Due to accusations of prior sexual abuse by a current leader, about ten people protested against the Kent Jehovah’s Witnesses church recruiting downtown in a march off Franklin Avenue Saturday.
Anna Ciano-Hendricks, co-organizer of the event and former Jehovah’s Witness, said she was a member of the Kent chapter of the church for her whole life and was sexually abused as a child by a member who is now in leadership. She said after taking concerns about this individual to the elders of the church, they “swept it under the rug,” and threatened to destroy documentation of her abuse.
She said her case is not unique, but rather indicative of a larger problem in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church on a global scale.
“When I came out about the abuse in my 20s, the elders told me to never speak of it again,” she said. “And I wasn’t even to talk to other women in the hall because they didn’t want me to form a support group against them.”
When reaching out to the Kent Jehovah’s Witness chapter for comment, they referred KentWired to the national chapter, which gave this statement:
“Jehovah’s Witnesses condemn the grossly evil and unconscionably selfish actions of someone who victimizes children. Elders in our congregations believe their obedience to God is linked to obeying the laws of the land. Thus, elders faithfully comply with reporting laws and do not discourage victims or their families from reporting abuse to the police. In addition, a person who has engaged in child sexual abuse does not qualify to receive any congregation privileges or to serve in a position of responsibility in the congregation for decades, if ever.”
This protest came just months after extensive child sexual abuse investigations into the church in Pennsylvania.
Ciano-Hendricks, who left the church in 2022, said the reaction of the church to her abuse claims and the treatment of her daughter after she left the church caused her to finally leave it.
She has since co-written a book titled “Epiphany: Awaken to Your Truth,” where she writes about leaving the church.
After coming forward about the abuse, Ciano-Hendricks said the church promised the individual who abused her would never hold a position of authority. A few years ago, he was promoted to a leadership position.
“When I approached the church, they told me I have the right to just not be there when he gives parts, or they’ll tell me to sit on the other side of the room,” she said. “So the minute I got verbal with the book and everything, I’m labeled an apostate.”
She said an “apostate” is someone the church labels an “enemy” of Jehovah, or God. She said because she and her daughter were labeled “apostates” for leaving the church, many of their friends and family will not be attending her daughter’s wedding this September.
When she spoke out about the abuse, Ciano-Hendricks said members of the church began using intimidation tactics to try to silence her. Even more recently, she said, they have been recruiting just outside her workplace in Kent.
“They have been there,” she said. “When everything was happening, it got worse. There was a group of four elders that were working on my case. They were driving by my house.”
She said she has tried asking the members recruiting to move, but to no avail — that is what pushed her to protest.
Skyler Mtrey, Ciano-Hendricks’ daughter and former Jehovah’s Witness, said many people she grew up with would no longer associate with her after she left the church, likening disfellowship to shunning practices.
She said a member’s disfellowship is something shared before the whole church, and after, the members of the congregation are encouraged not to associate with them.
“They go up on stage and they will announce the person’s name and say they are no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and that is the effective rule as of that moment, they say a prayer over the congregation and then, snap, everything is done,” Mtrey said. “Even if that person is sitting there, they pretend like they don’t exist from that moment on.”
Ciano-Hendricks said after Mtrey was disfellowshipped, she was told not to associate or spend time with her, as she was no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She said this was part of what motivated her to leave the church.
The church and its doctrine
The church of Jehovah’s Witnesses began in the 1870s and quickly separated themselves from mainstream Christian ideology by rejecting ideas like the triune God, hell and the idea that Christ died on a cross. It still has over eight million members worldwide today.
Ciano-Hendricks said part of what made her rethink the church’s ideals was how they choose to handle rape and sexual assault accusations.
“If a child or someone reports rape or child molestation, it says right in their manual: you’re to automatically call the corporate headquarters in New York. Not the police, not the authorities,” she said.
The basis for this, she said, comes from a scripture in Deuteronomy, that says, “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
Regarding rape, The Jehovah’s Witnesses handbook says, “As a Christian woman, you are under obligation to resist… Resistance is imperative, because the rapist is after, not just money, but your virtue. An issue of integrity to Jehovah’s laws is involved here. So by no means would it be proper to submit quietly to rape, as that would be consenting to fornication.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses are also forbidden from receiving blood transfusions, even as children, Mtrey said. This is something that has come up in her own life, when she experienced a seizure after being at her fiance’s house.
Robby Cuenot, Mtrey’s fiancé, said he took her to the emergency room after the seizure.
Mtrey was disfellowshipped at the time, but she still had a medical card that said she could not accept blood transfusions for religious reasons. Immediately after this event, Cuenot said, they contacted a lawyer to change this.
“There’s this tension in the room because obviously she’s not bleeding out right now, but there’s this ideology here, there’s Skyler with this card in her purse that says, ‘let me die,’ knowing that if this were any other situation. That that would’ve been the end, is terrifying,” Cuenot said.
The protests’ mission
Ciano-Hendricks said the goal of the protest was not only to demand change, but also to let others wanting to get out know they are not alone.
“The end goal is to let them know that they have us, they have a support system,” Ciano-Hendricks said. “There are a lot of Skylers and Annas in this world that will help them regroup.”
She also said one of her long term goals is to pursue advocacy and raise national awareness of the reality of the Jehovah’s Witnesses church.
“I feel rules also need to change on minors,” Ciano-Hendricks said. “Just as Norway changed their ruling on stripping the religious category from the Jehovah’s Witnesses due to it violating children’s rights, we really need to take a hard look at the same thing in the U.S.”