Charges of sexual abuse and coverups within a religious group are no longer confined to Catholic priests. A News 8 investigation has uncovered a growing number of allegations that children are being victimized within the Jehovah's Witness faith. It's a charge church leaders have gone to great lengths to deny.
There are approximately 1 million Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States , and 6 million worldwide. One of the most important tenets of the faith comes from Deuteronomy 19:15, a verse in the Bible, which states: "No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin. At the mouth of two witnesses, the matter should stand good."
Victims allege that, for decades, this passage has been used to force them into silence and to cover up abuse. While normally it's not News 8 policy to identify victims of sexual assault, the women included here wanted their stories to be heard. Jesika Thoman said she was just four years old when she was molested by an uncle. "He destroyed my life," Thoman said, crying. "And there's no taking that back."
It was only recently that Thoman discovered her sister, her mother, and her aunt also claimed they were sexually abused as young girls. The abusers were different men, from different congregations, but all of the same faith - Jehovah's Witnesses. Thoman said in each case - sometimes despite evidence - church elders prevented the family from reporting the abuse to police, and then did little or nothing to punish the alleged molesters.
"That 'two-witness' rule thing is a joke," Thoman said. "Not only is it a joke - how many people do you know that are raped in front of somebody? How many, how many children? It's a dark thing. It's a secret that people have. How many times are they going to do it in front of somebody so they can get busted?"
At the age of 26, and with a child herself, Michele Lonabaugh made the very difficult decision to defy elders and report her stepfather to authorities. Lonabaugh said from the age of 9 to 14, he sexually abused her.
Last year, shortly after her stepfather was indicted, Lonabaugh said she was excommunicated. Or, in the words of Jehovah's Witnesses, she was 'disfellowshiped' - a sanction so severe that the person is permanently shunned by family and friends in the faith.
"I don't know what allegations they used to disfellowship me," Lonabaugh said. Lonabaugh said there was no hearing, and no advance warning.
"No, I wasn't involved," Lonabaugh said. "No, my mother called and told me it was announced at one of the meetings." Lonabaugh said she has rarely seen her mother since that day. She said her stepfather's case never went to trial, because the statute of limitations had expired on the crime.
Organization leaders refused requests for an interview with News 8 on camera. However, the allegations of sex abuse have created such a worldwide controversy for the church that it has now posted edited soundbites for the media to use. "We have a very aggressive policy to handle child molestation in the congregations," said church spokesperson J.R. Brown. "It is primarily designed to protect our children, and then it is also in compliance with the laws of the land or the state, so that there is not a conflict.
"When it comes to the matter of reporting, then that's something the parents can decide," Brown said. "We certainly never tell them not to report a case of child molestation."
Of course, the soundbites don't allow for follow-up questions to accusations. Bill Bowen is a former elder from Kentucky who now operates a Web site for victims of abuse called "Silent Lambs."
"If you report a child molestation to the police, on surface value, you're not going to be disfellowshiped - especially now that they've made that statement," former elder Bill Bowen said. "The problem comes in if the man is deemed innocent by the elders. If the child does not have a second eyewitness, then the man is deemed innocent within the church. And, all members in the church have to treat him as an innocent man."
Disgusted with the handling of a molestation case in his own church, Bowen taped an official in the Jehovah's Witness Legal Department in New York giving him some advice.
On the tape, the official said, "You just ask him again, 'Now is there anything to this?' If he says 'no', then I would walk away from it ... Leave it for Jehovah. He'll bring it out."
Bowen was disfellowshipped in August. Church leaders accused him of "causing divisions". Bowen claims the church maintains a database on all child molestors. He said sources within the organization have told him that it contains the names of 23,720 abusers from around the world. The files are stored in Brooklyn at the Jehovah's Witnesses headquarters, known as the " Watch Tower."
"The Watch Tower has acknowledged that there is a database," Bowen said. "They have only argued about the numbers. I'm perfectly willing to put my numbers on the table and let them show what the actual numbers are.
"I feel now, since the spring, there are far more numbers than that due to the media attention. I would estimate there are between 30,000 and 35,000 now because of the media exposure to this. So no, I don't think 23,720 is accurate, because there's a lot more. I would defy them to prove me wrong.
One church member, Daniel Fitzwater, is a convicted child molestor in Nevada. According to internal church documents, he abused 17 girls from six different congregations.
Attorney Kimberlee Norris is representing ten of Fitzwater's victims. "What has the church done? It has supported him 100 percent throughout the process," Norris said. And what has the church done in regards to Fitzwater's victims? "Most of the victims have been disfellowshipped," Norris said.
When Fitzwater is released from prison in February, he will be a member in good standing, presumably allowed to practice another major tenet of the Jehovah's Witness faith - going door to door, witnessing and setting up Bible studies. Some of his victims wonder if the families who invite him will ever be told they are trusting a child molestor.
Based on the cases that are currently emerging... it appears that most of the molestation victims in the Jehovah's Witnesses appear to be young girls... which is different from the trend that we've seen in the Catholic Church. Also, such has been the secrecy within the Jehovah's Witnesses that victims such as Jesika Thoman are only now finding out about abuse with others in their own families.
Thoman said even though she and her sister were close growing up, she never knew that her sister had been sexually abused until last year.