An Unlikely David

Best of the Boards
Michael Morris


Barbara Anderson’s struggle to stop predatory pedophiles in the cloistered world of Jehovah’s Witnesses

 

While the Catholic Church is forced to publicly wrestle its demons of pedophilia, Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to acknowledge any similar problems in their midst. Barbara Anderson, a former insider from the uppermost echelons of the secretive sect, has stepped forward to reveal that such problems have been a source of denial, debate and division at the highest levels of the organization for at least a decade. While Witness leaders insist that sexual abuse of children is not tolerated or concealed in their congregations, as a former Jehovah’s Witness, and as a parent who recently discovered my own children’s molestation within the group, I strongly disagree.

In the patriarchal world of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Barbara Anderson of Normandy, Tenn., a sharp-witted lady from New York, rose to a level of influence that was unheard of for a woman. She assisted in compiling the official history of the group, and wrote articles that serve to instruct the 6 million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, including the 1 million in the United States (though her gender, under Witness rules, would not allow her to read aloud in a Kingdom Hall the very words that she wrote). She regularly rubbed shoulders with members of the Witnesses’ elite governing body, a committee that currently consists of 11 men, charged with overseeing the group.

Anderson was also privy to the many letters and phone calls coming into the group’s Brooklyn Heights headquarters from members of the faith, responding to published articles, or inquiring about various topics that had not been addressed in print. This feedback was reviewed in meetings among the writers to shape the content of future publications. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the printed word from headquarters provides a pharisaical canon, an ever-shifting lens through which to see more clearly the word, and will, of God.

The formerly taboo subject of child sexual abuse was entering the public discourse in the late 1980s and early 90s, and the correspondence coming into headquarters reflected the angst of those who now felt comfortable coming forward with their own recollections of abuse in the insular communities of the Witnesses. These abuse survivors were turning to their congregation elders for guidance, and these elders, too, were writing to headquarters, seeking guidance.

Parents of most denominations would not hesitate to call police first when sexual abuse of their child is reported. But to the Witnesses, all outsiders—even police and social workers—are co-conspirators with Satan, part of the condemned world soon to be destroyed by God. As a Witness, when dealing with any wrongdoing “you go to elders first, and then elders make the decision for where you go [from there]. To bypass the organization would be treason,” said Anderson.

But these same elders “volunteer, and are essentially untrained clergy,” according to a Jehovah’s Witness spokesman in the Paducah Sun. They attend no seminary, and have no minimum education requirements, beyond basic literacy. They are equipped for nothing more than enforcing organizational guidelines, delivering biblical platitudes and offering a moment of prayer. When encountering a case of child sexual abuse for the first time, their instructions are first to “call the Legal Department” at the group’s headquarters.

The list of mandated reporters of suspected child abuse varies by state. Church spokesmen assert that in those jurisdictions that include clerics as mandatory reporters, the elders are instructed by the Legal Department to make such reports. A recent fax to the BBC in response to a program exposing sexual abuse among the Witnesses noted that “it can be quite a challenge to keep abreast of the reporting requirements, but our Legal Department makes every effort to do so.” It should relieve their lawyers to know that The National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information is funded by the US government and tasked with maintaining a web site with just such information, which shows that only 16 states require reporting by clerics. The hand of divine justice apparently is cut short by a lack of supporting legislation in other jurisdictions.

The assertion that such reports are made by elders when called for by the law has been called into question. Two lawsuits recently lodged against the Witnesses claim that mandatory reporting laws were disregarded, and the abuse continued. In one case, a member is said to have been expelled for making such a report against the advice of the elders, after the elders failed to act. A taped telephone conversation from early 2001, between an elder reporting sexual abuse and headquarters, featured on a recent episode of NBC’s Dateline, documented an official from the group advising the elder to “walk away from it,” and to “leave it for Jehovah,” even though the elder was calling from a state that mandates reporting by clerics.

Some particularly conscientious elders sought to step outside their restrictive bounds as spiritual counselors in seeking to assist those traumatized by abuse. They were holding sessions that amounted to group therapy with victims of abuse, but this was quickly ended by a March 23, 1992 letter to all bodies of elders in the United States, stating that elders are not to hold such sessions nor “spend time reading secular publications dealing with worldly psychology or psychiatry.”

“Jehovah’s Witnesses are a government that operates within all of the governments of the world. I believe that is the big issue here. They want to decide who is guilty or not guilty,” said Barbara Anderson. Witnesses are well known for their defiance of secular governments. The Encarta World English Dictionary includes in its definition of Jehovah’s Witnesses that the group “rejects secular law where it appears to conflict with the divine.”

So, the investigation of the alleged abuse and the deciding who is guilty or not guilty, falls on the local elders. The burden of proof, barring a confession, is that there must be two members of the faith who can serve as eyewitnesses to the crime, no matter what the infraction. Otherwise, the accused is exonerated and the abused is admonished to treat the accused as innocent in God’s eyes and not to repeat the charge to anyone else—even other potential victims, like younger siblings—or face expulsion from the congregation and shunning by fellow members, including friends and family. Needless to say, child molesters don’t usually seek an audience. So the cycle of abuse continues, while the victim, who summoned the monumental courage to come forward, is now forced back into silence by their spiritual leaders.

All members are guided by the two principal publications of the group, the Watchtower and Awake! journals. Each had different editors, with differing opinions, in the 90s, which can be problematic for a group that points to its unity of belief as a sign of exclusive divine favor. Awake!, on whose staff Anderson served, often presented the group’s softer side, while the Watchtower delivered stern doctrinal dissertations. “They would sometimes contradict each other, especially on societal issues,” said Anderson.

Barbara Anderson and other senior staffers knew that the age and cloistered lives of the governing body gave them no frame of reference to empathize with the plight of the abused and their families. Something more than arbitrary application of ancient edicts was required.

Stories of the disastrous results of similar policies awaited Anderson on her summer vacation in 1991. The Witnesses choose to apply certain Old Testament rules literally, such as the command that a woman who does not scream during a rape should be considered a fornicator. “I was gravely disturbed hearing accounts of Witness women who were disfellowshipped (expelled and shunned) for not screaming while being raped. To illustrate: A Jehovah’s Witness came back to his house unexpectedly while his house was being cleaned by a woman who also was a Witness. The trauma of his raping her at that time was so severe that she completely blocked out the experience until she discovered she was pregnant. It was then she faced what had happened and went to the congregation elders. She accused her spiritual brother of raping her; however, he denied it until tests confirmed he was the father of the child. Then he said it was consensual sex. She denied it. Nonetheless, she was disfellowshipped because she couldn’t remember if she screamed during the rape and her attacker said she didn’t. So, when I came back from vacation, I went in to see the man in the Writing Department who I was working with and told him what I had heard. To me it was horrendous that this girl was disfellowshipped. She was victimized twice.”

The implications of such policies were clear to Anderson. “I began to see how pedophiles could act easily within the congregations and get away with it,” she said.

Members of the Writing Department began pushing for change. When the October 8, 1991 Awake! on child abuse seemed to reverse earlier feelings against psychotherapy and against “repressed memories,” there was widespread confusion. When congregation elders called headquarters for clarification “they [the Service Department, in charge of the elders] did not go along with that,” said Anderson. “That article was viewed as a mistake. There was a battle going on at Bethel [headquarters] between these two factions. The man who was the head of the Service Department and the man who was head of the Writing Department—both members of the governing body—didn’t agree on these things.” said Anderson.

An avalanche of phone calls and letters came in response to the October 8, 1991 Awake!. Even the cloistered governing body became aware of the widespread claims of abuse, not only abuse being perpetrated by lay members, but by church leaders as well. “The governing body knew in ’92 that this was a very real problem, that men in authority were molesters, and they were molesting children. The accusations that were coming to them were not merely against average attendee’s, but against men in authority, and you couldn’t get the Service Department to recognize that. They were having a terrible time,” recalls Anderson.

Barbara Anderson and her husband would leave headquarters at the end of ’92, after serving there for ten and a half years. She continued to support the writing staff as an outside researcher until ’97. “It was during my last year at headquarters while doing research for a senior Awake! writer that I learned to my horror that the organization had severe problems with sexual child abuse. I knew when I left that it was understood that I would continue to send information in on child abuse. This was to try to influence the governing body to change their policies.”

Anderson was also aware of the implications of such policies for those outside of the organization. Accusations of child molestation, even a known history of criminal child rape, would not preclude a member from engaging in the Witnesses door to door preaching work. “I begged [governing body member and friend] Lloyd Barry, begged him by letter in July of 1993, not to allow molesters to go door to door.” said Anderson. Lloyd Barry, now deceased, never responded. Instead, some three and a half years later, speaking of a molester who may have recently been released from prison, the Watchtower of January 1, 1997 states “If he seems to be repentant [to the untrained elders], he will be encouraged to make spiritual progress [and] share in the field ministry [door to door preaching].”

Neither would a history of child molestation disqualify a member from being appointed as an elder, a leader and exemplar in the congregation. Although the January 1, 1997 Watchtower stated that a “known” molester “would not qualify for congregation privileges,” such as becoming an elder or ministerial servant (deacon), a secret letter to all bodies of elders three months later, on March 14, 1997, quietly backpedaled: “An individual ‘known’ to be a former child molester has reference to the perception of that one in the community [emphasis ours] and in the Christian congregation.” And as for determining whether those already in a position of authority had a history of molestation, the letter directed that “The body of elders should not query individuals.” Unknown to the faithful, who had taken the January 1st Watchtower at its word, pedophiles could remain in positions of authority, under this don’t-ask don’t-tell policy, at all levels of the organization. One is left to wonder who pushed for such a change, what they had to hide, and why the contents of that letter, leaked on the Internet, remain, to this day, a secret to the rank and file.

“I can’t go to my grave knowing what I know.” Anderson’s struggle for change from within the group ended when a letter from a member of the headquarters staff in early ’97 indicated to her that such symbolic changes were in response to a rising tide of litigation, not out of concern for the welfare of children. “I couldn’t go to the Kingdom Hall and hear all of the bragging about how wonderful this organization was from the platform, and sit there and listen. I thought “I can’t go to my grave knowing what I know.” She resolved to continue to push for change from outside the walls of the Kingdom Hall.

Barbara Anderson came to be among five members disfellowshipped from the group in recent months, following a spate of media attention, for speaking out about rampant sexual abuse and cover-ups among Jehovah’s Witnesses. “I had a very, very interesting life as a Jehovah’s Witness. My husband and I brought eighty people into this organization,” she remembers. While she takes exception to the policies of the leadership that harm children, she holds out hope that the voices that pushed for change in the mid-’90s may prevail. Among those voices are the group’s powerful Legal Department, which pushed for a uniform reporting policy among congregations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia—perhaps to be relieved of the arduous task of keeping track of all those laws—only to be shot down by the governing body. Anderson also cites a group of elders in Dallas, Texas, which worked with a local mental health facility to tailor care for Jehovah’s Witnesses, only to be removed from their positions en masse by the leadership. And there were those elders who sought to bring a little therapy into their shepherding. To be sure, there were kindhearted people easily found in the group. “They are good people. I am not going to say they weren’t and they aren’t dear people to us,” she said.

Perhaps if these people had succeeded in moving the organization to adopt a call-police-first policy in handling cases of child sexual abuse, just as they advise members to seek the help of a physician when ill, or of a fireman during a fire, there would not have been the chance for children, such as mine, to have been abused, their lives forever changed. Instead, we, like so many others, are left to fight a difficult and emotionally painful legal battle against a coy perpetrator in a position of authority, with the backing of his church.

In our case, the alleged abuser continues, to this day, to beam piously from the platform and to hold children on his lap during the services at our former suburban Philadelphia congregation, even as criminal and civil actions are pending, to the full knowledge of the local body of elders.

But it seems the short-sighted preservation of the image of the group has been the priority of the governing body, over the welfare of their flock. Better, they seem to think, to silence the victims, shun the whistle blowers, deny, deny, deny. I recall that Jehovah’s Witnesses are expert in itemizing the sins of the Catholic Church, including the harboring of pedophiles. Perhaps now they will have the humility to turn that scrutiny inward, protect the victims in their midst, adopt a call-police-first policy everywhere, and stop allowing a de facto conspiracy of silence to protect pedophiles in their congregations, and on our doorsteps.

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Michael Morris grew up a Jehovah’s Witness punk rocker in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the 1980s. He spent several years serving as a full-time preacher in the Witnesses’ door-to-door preaching work, unwittingly learning much about life and faith from those whom he presumed to teach. E-mail: mikepence[at]yahoo.com.

Michael posts at Toasted Cheese as Dances with Cactus. “An Unlikely David” was first posted at What I Tell You Three Times Is True, our non-fiction critique forum.

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