Jehovah's Witnesses' culture of cover-up
Mike Argento, York Daily Record
Published 7:27 a.m. ET Nov. 13, 2018
Sarah Brooks was 17, riding in her dad’s pickup, when she told him.
She had always been a daddy’s girl, she said. She was a tomboy growing up, playing with the boys, and later, when she could wield a wrench, working on cars with her dad.
After some detours in life, she would work as a welder. She liked working with her hands, and she and her dad were close.
It was hard to tell her dad. She knew what had been happening to her was wrong. She knew that it needed to stop. She felt deep shame and deep guilt. She was the victim,
but still, she felt that what had happened to her was her fault, that she was a horrible, dirty person. She knew there would be consequences. The people who did those things to
her had warned her not to tell, they said that if she did, she would be ruining lives and that nobody would believe her and that she would be the one to suffer in the end.
Still, she needed to tell. It was wrong. Something had to be done. So, she told.
Sarah told her dad that Joshua and Jennifer had sexually abused her over a period of months, starting when she was 15. Joshua was Joshua Caldwell, a friend from church.
Jennifer was Jennifer McVey, married to Sarah’s brother and having an affair with Caldwell. Caldwell was 12 years older than Sarah; McVey, six. Sarah had been working for
the couple cleaning out houses that were in foreclosure.
She had met them through their church, the Yorkana Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and thought that working for them would be safe and good, the church being a
close and cloistered community.
Her family had lengthy history in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The church, and its community, was their life. They had little contact with the outside world, staying with their own,
save for going door-to-door to convince others that their religion was the one and true path to salvation in these, the final days of human history.
When they arrived home, her father told her to go to her room while he discussed what she had told him with her mother. Her parents called two of the elders of the church –
the Jehovah’s Witnesses doesn’t have professional clergy, leaving the shepherding of the flock to appointed elders, members of the congregation – who came to the house and
They sat in the living room – Sarah, her parents and the two elders, who happened to be Caldwell’s father-in-law and brother-in-law – while the elders interviewed her, asking
her questions about what had happened, making her provide details of the most shameful and intimate secrets she had been warned not to divulge. She told them about the sexual
ames they played in the work truck and at job sites. She told them about Caldwell and McVey coming to her home and abusing her, separately and together. She told them
everything. They went over it again and again, making her tell them, again and again, about what happened.
It felt like she was dying, Sarah recalled. As she was interrogated, she had a sinking, heavy feeling in her stomach. She was terrified.
“I don’t know if there’s a word to describe it,” she said, telling the story recently on the deck of her home in southern York County. "Everything was so fresh and raw, and they
kept making me repeat it and repeat it and repeat it.”
She felt terrible, humiliated, embarrassed, shamed. At the end of it, she still felt terrible, but at least she felt that she had done the right thing, that the abuse would stop and that
the elders would give her justice by punishing her abusers.
She was the victim. She would be OK, she thought. She trusted her church would do the right thing.
She was wrong.
‘A recipe for child abuse’
As the attention of the world focused on the sexual abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church, there was another scandal brewing in a considerably smaller faith group, the
Jehovah’s Witnesses. It follows many of the same themes – mostly, holding the reputation of the organization over the regard for the well-being of victims – that have been
exposed in a number of such scandals, from the Vatican to the Boy Scouts to the Penn State football program to USA Gymnastics, a conclusion drawn from resolved criminal
and civil court cases and interviews with survivors of abuse and former members of the church.
Like those other institutions, the Jehovah’s Witnesses created an insular culture that one former member has called “a recipe for child abuse,” a culture that they believe has
protected abusers and victimized victims.
“They believe that they are separate from the world,” said Mark O’Donnell, a former Witness from Baltimore who has researched cases of child abuse in the church and has
published a number of articles about abuse under the pen name of John Redwood. “They control every aspect of their members’ lives.”
And being separate from that world means, in cases of child sexual abuse, not cooperating with authorities when such cases come to light, he said, choosing instead to handle
them within the walls of the Kingdom Hall.
In instances in which cases are referred to secular law enforcement, resulting in the issuance of a search warrant, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are reluctant to turn over notes and
records of meetings with abuse victims, making it more difficult for authorities to investigate such cases.
And in some cases, the victims of abuse, in addition to facing repeated questioning by church elders, were punished themselves, their punishment announced to the congregation.
“It’s a very closed society,” said Barbara Anderson, a former researcher for the Jehovah’s Witnesses who has cataloged numerous cases of child sexual abuse within the church.
“They want to keep everything inside.”
How Jehovah’s Witnesses handles child abuse
Martin Haugh was destined to be an elder. He was a fifth-generation Jehovah’s Witness, and his family, with the exception of two uncles with whom he'd had no contact
because of their rejection of the religion, were all in the church, and all very committed to its principles.
His father had been appointed an elder of his Red Lion congregation in 1972. Members of his family had served in the highest echelons of the church. An uncle serves as the
Witnesses’ director of international study, assigned to Kenya to spread the word about the faith throughout the world. His sister worked at the Watchtower headquarters in
New York, taking a vow of poverty to serve the church.
The church, he said, was “the only thing I knew about.” As members of the church, his family didn’t socialize with non-members. They didn’t participate in community events.
They did not vote. They kept separate. Something as simple as buying a ticket to a local fire company raffle could be the cause of discipline, as it was perceived as gambling.
A stack of Jehovah's Witnesses' literature sits on the table as Martin Haugh, an ex-elder at the Red Lion Kingdom Hall, looks over them, Sunday,
Oct. 21, 2018. The last straw for Haugh, before leaving the religion, was an email instructing him to discard certain literature. After doing his own research
and learning about major contradictions in the faith, Haugh decided to leave. He's now a non-believer.
When he was appointed as an elder, he was sent to a one-week training course, instructed on how to manage a congregation, how to discipline members who had sinned and
how to judge offenses to determine the penalty, from something called “reproof” to “disfellowship,” different levels of shunning intended as penance to those who violated the
commandments. The only instruction elders were given regarding child sexual abuse was to contact headquarters when they received any reports. “We’ll tell you what to do,”
was the advice, he recalled.
As an elder, he had been called upon to assist when his Kingdom Hall was subject to a search warrant from detectives investigating Sarah’s case, years after the abuse had
He had had experience with such reports. Just a few years before, his 4-year-old daughter had been abused by a member of the church.
A religion shrouded in secrecy
The Jehovah’s Witnesses is an American-born religion, tracing its roots to 1870 in Pittsburgh when Charles Taze Russell and some others began a Bible study group that rejected
many mainstream Christian beliefs, including the immortality of the soul, predestination, the existence of hell and other long-held tenants Christians derived from the Bible,
according to a history of the church compiled by the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The group made an apocalyptic turn in 1876 when Russell and Nelson H. Barbour published a book titled “Three Worlds,” which posited that Christ had returned as an invisible
spirit in 1874 and that the world, as they knew it, would end in 1914. It was not unlike a lot of other apocalyptic sects that, interpreting biblical prophecy and doing some
arithmetic, had predicted that Armageddon was imminent.
World War I broke out in 1914, feeding the notion that it was the end of the world. But after civilization survived, the Witnesses adjusted their prediction. Still, one of the basic
beliefs of the sect is that Armageddon is just around the corner.
Russell died in 1916, and Joseph Franklin Rutherford, the sect’s attorney, was elected president over the objections of members who believed he was too autocratic and
The Witnesses – operating under the names The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York and the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses – grew steadily,
publishing its periodicals, The Watchtower and Awake!, the most widely distributed magazines in the world, handed out mostly by members, called “Pioneers,” who go
door-to-door to spread the Gospel. Members are encouraged to perform such evangelicalism, often up to 70 to 90 hours a month.
Members of the church are encouraged not to associate with anyone outside the faith, other than while performing missionary duties or for work, living separately from what
they call “the world.”
The Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays or holidays. Regarding celebrating birthdays, the church, on its website, believes that "the Bible says that 'the day of death is better than
the day of birth.'" Their only celebration, according to church writings, is for a holiday they call the Memorial, a celebration usually held around Easter in which bread and wine
would be shared among the congregation, homage to the Last Supper, according to the church's own writings. Kids aren’t allowed to play sports in school or participate in holida
y observances in school. Sarah recalls her mother would pick her up during the Christmas season when the school planned holiday programs. If kids brought in cupcakes to
celebrate birthdays, Witness children had to abstain. They also abstain from pledging allegiance to the flag and serving in the military, choosing to remain separate from secula
While the church has an international reach, its membership is small. The religion claims more than 8 million members worldwide, which pales in comparison to the largest church
in the world, the Catholics, at 1.2 billion members. Of American-born religions, its membership is less than the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, at 16 million, and
the Seventh-Day Adventists, at 20 million, according to figures reported by those denominations.
The church is headquartered in a massive complex in Tuxedo Park, 45 miles outside of New York. It had previously owned several properties in New York and between 2013
and 2016, sold three of those buildings to a group of investors that included Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, for more than $1 billion.
Local branches of the church, Kingdom Halls, are independent of the headquarters, the construction funded and handled by the local congregations. Each Kingdom Hall, though
, has a similar design, intended to reduce costs. For one thing, the first thing you notice when you see several Kingdom Halls is that although there are arched spaces that look like
they were designed for stained-glass windows, they are boarded shut. The doors, too, have no windows. In fact, while some Kingdom Halls have windows, many do not,
explained in church literature as a cost-saving and security measure, since there is no full-time clergy or staff to keep an eye on the building.
Another way of looking at it is that once inside, to the members of the church, the outside world does not exist.
A victim is judged, reproofed and shamed
About a week after the meeting in her living room, Sarah Brooks found herself sitting before a judicial committee composed of three elders selected by church headquarters,
men who sat in judgment of her to determine the appropriate punishment. It was just her and these three men questioning her about the abuse, making her repeat, over and over
again, what happened to her in nauseating detail.
Sarah thought the purpose of the proceeding was to find out what had happened to her and to punish the offenders. She didn’t know that it was intended to determine her
punishment for the crime of being victimized.
The elders “reproofed” her, going before the congregation and shaming her. Her sin was keeping a secret and being a victim. She bore responsibility for what happened to her.
As a “reproofed” member of the congregation, she was effectively shunned. She was not permitted to speak unless spoken to. She was forbidden from participating in church
activities. She was essentially made invisible in the eyes of the church. “The idea was people viewed you as a bad apple, and they don’t want you to spoil the whole bunch,” Sarah
Sarah didn’t want to stand before the congregation while the elders “reproofed” her. “But it’s a required part of the shaming process,” she said. “They want you to feel
The couple who committed the acts was also called before the judicial committee and was “disfellowshipped,” the equivalent of excommunication in the Catholic faith, the only
difference being that those who’ve been “disfellowshipped” have a path to come back into the fold by mending their ways and showing spiritual growth. (According to court
records, McVey moved to Delaware and hasn’t come back to the faith. Caldwell, Sarah believes, moved to a different congregation. Neither could be reached for comment.)
Law enforcement was not called. The elders made it clear that they would handle the situation internally and that bringing secular authorities into it would only “bring reproach
upon Jehovah’s name,” Sarah recalled.
“They made me feel that it was being handled properly,” Sarah said. “My parents supported it. I assumed I was in good hands. I trusted my parents. I trusted the elders.”
Big court cases against Jehovah’s Witnesses
Sarah’s case follows a pattern in the church, one that has been investigated and litigated over the years.
The most massive investigation into the church was concluded in 2015 by a commission established by the Australian government to look into how child sexual abuse cases were
handled within churches, schools, sports clubs and other institutions. The commission, after reviewing church records obtained via subpoena, found that the church had files on
1,006 perpetrators of child sexual abuse, documenting more than 1,800 victims, going back to 1950, “not one reported to secular authorities.” The commission concluded that it
did “not consider the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation to be an organisation which responds adequately to child sexual abuse."
In the United States, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have faced a number of civil lawsuits. In 2007, the church settled a case filed in Napa, California, awarding an undisclosed amount
of money to 16 people who accused the church of covering up their abuse. In another case in California, the Superior Court of Alameda County, in awarding the parents of a
9-year-old girl who had been sexually abused by a church member $21 million in punitive damages, ruled that the policies of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the
church’s home office, contributed to the abuse. (The damages were later reduced on appeal and, as a further appeal was pending, the case was settled for an undisclosed amount.)
In two such cases in San Diego, a judge fined the church millions of dollars for refusing to hand over files that documented cases of child sexual abuse going back decades.
Just in September, a jury in Montana awarded a woman who was sexually abused by a family member $35 million, in a case in which the jury found that the leadership of the
church ordered its elders not to report the abuse to civil authorities.
And then there is the case of Stephanie Fessler.
Elders never told police
Fessler was just 13 when a 50-year-old woman named Terry Jeanne Monheim, the mother of a friend and, like Fessler, a member of the Kingdom Hall in Spring Grove,
began molesting her. In her lawsuit, she said Monheim abused her 30 to 40 times beginning in 2003.
When they found out about the abuse, Fessler’s parents notified the church elders, who, despite being required to report such abuse under Pennsylvania law, kept the matter
quiet, urging her parents to allow the church to handle it instead of law enforcement, according to her lawsuit.
The church investigated, and like Sarah, Fessler was “reproofed” before her congregation.
Years later, Fessler went to police. Monheim was charged with statutory sexual assault, indecent assault and corruption of minors in January 2012. In May 2012, she pleaded
guilty to indecent assault and corruption of minors and was sentenced to three to 23 months in York County Prison and placed on probation for five years.
Fessler’s civil lawsuit against the church was settled out of court. A nondisclosure agreement forbids her or her lawyer, Jeffrey Fritz, of Philadelphia, from discussing the case.
Despair after leaving Jehovah's Witnesses
When she was approaching 18, Sarah told her parents she didn’t want to be a Jehovah’s Witness anymore.
When she made the decision, she had to leave home. She felt alone and discarded. She had no friends outside the church, nowhere to live, nothing. She worked three jobs and
lived out of her truck for a while.
For a few months, she moved in with her aunt and uncle who were not affiliated with the church. Her older sister had left the church previously, and she reconnected with her,
her sister throwing her the first birthday party she ever had, a surprise party held in the back room of a restaurant.
She had no contact with her parents. Her life spiraled out of control. She suffered bouts of depression and anxiety. She turned to drink and drugs to medicate herself. She
believes that’s what the Jehovah’s Witnesses wanted to happen. “They want you to hit rock bottom, and they expect you to do that quickly,” she said.
“They want you to hit rock bottom, and they expect you to do that quickly.”
She lived a nomadic life, sometimes staying at party houses. She worked as a stripper. She became bulimic and sometimes burned herself with curling irons and cigarettes, just
to feel something. She exercised obsessively, going for long runs until her feet blistered and bled. She ran through bad neighborhoods, fantasizing that someone would grab her
off the street and kill her, ending her pain.
She had several bad relationships. She married and had a son. The marriage didn’t last, and she continued down into the dark. She thought about killing herself and tried twice.
The last time, she took an overdose, and, while awaiting unconsciousness, she realized she hadn’t left a note. She took a cigarette, and before she passed out, used it to burn her
last words into her left forearm.
They were, “I’m sorry.”
A friend found her and saved her life. She went into counseling, and her counselor, Kristen Pfautz Woolley at Turning Point in East York, urged her to report her abuse to the
York County District Attorney’s office. She did.
The investigation was hampered by a lack of cooperation from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The church keeps files on each of its members – “the good, the bad and the ugly,”
Sarah said. When county detectives showed up with a search warrant, the church declined to comply, saying it needed to contact headquarters and consult with the legal
Haugh was among the elders who stonewalled the county detectives. He said he was told to not hand over the elders’ notes from their investigation.
Haugh later apologized to Sarah for his role in her case. “It’s like I was an enabler,” he said. “I was a company man. I could have helped her, but I helped the organization.”
Four months after she reported the abuse, her abusers were arrested, charged with sexual offenses, indecent assault and corruption of minors. They accepted plea deals,
pleading guilty to corruption of minors. In December 2014, Caldwell was sentenced to six to 23 months in county prison and placed on probation for three years. In
September 2015, McVey was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service. At her sentencing, McVey apologized to
Sarah. Caldwell never did.
Sarah was pleased that they had been brought to justice but disappointed that they both got “slaps on the wrist.”
Father: I caught child molester in the act - twice
In October 2005, Haugh was at the Kingdom Hall in Red Lion, attending to his duties as a ministerial servant, a kind of assistant to the elders, handing out assignments to
“pioneers” planning to do door-to-door missionary work. It was a Wednesday, he recalled. His 4-year-old daughter was with him but had wandered off. When he went to
look for her, he found her behind a potted plant in the lobby with his teenage step-cousin, John Logan Haugh. The teen had his hands under his daughter’s dress.
He was shocked. He and his wife, Jennifer, were contemplating what to do when Sunday rolled around. He was again handing out assignments while his wife took their toddler
son to the bathroom. He looked around for his daughter, panicking. He ran through the Kingdom Hall, calling out her name. He found her in an elder’s room, perched on the
teenager’s lap. He had his hands up her dress. His daughter told him, “He wanted to give me a special hug.”
He told his wife, “He touched her again.”
He approached his uncle and told him. His uncle apologized. Haugh went to the elders. At no time was it suggested that he call police. In fact, he was told he would be
disciplined if he did and that he would not become an elder. The suggestion that he would go to the police made his aunt furious with him. His uncle threatened to sue him if
he reported the abuse.
He didn’t report it. “It’s hard to explain,” he said.
Then, in the ensuing years, he heard about other reports of abuse – including those made by Fessler and Brooks and among at least two others, an instance of incestuous rape
and a woman abusing a boy half her age – and he went to police.
He also began to doubt the faith. He questioned the church’s beliefs, prompted by its continually shifting teachings. It was a cumulative thing, he said. He left the church in
He reported his daughter’s abuse to police - nearly a dozen years after he witnessed it.
In October 2017, John Logan Haugh, now 26, was charged with two counts of indecent assault of a person under 13 years of age. The case is pending in York County Court
with a pretrial conference scheduled for early December. (His attorney, Jeffrey Marshall, declined to discuss details of the case.)
The obligations for elders
In response to queries about cases of child sexual abuse and the church's policies for handling such instances, the Jehovah’s Witnesses provided a document that outlines the
church’s “Scripturally Based Position On Child Protection.”
Among other things, it says, “The protection of children is of utmost concern and importance to all Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is in harmony with the long-standing and widely
published Scripturally based position of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as reflected in the references at the end of this document, which are all published on jw.org.”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and view it as a crime. (Romans 12:9) We recognize that the authorities are responsible for addressing such crimes. (Romans 13:1-4)
The elders do not shield any perpetrator of child abuse from the authorities.
“In all cases, victims and their parents have the right to report an accusation of child abuse to the authorities. Therefore, victims, their parents, or anyone else who reports such
an accusation to the elders are clearly informed by the elders that they have the right to report the matter to the authorities. Elders do not criticize anyone who chooses to make
such a report.”
The church’s publications have often run stories about the horrors of child sexual abuse and the Witnesses’ intolerance for it. But internal documents, letters to elders obtained
and published by former members on a website called AvoidJW.org, are more nuanced.
In a July 1, 1989, letter to elders, the church wrote, “Elders share the obligation to shepherd the flock. However, they must be careful not to divulge information about personal
matters to unauthorized persons.”
The six-page letter describes the legal jeopardy of reporting such information. “Improper use of the tongue by an elder can result in serious legal problems for the individual,
the congregation, and even the Society,” the letter states. “While we as Christians are ready to forgive others who may wrong us, those in the world are not so inclined.
Worldly persons are quick to resort to lawsuits if they feel their ‘rights’ have been violated. Some who oppose the Kingdom’s preaching work readily take advantage of
any legal provisions to interfere with it or impede its progress. Thus, elders must especially guard the use of the tongue.”
The letter further instructs elders in dealing with police. It advises, “No elder should ever consent to the search of a Kingdom Hall or any other place where confidential records
are stored.” It also advises them to contact the church’s legal department, or retain a local attorney should the legal department not be available, if presented with a search
It also advises elders to contact the legal department should they receive a report of child sexual abuse, stating that laws mandating reporting such incidents vary from state to
“You are not legally required to make immediate responses to secular authorities about matters that could involve the disclosure of confidential information,” the letter states.
“Voluntarily allowing the Kingdom Hall or confidential records to be searched, where no search warrant is produced, could infringe on the legal rights of the congregation or of
others. No statements should be made until you have an understanding of your legal position from the Society's Legal Department.”
'I hate the Jehovah’s Witnesses’
Martin Haugh, 41, and his family now live in northern York County. Recently, their condo was decorated for Halloween. If the church elders had their way, he said, he’d be
in big trouble for celebrating “a pagan holiday.” He laughs about it. He is now a non-believer.
Sarah Brooks, as this story was being completed, was expecting her third child. Now 30, she lives in southern York County with her husband and two children, her 9-year-old
son and their 2-year-old daughter.
She has turned away from religion. She’s an atheist and believes that you “don’t need the Bible” to be a decent person and raise children with good morals.
“If there is a God out there, He certainly wasn’t looking over me as a child,” she said. “I definitely know that the Jehovah’s Witnesses is not a true religion.”
People who adhered to that faith behaved in a manner that was contrary to their expression that “Jehovah loves you.”
“It is cruel. It is heartless,” she said. “I was a child and was the victim of a crime and they punished me. It’s wrong. I hate the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
In January, her mother sent her a lengthy text, congratulating Sarah for her engagement, having heard about it from non-Jehovah's Witnesses relatives. At the time, though,
she and her husband were already married. Her mother’s text went on to say that she was “not happy with the choices my children continue to make and that’s only because
they are contrary to what Jehovah teaches us to benefit ourselves. Bible prophecy is being fulfilled. You cannot stop Jehovah from fulfilling his purpose, no one can."
Brooks replied with a photo of an exploding Kool-Aid Man, writing, “Keep drinking the Kool-Aid.”