Ex-members urge politicians to force church to open files
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada), Feb. 1, 2003
Bob Harvey, The Ottawa Citizen
An Ottawa woman and two other former Jehovah’s Witnesses have teamed up to demand that federal and provincial governments across Canada open up the church’s files on child sexual abuse.
Kim Sheeler said she and Lee Marsh, of Winnipeg, and Grace Gough, of St. Jacob’s, near Kitchener, Ont., sent out more than 1,000 letters to federal MPs, and all the members of provincial legislatures, asking them to watch last Wednesday’s The Fifth Estate television documentary on abuse by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and then pressure their governments to investigate past abuses.
In the documentary, CBC Television told the story of Mike Moss, who was repeatedly molested by his Jehovah’s Witness Bible teacher as a 14-year-old in Sault Ste. Marie. His case is just one of more than 20,000 cases that a former church elder, Bill Bowen, of Kentucky, says are on file in the Witnesses’ headquarters in New York. Most of those cases have never been reported to police, he said.
Ms. Sheeler said survivors deserve to have some kind of closure of cases that were investigated only by church elders, and often dismissed.
“There is nothing worse than going through an experience like that and not being believed by the people you trust,” she said.
Ms. Sheeler said that as a 17-year-old she was assaulted in her family’s living room by a member of the church who was later convicted of molesting his own children.
She grew up in the church, but left the Witnesses in 1995, and said she helped launch the letter-writing campaign because “I feel an obligation to make sure children are safe in their church. And underneath there is also some anger simmering that nobody believed me when I tried to stand up for myself.”
Ms. Marsh was also sexually abused as a child. Her family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she said her late stepfather repeatedly performed oral sex on her, starting when she was 12, and also molested other members of the family. She says church leaders told them never to talk about it, because they were taking care of it. But police were never informed and her stepfather continued molesting other young girls, even after her mother divorced him, said Ms. Marsh.
“There has been little action from elders in congregations to help victims, and this has resulted in a situation where men who have been accused of abusing children are free to continue preying on children,” she said.
Ms. Marsh said many members or former members of the church “have been fighting this cause for years and nothing has been changing. So we are going to the media in hopes that it will sensitize politicians and persuade them to do something.”
Clive Thomas, a spokesman for the church in Canada, said that The Fifth Estate “made the allegation that Jehovah’s Witnesses harbour child abusers and pedophiles. That is a gross exaggeration.”
He said that any large organization will include some people who molest children.
“The issue is how we handle it,” he said. “We don’t shield anybody who has committed a crime.”
However, Mr. Bowen, who now monitors child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says the church’s policies hurt children and often prevent police from convicting molesters.
He said the church expects untrained elders to first interrogate the children who report the abuse then ask the accused if the allegations are true.
“If the parents then want to report it to police, the child is traumatized and the elders have already tainted the whole process of investigation.”