When Jehovah’s Witnesses excommunicate, or ”disfellowship,” a member, even the closest human ties can be severed without question.
ST. PETERSBURG — As far as her children and 6-million people around the world are concerned, Shirley Jackson is as good as dead, has been for seven years.
In 1995, Jackson, a home health care worker and a nanny who lives in St. Petersburg, was “disfellowshipped,” or excommunicated, from Jehovah’s Witnesses. Disfellowshipping is among the Witnesses’ highest forms of discipline, reserved for those who disobey religious teachings and will not repent.
Witnesses are told to immediately shun the disfellowshipped, who are said to be certain to die at Armageddon. Witnesses must pass them on the street without so much as a hello. Sons, daughters, mothers and fathers are expected to cut off relatives, making exceptions only in cases of family business or emergency.
“No matter what they tell you, you will always be my daughter and I will always love you,” Jackson recently wrote in a letter to her daughter, to no avail. Rather than strengthen families, Jackson says, the Witnesses tear them apart.
Disfellowshipping is little known to outsiders, who recognize Witnesses only as the people who pass out magazines on Saturday mornings. But scandal in the denomination has opened a door to its core beliefs and operations.
In recent months, at least three Witnesses were disfellowshipped after talking to Dateline NBC about church leaders’ handling of child molestation allegations. The action made national headlines and spurred former Witnesses worldwide to step forward with their stories.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe disfellowshipping is an act of love, intended to inspire sinners to change their ways so they eventually can apply to be readmitted to the faith.
The sanction is based on I Corinthians 5, which directs Witnesses to “remove the wicked from among yourselves” and is necessary, said Witnesses national spokesman J.R. Brown, to preserve the religion’s “moral integrity and cleanliness” in a corrupt world soon to be destroyed by God Jehovah.
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Jehovah’s Witness elders — all are men — are the equivalent of ministers in other religions. Though unpaid, they take on responsibilities such as teaching Bible lessons and passing on denomination policy. They also investigate Witnesses accused of committing crimes against other Witnesses. In some of these cases, the police are never called.
Among the elders’ primary tasks is serving on small judicial committees that hear confessions and decide whether an offense is worthy of excommunication.
Excommunications are announced to the congregation, but elders never say why a person was expelled. Witnesses can only guess from a long list of offenses that range from smoking cigarettes to manslaughter. Homosexuality, fornication, drunkenness, slander, fraud, gambling, apostasy, fits of anger and violence, and adultery are others.
The excommunication announcement tells members to begin shunning that person. If they don’t, they, too, risk being disfellowshipped. Fear of being disfellowshipped is gripping for many Witnesses. Because they believe that only Witnesses will be saved from death, many don’t associate with non-Witnesses.
Being disfellowshipped, then, means losing your circle of friends, not to mention family members who remain in the faith.
Elders disfellowship 50,000 to 60,000 Witnesses around the world each year, Brown said.
“It’s not an unusual occurence, as far as we’re concerned,” he said.
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Jackson, 54, had been a Witness for nearly 20 years when she began having doubts.
In 1993, she said, her husband gathered his belongings in the middle of the night and abandoned her as she and her children slept. She said he had been violent, and she decided to divorce him. But Witnesses told her the only biblical justification for divorce is adultery, which she could not prove he had committed.
Jackson was also on shaky ground with the Witnesses because she had close friends who were not in the faith, she said. In interviews, Jackson and several others said Witnesses are not allowed to socialize with non-Witnesses unless they are proselytizing.
Brown, the Witnesses’ spokesman, said this is not true, although differing interests sometimes make such relationships difficult.
After her husband left her, Jackson continued going to the Kingdom Hall five times a week and performing 10 hours of door-to-door service each month, but she didn’t feel very spiritual. One day while going door to door, Jackson mentioned to another Witness, “When I go into a Kingdom Hall, I don’t feel God’s presence is there.”
She became even more disillusioned in the mid 1990s when, she said, elders dismissed her suspicions that a fellow Witness was sexually abusing his 8-year-old daughter. No one called the police.
But law enforcement authorities eventually got involved, and the girl was found in a trashed home, having eaten ketchup sandwiches to quell hunger, Jackson said. Some months later, Kenneth Donald Weaver was arrested and placed on community control in 1995 for sexual activity with a child. Weaver, who has a lengthy criminal history, is now in prison.
Wavering in her beliefs, Jackson decided not to attend an annual assembly for Witnesses.
Her daughter was upset and told elders. They went to her home for a visit. They had charges against her, Jackson said:
One charge was “speaking out against a brother” with regard to the child molestation, she said. She said they told her to stop cavorting with her non-Witness friends. And someone had told them what she had said about not feeling God’s presence in the Kingdom Hall.
The elders told her she had 24 hours to change her ways, Jackson said. She refused to comply and was disfellowshipped, her name announced in front of the congregation. She was not present.
Her daughter was 17 at the time. She moved out to live with other Witnesses, has not held a conversation with Jackson since and is now married and living in Alabama.
Two of Jackson’s three sons are also Witnesses and don’t speak to her, she said.
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As with the Catholic Church, child molestation cases have brought the inner workings of Jehovah’s Witnesses to the forefront. One case in Kentucky prompted former elder William Bowen to start asking questions.
At the center of the cases is the two-witness rule. The Witnesses abide strictly by their Bible, the New World Translation. The translation is published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit organization in Brooklyn, N.Y., that acts as the Witnesses’ headquarters and overseer.
Deuteronomy 19:15: No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin, in the case of any sin that he may commit. At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good.
As far as the Watch Tower is concerned, that means Witnesses can’t take action against someone unless at least two people can verify an offense happened.
That standard is difficult to meet in cases of child molestation, where often only the victim and perpetrator are present.
About two years ago, Bowen began to suspect that a fellow elder in his congregation near Paducah was abusing the elder’s daughter. In a review of Witness files, Bowen found that the elder had previously been accused of molesting someone else. Bowen says he got further proof that the daughter might also have been molested.
In keeping with Witness policy, he called the Watch Tower’s legal department in Brooklyn for guidance. The department is staffed with lawyers who are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When Bowen described the situation, he says, he was told there was nothing to be done — the man had denied it, so there weren’t enough witnesses. He would have to “leave it in Jehovah’s hands.”
Other former Witnesses who served as elders around the nation have since reported similar experiences.
Disgusted, Bowen resigned as an elder and started a nonprofit organization and a Web site for Witnesses who were victims of molestation.
Thousands logged onto his “silent lambs” site, he says. Many told stories of abuse that elders did not believe.
Bowen, 45, went public with his story. He and several other Witnesses were featured on Dateline NBC. One woman, Barbara Anderson, had worked in the Watch Tower’s research department and was concerned that the organization wasn’t following up on abuse cases.
Bowen contends that tipsters told him the organization keeps a database with the names of 23,000 accused molesters.
Brown, the Witnesses’ spokesman, would not discuss specific cases, but he scoffed at allegations that Witnesses protect child molesters. Yes, Witnesses believe in the two-witness rule, he said, but that’s not the only way wrongdoers can be caught.
“It cannot be said that we will do nothing unless there are two witnesses,” Brown said. He said Witnesses are not required to report crimes to elders before calling civil authorities. Victims and their families are free to call police at will, he said, although some don’t choose to.
Elders’ investigations work hand-in-hand with what Witnesses sometimes call “Caesar’s law,” Brown said. “We’re not handling the criminality of this,” he said. “We’re handling the sin.”
The Watch Tower does keep records of people accused of molestation, but the number in the database is far fewer than 23,000, he said, declining to give a specific figure.
Watch Tower officials use the database to ensure that a person against whom a credible allegation of molestation is made won’t be elevated to positions of authority. Also, Brown said, if a person is accused in separate incidents, Witness officials have a record of that history and will look into the matter seriously.
After the Dateline program aired in May, Bowen, Anderson and Anderson’s husband were disfellowshipped. A couple who said their daughter had been abused by a Witness were also threatened with excommunication.
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The modern Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society began with a small group of Bible students near Pittsburgh and was incorporated in 1884. Back then, about 50 believers traveled door-to-door full time, spreading their beliefs.
They were largely successful in the next few years in convincing people that the end of the world, or Armageddon, was imminent and that only Jehovah’s Witnesses would survive.
Witnesses don’t believe in a burning hell. Non-Witnesses will simply be killed in the end. The vast majority of Witnesses will live forever on Earth, which will become a paradise once rid of the evil perpetuated by a society of nonbelievers. A select group of Witnesses — 144,000, to be exact — will live in heaven with Jesus Christ. This, based on a passage in the Book of Revelation, is referred to as “the heavenly hope.”
The denomination’s governing body and a workforce of other Witnesses operate a massive and well-organized religious base with a legal department, publishing house and printing facilities that ship Witness literature and Bibles all over the globe.
The Watch Tower keeps detailed accounts of the number of hours each Witness goes door-to-door, the number of home Bible studies completed and records of those who have been disfellowshipped.
The governing body also establishes policy for Witnesses to live by that it says is based on the Bible. Witnesses cannot vote, receive blood transfusions or salute the flag, among other restrictions.
Not even the marriage bed is beyond the Watch Tower’s purview.
Brown said Witnesses believe that sexual activity between men and women should “follow the normal course” of things. “We feel that oral or anal intercourse would go beyond that.”
Couples are often counseled accordingly before marriage, Brown said. Guilt-ridden Witnesses have gone before judicial committees to confess wayward sex acts with their spouses.
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The Watch Tower predicted several times in the 1900s that Armageddon would occur. The organization grew as people were baptized Witnesses, hoping to join the only “true” religion before it was too late.
Joseph F. Rutherford, once the Watch Tower’s president, was convinced that 1925 would mark the year that forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would return to earth. Rutherford had a large mansion built in California so they would have a place to live. The mansion was later sold.
Decades passed. Then Witnesses declared that the end would arrive in 1975. Some sold their homes, packed up and hit the road, going door-to-door to recruit as many people as they could. Young adults refused to go to college. Couples put off having children.
Diane Gholson of Spring Hill was among those anticipating Armageddon. In 1974, she feverishly wrote letters to her husband’s Baptist relatives, begging them to become Witnesses before it was too late.
“When it didn’t come, my husband said, ‘Maybe they’re off by a year,’ ” she said.
They waited. And waited.
By 1980, Gholson said, they’d had enough. In 1982, they were part of a group of Witnesses who participated in a march at Watch Tower headquarters. Watch Tower leaders, they charged, were nothing more than “false prophets.”
Gholson was disfellowshipped.
Shirley Jackson, who had been baptized in 1974 in case the end did come, was unswayed, however. She accepted the Watch Tower’s explanation that the “light” of God’s word was getting brighter.
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Brown says disfellowshipping inspires wrongdoers to come back to the religion. Those who want to reapply can do so, but they must adhere to Witnesses’ policies. They are allowed inside the Kingdom Halls but are ignored by the other congregants until readmitted to the faith.
Each year, Brown said, 30,000 to 40,000 are reinstated, having “come back to their spiritual senses.”
Jackson now goes to Glad Tidings Assembly of God church in St. Petersburg. She is happy there and says she can sense God’s presence in the sanctuary. She regrets ever believing what the Witnesses taught her.
Only her youngest child, a 17-year-old son, was not baptized a Witness. He lives with Jackson and her new husband.
“It hurts,” Jackson said of her broken family. “But I’m not bitter. I want to help people who are going through this.”
– Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report