For many years now, the Roman Catholic Church has been in the media spotlight for a long history of alleged occurrences of sexual abuse among the priesthood. But thanks to some recently filed landmark lawsuits, a much smaller, more tight-lipped religious organization may soon be finding its place in the national hot seat.
Rumors have been rampant for years that the Jehovah’s Witnesses—a sect that many consider to be a cult—has systematically covered up thousands of instances of child sexual abuse by its elders while pressuring its members to keep quiet.
That culture of silence may soon be broken open starting with two separate lawsuits filed by Heather Steele, 48, and John Michael Ewing, 47, two former members of the sect who claim they were repeatedly molested as children by their elders. New York recently passed the Child Victims Act, which removes the statute of limitations on abuse lawsuits. Steele and Ewing filed their lawsuits in Brooklyn the day the new law took effect.
The stories told by the two plaintiffs are different in scope, but as the New York Post reports, they reveal some common threads. Steele says her church’s elder began fondling her as early as age 2 or 3 while riding in the backseat of her family’s car, and he would even abuse her while holding her on his lap during church meetings.
Ewing claims his abuse began when he was a teenager and continued four to six times per week for the next four years. But in both cases, when the children eventually came forward to their parents, two disturbing things happened:
- The parents reported the abuse to the church leadership rather than the police (at least at first); and
- The church leadership dealt with the situation internally rather than reporting it to the authorities.
In Steele’s case, the parents ultimately reported the abuse to the police. The elder was convicted, served a prison sentence and returned to ministry in another congregation. In the case of Ewing, who reported the incident at age 21 to the church, he suffered the same punishment as his offending elder: Disfellowship from the JW for homosexual activity.
A Database of Abuse Involving Jehovah’s Witnesses
There is evidence that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit organization overseeing the Jehovah’s Witnesses, has been aware of the ongoing pattern of abuse within its ranks for more than two decades. As The Atlantic reports, in 1997 the Watchtower Society sent a letter to all of its U.S. congregations with detailed instructions on how to report sexual predators.
The instructions were to write a full report answering 12 questions (including whether anyone else knew about the abuse) and mail the answers to the Watchtower Society while keeping the files confidential.
The Society has allegedly quietly built this information into a secret database that may now contain tens of thousands of reports of abuse, the vast majority of which were never reported to the police—and which has remained mostly under wraps even in defiance of multiple court orders.
Shrouded in Secrecy
How has this much alleged sexual abuse continued for so long among the Jehovah’s Witnesses with so little accountability? Much of it has to do with the beliefs of its membership—a common characteristic of cults—that people outside the church are unredeemed and therefore to be distrusted.
As law enforcement and the judicial system are considered “secular,” the church prefers to deal with offenses internally. But aside from going contrary to the law, if a known predator can be allowed to continue ministry even after serving jail time—and that predator is only one of thousands known to exist in the church—one must question how much internal accountability is actually taking place.
Making matters worse, the church’s culture of secrecy extends even to the congregants, many of whom are reportedly never informed when their eldership is accused of impropriety. As a result, parents are frequently completely unaware that they are entrusting their children to the care of alleged predators.
Legal Options for Victims of Abuse
Sexual abuse is a crime, and abusers can spend many years in prison if they are convicted. Victims and their families may also have the legal right to file civil lawsuits for financial damages, both against the perpetrator and against any organization (including religious organizations) that practiced negligence in allowing the abuse to happen.
Despite the pattern of secrecy within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, congregants who choose to buck the pressure to keep silent and report the abuse have often seen justice served, at least partially. As one recent example, a jury in Montana last year ordered the Jehovah’s Witnesses to pay $35 million to a victim for ordering the local clergy not to report to the authorities the abuse she had endured as a child.
All that said, victims of sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses still face a couple of challenges when it comes to seeing justice done and/or getting compensation. The first challenge may be the conflict within their faith that tells them to distrust the authorities or to keep the discipline within the church itself. Whether filing criminal or civil charges, victims cannot be vindicated or compensated if they do not come forward.
The second challenge: The statute of limitations that still exists within many states. Many people who were victimized as children had no recourse if their parents wouldn’t report the abuse, and if the children do not report it as adults within the time frame permitted by law, they cannot bring charges or claims against their perpetrators. As a result, many victims have suffered in silence for decades, only realizing too late that they should have come forward.
The good news is that widespread change may now be on the horizon concerning the second challenge. Several states have already followed New York’s example in extending or eliminating the statute of limitations. On January 1, 2020, California will enact a similar law that raises the statute of limitations age from 26 to 40, and the L.A. Times reports that the justice system is bracing for a deluge of lawsuits.
As adult victims are given more power to hold their abusers accountable—as well as the organizations that enabled the abuse—we may soon see the shroud of secrecy begin to unravel.
Get the Experienced Legal Representation You Deserve
Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLC is experienced with prosecuting claims and lawsuits involving sexual abuse. If you or a loved one was the victim of sexual abuse perpetrated by a Jehovahs’ Witness church member, we invite you to contact our office for a free review of your legal rights and ability to pursue a civil lawsuit against them.