Two former Jehovah’s Witnesses claim the church looked the other way when they were sexually abused as children for years — and now plan to sue under a landmark state law that takes effect this week. Lawyers for Heather Steele, 48, and John Michael Ewing, 47, alleged at a press conference Monday that the Witnesses and its eight-member leadership council even maintain a database of church sex offenders that it’s kept secret. The two alleged victims now plan to fight back with separate lawsuits that will be filed in Brooklyn Supreme Court on Wednesday when the Child Victims Act goes into effect.
Gabrielle Fonrouge, Alex Taylor, and Jorge Fitz-Gibbon – New York Post – August 12, 2019 [Photo Credits: James Messerschmidt / New York Post]
“These people were abused by emissaries of God, of the church,” lawyer Michael Barasch said at a press conference. “There was an element of trust. And these abusers, these rapists abused that level of trust.”
Ewing claims in his lawsuit that a Jehovah’s Witness elder molested him “approximately four to six times per week” for four years, starting when he was 14 — including while his abuser was on vacation with his family.
Steele, who grew up in New York and is now living in Orlando, Florida, claims she was still in diapers when Jehovah’s Elder Donald Nicholson, a family friend, started molesting her in the mid-1970s.
“My first memory would be of him fondling me when I was just about 2 or 3 years old while he held me in the back seat of my dad’s car,” Steele told The Post.
She alleged that Nicholson, now 82, would molest her while she sat on his lap “right in the middle of meetings” with other members of the institution.
“I don’t think he was ever afraid of ever getting caught,” Steele said.
As a kid growing up in the organization, Steele said, her life was shrouded in a culture of fear.
If she didn’t follow her elders’ orders and obey every rule she says she was told, “demons and other scary things” would come after her. So she kept quiet about the abuse until around age 10 when she finally told her mother.
But because the insular organization considers outsiders under Satan’s rule, her mom brought the case before the institution’s elders before going to the police.
“It was basically them trying to convince us it was in our minds, that none of this stuff actually happened or that we had bad dreams,” Steele said.
“They would just try anything to take the pressure off of him … they’d have some kind of scripture to back up how they were right and told us that we should pray for [Nicholson].”
Steele said Nicholson eventually was arrested after her mother and father finally reported the incident to the police.
The disgraced elder went on to serve 3½ years in prison for sexual abuse at the Wallkill Correctional Facility, according to New York State Department of Corrections records. When he got out, he was welcomed back into the congregation and quietly placed in a New Jersey branch of the Witnesses where few congregants knew about his sordid past, Steele’s attorney Irwin Zalkin alleged.
The lawyer said the religion’s culture of secrecy meant congregants aren’t aware their children could be in close contact with accused pedophiles.
“When they come knocking on your door, you don’t know if one of these people is a child molester. They keep that information secret and confidential and do not make any disclosures to the public or to their members that they have molesters,” Zalkin said, adding his law firm knows of at least 18 other alleged victims of Nicholson.
‘He was supposed to be a mentor to me, someone to look up to and ascribe to be like.’
“The rest of the congregation has no idea, so they’re in jeopardy every time they go there,” Steele added.
It’s for this reason that Ewing has decided to sue the organization — because he wants to make sure other kids don’t end up in the same situation.
Ewing was just 14 years old and growing up in Florida when he was introduced to a Ministerial Servant within the organization, at the Coral Springs East Congregation.
Ewing, who said his “life calling” was to be a full-time minister, told The Post the man was appointed to be his mentor and the two spent many hours alone together, knocking on doors and spreading Jehovah’s message in the mid-’80s.
First, the man allegedly started fondling Ewing over his clothes and showing him Victoria’s Secret magazines — but then the abuse escalated into oral and anal rape that occurred everywhere from Virginia to Brooklyn, where the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watchtower headquarters used to be, he says.
“He was supposed to be a mentor to me, someone to look up to and ascribe to be like,” Ewing said.
Instead, his abuser allegedly left him a “psychological mess” with alcohol and anger management issues that took decades to work through.
When Ewing finally reported the abuse to his dad when he was around 21, he was told to speak to the organization’s elders, who he claims then kicked him out of the congregation for “homosexual activity.”
More than two decades later, Ewing decided to contact a lawyer after he went out for breakfast one morning and saw a Witness, around 30 years old, sitting with a young boy who was no older than 14.
“It was clearly not his son and they were alone in that restaurant together and it got me really upset to the point that I was shaking,” Ewing said.
“It could’ve been a completely innocent relationship, but it became very clear to me at that moment [the Witnesses] still don’t understand the risk they’re putting our children in when they send them out alone.”
The Child Victims Act, which took years to pass the state legislature, changes the statute of limitations for child sex crimes, opening up a one-year window when any victim of child sex abuse can file a claim against their abuser, regardless of when the crime happened.
Ewing: “Their suits will reveal the inner workings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Supposedly everyone in the congregation is trustworthy and is OK and you don’t have to worry because they’re one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and this thinking permeates throughout the congregation and it’s getting children hurt,” Ewing said. “I’m hoping … I am able to give a voice to someone else and lead them to tell their stories too and say this is happening and it’s not right.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the two accused abusers could not be reached for comment Monday.
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