Toronton -- A former Jehovah's Witness told a harrowing tale of alleged sexual abuse Monday on the first day of a civil suit that is expected to bring the church under scrutiny. Vicky Boer, 31, wept on the witness stand as she described the three years of fondling and abuse she allegedly suffered at the hands of her father, the patriarch of a devoted family of Witnesses.
Boer, who is suing three church elders and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Canada, the religion's governing body, was 11 years old when the abuse allegedly began in the early 1980s, she said.
But it was how the church to which she had devoted her young life treated her when she came forward with the allegations that prompted her to launch the legal action that began Monday in a Toronto courtroom.
"When you grow up as a Jehovah's Witness, that is your life, and outside of that you don't have a life," Boer told the court during an emotional day of testimony.
"If you dare to leave the organization, you're basically left with nothing."
Three years after the abuse ended, Boer told her mother her story, and church elders within their congregation in Shelburne, Ont., about 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto, were notified.
But rather than inform the Children's Aid Society and permit Boer to seek counselling outside the church, she was forced to confront her father and give him a chance to repent his alleged "sins," court was told.
At that meeting, she testified, her mother insisted the abuse was in the past and that it had already been dealt with. The elders agreed, saying the father "is really showing signs of spiritual repentance," she said.
They also allegedly refused to allow her to see a psychologist, warning her that it would lead to an investigation and might cost her father his job and her mother her only source of financial support.
"They said there's going to be consequences of that," she testified.
"My father would lose her job, the family would be investigated and my mother would be destitute."
While victims of sexual abuse normally aren't identified in public, Boer has agreed to allow her name to be publicized as part of her effort to promote what she alleges is widespread abuse within the confines of the church's congregations.
As part of their beliefs in a strict interpretation of Bible teachings, Jehovah's Witnesses reject anything political or "worldly" that distracts from their focus on Christ and the second coming, which they consider imminent.
Birthdays, secular holidays and Christmas are not celebrated; children are often required to leave class during the Lord's Prayer and the national anthem, Boer said.
The Watchtower has not yet had the chance to defend itself in court, although in a statement of defence it says it has "no knowledge of the allegations" that Boer was abused and that the abuse was never reported to church elders in Shelburne or to the Children's Aid Society.
The defendants also deny that two elders, Brian Cairns and Steve Brown, prevented Boer from reporting her allegations to the society or from seeking psychological help.
"The defendants deny they prevented the reporting of the subject matter to the proper authorities," the statement says.
"To the contrary, the defendants Brown and Cairns were instrumental in ensuring the matter was reported ...if the plaintiff chose not to seek advice from a psychiatrist or psychologist, it was solely of her own volition and because she believed such advice was unnecessary."
They go on to argue Boer never "mitigated her losses" by seeking such help in the eight years between her original allegations and the filing of the suit.
The suit alleges that the church failed in its fiduciary duty to the victim for waiting nearly two months to report the abuse to the "secular authorities," and was negligent in forcing the father and daughter to settle their differences in a face-to-face meeting.
Boer's 58-year-old father, Gower Palmer, continues to live in Shelburne and has never been criminally charged.
It's not the first time that the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses have made headlines. The most recent example is the case of a 17-year-old girl in Alberta who died last week after a lengthy and unsuccessful court battle to avoid blood transfusions to treat her leukemia.