Jehovah's Witness abuse trial nears end

Woman alleges sexual abuse covered up by church elders

Toronto Star/September 22, 2002
By James McCarten

They sit in the gallery like guests at a wedding, as neatly divided by their spiritual beliefs and lifestyles as the two sides in the legal battle they're in court every day to witness. On one side sit dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses, meticulously groomed men and women - many clad in crisp, conservative business attire - on hand to support their church as it defends its doctrine.

On the other side are the friends and family of the plaintiff, a former Witness who is suing the church and three of its elders for their handling of her allegations of sexual abuse nearly 15 years ago. Until Thursday, their ranks included Grace Gough, a devout Jehovah's Witness for 20 years before she devoted her life to helping others escape what she considers little more than a cult.

"I couldn't have gone and sat through any more of it, even if I tried," Gough, 75, said Friday from her home in Fergus, Ont., where she runs a support group called Cult Awareness and Recovery. "I just can't believe in this."

For two weeks, an Ontario Court justice has been getting a crash course in the ways of the Witnesses as the woman squares off against a church that shaped her life for more than 20 years. Final arguments are expected to begin Monday.

The woman alleges the defendants - elders Steve Brown, Brian Cairns and John Didur, as well as the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society of Canada, the church's governing body - failed to get her adequate treatment for the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father between the ages of 11 and 14 in the family home in Shelburne, about 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto. Rather than immediately notify the Children's Aid Society and allow her to seek counselling outside the church, she was required, according to Biblical principles, to confront her father and allow him to repent his alleged sins, the suit alleges.

Elders Brown and Cairns were more concerned about the "clean image" of their faith than they were about the woman's well-being, said Harald Momm, one of the five elders who resigned their positions over the case. "They didn't want to have anything to do with the law of the land . . . they wanted it kept quiet, and we didn't agree with that," Momm told court last week. "This has been going on for 13 years and all I ever got out of it is: 'It is important to keep a clean image. Never mind about the victims.'"

During the final weeks of 1989 and early months of 1990, controversy raged within the Witness community in Shelburne over the woman's complaints, particularly among the eight elders charged with overseeing the congregation. Momm and four others argued that Ontario law required them to immediately report a case of sexual abuse and allow the alleged victim to seek medical help and psychiatric counselling. Eventually, the case was reported to Children's Aid and the police, although no charges ever ensued.

Meanwhile, with the remaining elders convinced of his "spiritual repentance," the woman's father rose through the ranks and enjoyed a level of privilege within the congregation normally reserved for the most respected members, said Momm. The father continues to live in Shelburne and has never been criminally charged.

Colin Stevenson, who represents the defendants, argued that a childhood of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, not the ways of her church, sent the woman down the rocky path that has been her adult life. Stevenson confronted her with a litany of problems - job insecurity, sexual dalliances, emotional turmoil - that have plagued her in the years since leaving the family she says abandoned her. None of them - sexual harassment on the job, being ostracized by friends and her mother, a nervous breakdown and marital troubles, including a variety of extra-marital affairs - are the fault of the church elders whom she alleges failed to deal properly with the abuse, Stevenson argued.

But the woman stood her ground, wiping away tears as she insisted none of it would have happened had she been allowed at age 18 by the church to get psychiatric and medical help. With her military husband overseas, she had a nervous breakdown "because my husband was gone and because my family had disowned me; I was being blamed, and everything I knew in my life was gone," she sobbed. "If things were done properly, none of this would have happened. My mother wouldn't have hated me and I wouldn't have been left alone."

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, the woman said. And anyone who runs afoul of the religion's strictest tenets will find themselves excommunicated, or "disfellowshipped," often to such an extent that they're shunned by their own family.

For her part, it's been years since Gough saw her 56-year-old daughter or 18-year-old granddaughter, both Witnesses, because of the church's notorious tradition of turning a cold shoulder to outsiders. Describing herself as "having a relationship with Jesus Christ," Gough now quotes Karl Marx - "religion is the opiate of the masses," she says - and shuns organized religion in all its forms. "I do believe (Marx) was right there, and I do believe religion does more damage than anything," Gough said. "I think when a person does as Christ said, to love one another - 'love thine enemies, pray for those who hurt you, pray for those who persecute you' - I think that's it, and I've been praying for that a lot."

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