Do we really have any idea how many children have been mistreated and sexually abused over the past fifty or sixty decades? Not unlike a horrific disease that can not be seen or detected until thousands have been infected, child abuse involving Jehovah’s Witness youth and families seems to have been, and continues to be, a worldwide and expanding problem within Witness families and congregations. And now another horror story comes to us from Wales in the British Isles.
Three women who say they were abused as children in the Jehovah’s Witnesses tell their awful stories…
“My mother… she’s sacrificing me to gain eternal life”
WALES ONLINE / by Laura Clements / 8 August 2020
When 16-year-old Sian sat down and told her mum she had been sexually assaulted, she said she was subjected to a barrage of questions like what was she wearing, did she enjoy it, and did she definitely say no?
Her mother, a zealous Jehovah’s Witness told her teenage daughter if she had been more immersed in the faith, maybe even prayed more, it would never have happened.
Now aged 35 and with three of her own children, Sian has virtually no contact with her mum despite the fact they live immediately next door.
In a pitiful effort to maintain some sort of normality, occasionally Sian comes across small bags of sweets left on her garden wall for her children. Sometimes, envelopes stuffed with money are posted through the letterbox, and once a package containing an X-Box was dropped off at the house.
Sian grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in south Wales with her mum and step-father – her parents divorced when she was very young- but said the religion “never sat right” with her.
Sian is not her real name. As she speaks candidly about life as a young Jehovah’s Witness, it is clear she is protecting not just her children but also her own sense of worth in an effort for self-preservation.
“A boy forced himself on me when I was younger,” she says, almost apologetically. “I told my mother and she said I needed to tell the elders. So I went to them and explained what had happened. I was 16 and I was reproved even though it wasn’t my fault.
“The questions about what I was wearing and whether I enjoyed it were so violating and so degrading. My mother said if I’d been more immersed in the Jehovah’s Witnesses then it would never had happened.”
Even then, Sian says child sex abuse within the ranks was “prevalent”.”I’ve seen it happen in our hall and all the cover-ups that have gone on,” she continues. “I just don’t understand. I was 16, the police should have been called but it wasn’t even mentioned and I never even thought about it. I just did what I was told.”
At 17, Sian told her mum she didn’t want anything more to do with the religion. “That was the crunch point and she turned on me pretty quickly,” said Sian with hardly a flicker of emotion. “Now, I don’t speak to my mother or my biological sister.”
She left the family home, briefly returned after going through a “horrendously abusive” relationship, and then met the man who she would eventually marry. It was while living with him that she was disfellowshipped- a public naming and shaming which effectively ostracises people from the community.
“It was because we were living together but we weren’t married,” Sian explained. “But at the time, I didn’t care. I wanted out. My husband made me feel safe. We went to Cardiff.”
Now she has children of her own, Sian can see how “unnatural” it is to disown your own. “When you have children, you think I could never ever do that to my children,” she says. While they were still young, she moved back to the house next door to her mum to where she grew up and where her mother still lived. At that time, mum and daughter were managing to maintain some sort of relationship, albeit strained and very much for the benefit of Sian’s children.
“It was that murky line between putting your foot down and saying no you can’t see your grandchildren and trying to maintain some sort of contact,” said Sian. But when her children came home with tales that nan was saying their mum was going to die, she put her foot down.
“That was it,” says Sian with a sense of finality. “They were only bothering with them so they could recruit them. It’s a horrible word, but in our community, it all comes down to maintaining numbers and recruitment.”
There is next to no contact with her mum now and her children hardly know their grandparents. Sian adds: “I don’t care. I will go outside and if she’s outside too, she’ll scuttle back in. I think it’s just ridiculous. I pity them. I don’t feel sad, just pity.
“They don’t see their grandchildren or their daughter and it’s all down to a set of rules that have been passed down by a group of men. It destroys families. It destroys one of the most natural, maternal feelings and all those family bonds.
“It’s not normal and it’s not natural. We are happy now. I don’t miss my mother – I miss the idea of having a mum – but I don’t miss my mum. It’s too damaging.”
Sian’s story is one of hundreds that have come to light in recent years, prompting concerns of prevalent sex abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Stories of abuse within religious groups are not limited to the Jehovah’s Witnesses however, an issue which has led to The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) being formed.
Chaired by Professor Alexis Jay OBE, the inquiry was set up because of serious concerns that some organisations had failed and were continuing to fail to protect children. Also attended by the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church, the opening statements in the inquiry were read out on March 16 right before Covid-19 struck.
Representatives of other religions apologised for shortfalls within their organisations. Shane Brady, counsel for the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, did not. He stuck closely to his well-prepared outline, failing to express any collective regret. Not even at that moment did he acknowledge that child sexual abuse had happened among Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Lockdown delayed subsequent, more extensive evidence-giving until this month and on August 10 the inquiry resumes. On Monday morning, former Jehovah’s Witness Sarah Davies will present evidence to the inquiry about the mishandling of child sex abuse cases within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation. Originally from Cardiff, Sarah will present evidence that has been collectively submitted by the group Ex-JW Advocates Opposing Crimes Against Children.
Speaking from Essex, where she now lives, she said: “It’s a bit of an insult to the harm already caused by their inadequate child protection policies and practices, that despite numerous complaints of mishandling that they haven’t found it within themselves to say sorry to any of the survivors of abuse but they won’t because they believe they are directed by the only true god and are the one true religion. They failed me, as they have failed many survivors.”
Between the ages of four and 11 Sarah, who was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness, said she suffered repeated serious sex abuse. Still in primary school, Sarah had no idea that what was happening wasn’t normal.
“At the time I didn’t know it was wrong,” she said. “When I was nine I recall a couple of policemen coming in to the class and speaking about inappropriate touching and how I should report it if it ever happened to me and that was the first time I realised it was wrong.
“But at the same time you’ve got this conflict because Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that everyone on the outside is wrong and ruled by Satan. On the one hand I had the police saying I should tell somebody then the indoctrination of the JW practices on the other.
“I didn’t report it and growing up I believed I was the only one. Perhaps part of me thought I’d done something wrong or I wasn’t spiritual enough or I didn’t pray enough.
“It’s only when I came out of it and I met other ex-JWs and heard their stories about how they had experienced the same thing as me that I started to deal with it all.”
It has taken years of therapy and counseling for Sarah to find some kind of peace, but the damage done to her relationship with her family is irreparable.
Aged 29, she was labeled a “slut” for having a relationship with a man who wasn’t a Jehovah’s Witness, even though she went on to marry him and have his four children. Sarah was shunned by those she grew up with, the wider Jehovah’s Witness community and those who still remain in the religion.
Twelve years later, now 41, Sarah went to the authorities about her childhood abuse. Her parents sought advice from the elders within the Jehovah’s Witnesses about how to deal with their adult daughter.
“They were told to remain impartial but at no point have they offered any support or asked if I’m okay,” said Sarah, adding that she knew they were still in contact with the alleged perpetrator.
“You have to understand that when you are no longer a Jehovah’s Witness you are also branded an “apostate” for telling lies and spreading untruths because you no longer have the direction from the “true God” but are instead controlled by Satan. But when the abuser remains a Jehovah’s Witness they receive the “love and support” from the organisation, especially if they have been deemed to be repentant of their sins.
“I don’t care what God you believe in but fundamentally, when it comes to a child at risk, I can’t understand or organisation that can’t give support to anyone who has gone through such traumatic experiences or be willing to make changes so that children and vulnerable people are not put at risk” said Sarah.
“When I finally did come forward and report the abuse, the main concern from within the organisation was that by doing so I had brought reproach on Jehovah’s name.
“My case didn’t go to court because it was my word against his, and when questioned by police, he lied as he knew he was protected by the organisation.”
Sarah looked into bringing civil action against her abuser but was advised she only had 50% chance of winning. She decided it wasn’t worth putting herself and her own family through that and instead joined the Ex-JW Advocates Opposing Crimes Against Children.
Whilst she hopes by giving evidence to the inquiry will bring some reform or greater oversight of their practices, she’s not hopeful about getting an apology.
“If by speaking out and waiving my right to anonymity protects just one child from going through the trauma that I have, then it will have all been worth it,” she said.
In north Wales, Susan [not her real name] is hoping she too can save the next generation of abused children. Growing up Susan was raised to believe she would live forever in an earthly paradise as a survivor of the impending Battle of Armageddon.
Her Jehovah’s Witness mother would read her bedtime stories, filled with graphic images of people being violently killed by lightning strikes and burning arrows. Aged just five, she would lie awake at night, crying silently and praying for her school friends, who her mother told her would die.
Now aged 29, the young mum from north Wales said: “Mum told me not to get too attached to my friends at school because they would die and that I was going to have to help clear up the bodies.”
When she was 15, Susan met a 24-year-old man from her congregation. “In retrospect I now know it was grooming,” says Susan. “But at the time it was seen as normal. He would come round for dinner and my parents would take us on days out together, we were seen as courting really.”
After things ended things with him she was introduced to another man, also in his 20s. When someone reported their concerns to the elders, Susan was summoned before them. Because she was the one who had been baptised aged just 11, she was the one reprimanded.
Susan said: “One told me I had a thing for bad boys and the other said I should wear more modest clothing.
“Later on, I got a nose piercing. There was more outrage over me getting my nose pierced than these men hanging round with a 15-year-old girl. That’s what made me want to leave.”
Still, only 16, Susan’s parents told her if she wanted to live under their roof she had to live by their rules and keep going to meetings which she wasn’t prepared to do. Susan wound up homeless still a teenager, all because she had been baptised.
After she was kicked out, Susan’s mum sent her a message, which she still has to this day. “I’ve got a message from my mother saying if I had never been baptised then they wouldn’t have had to stop talking to me,” she explains. “It was because I had been baptised that they had to shun me, because I had broken my contract with God.”
But aged 11, Susan argues she hardly had the choice in the matter and wasn’t old enough to understand what kind of decision she was supposed to be making. “If I hadn’t have made that decision at 11, they would still speak to me now and they would know my son, who is just nine,” she continues. ” They don’t know him. They’ve seen him three times in his entire life.
“I don’t know how it doesn’t go against her maternal instincts. Most mothers would sacrifice our lives for our own kids at any time but she’s sacrificing me to gain eternal life.”
After years of attempts to get her baptism annulled, Susan is due to meet the elders of the congregation on Monday.
“I can’t have a relationship with my family now after all this time, there’s too much hurt now that has gone on too long,” she says sadly. “But if I can find a loophole, there might be a loophole for other people to use and reconnect with their families.”
It’s been 11 years since she left her family and it still affects her now. The IICSA inquiry means more than a simple apology to her, however.
“I just want them to take responsibility and say they got it wrong and they will try and do better,” Susan says. “Just to hold their hands up and say sorry for the hurt they’ve caused.
“For me personally, my whole family see me as mentally diseased for leaving and an apology would be more a justification for myself that I’m not and they aren’t as perfect as they make out and got it wrong.”
In an open letter addressed to “The leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK”, survivors of child sex abuse at the hands of Jehovah’s Witnesses from across the country have demanded an apology.
They say: “We, the survivors of child sex abuse at the hands of Jehovah’s Witnesses, seek a public apology; we invite you to “say sorry” on behalf of your UK religious organisation, for your inadequate policies which have failed to protect us and the wider public from perpetrators of child sex abuse.
“During the ongoing sex abuse inquiry in England and Wales by IICSA four religious institutions, including Jehovah’s Witnesses on August 10, have the opportunity to go on public record with an apology; we ask you to admit that you are among the institutions that have let children down in the past and substantiate your claim to “abhor child abuse” with a contrite apology, as other religious institutions have done, rather than claim that you “do not have the institutional settings” to merit being investigated by IICSA.”
A spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses said: “An explanation of our beliefs and policies will be presented during the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.”