publicly 20 years later. (Her video has been viewed more than 17,000 times.) “This is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. . . . It’s very, very damaging.”

Around the world, lawmakers are starting to pay attention to this insular religious organization. The British government, via its Charity Commission, is conducting an investigation into how Jehovah’s Witnesses handle cases of child mistreatment. In the United States, judges have ordered the organization to release files on childhood sexual assault incidents; the church has so far refused and is incurring a $4,000-per-day fine. Another inquiry in Australia determined that the denomination’s policies are inadequate when it comes to keeping children safe from sexual abuse. In fact, for a complaint to be taken seriously by church leaders, the Jehovah’s Witnesses impose requirements that few victims can meet. As a result, survivors feel the organization better protected their abusers than them.

Canadian survivors, like Melissa, are also seeking justice. For this article alone, five former Witnesses from across the country shared their stories. Dozens more have already joined two proposed class-action lawsuits filed against the organizing bodies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their experiences reveal startling similarities in how the religious group handles sex abuse cases. “A lot of the victims want change,” says Bryan McPhadden, the Toronto lawyer leading a national class action filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. “They [also] just want to be believed. Because many of them were involved in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they came forward and even then were not believed.”

To read the full article, click here.

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