When Sara Poission suspected her husband was abusing their daughters 20 years ago, she took her fears to the leaders of her Jehovah's Witness congregation in Wilton. Poisson regrets deeply that she followed the advice she says she received: Pray more, be a better wife and keep quiet.
"I was a puppet," said Poisson, now of Claremont. "It was 'God says you are a screw-up, so fix yourself and it will stop.'"
The church never reported Poisson's former husband, Paul Berry, to state officials. A school teacher did, after noticing one child's injuries, and Berry is serving 56 to 112 years in state prison for physical and sexual abuse. The church publicly supported Berry during his trial. Poission said she was kicked out of the church for cooperating with investigators.
Her daughters, now in their 20s, are suing the church in a case that is pending before the state Supreme Court.
Poisson's story contradicts the church's written policy for dealing with child abuse. But her allegation that the church ignored her complaint has been repeated by nearly 60 other former members nationwide in lawsuits against the church over similar accusations. And critics say the church's official policy, even when followed, puts children at risk because it allows molesters back into the congregation with a guarantee that their crime will not be reported to the congregation.
Those critics say it's time the Jehovah's Witness church, which counts about 4,000 members in New Hampshire and 1 million in the United States, faces the same scrutiny the Catholic Church endured for harboring abusive priests. "This has not captured the public's attention because (the Jehovah's Witnesses) are a small church," said Jeff Anderson, a lawyer from Minnesota who has represented victims of abuse within the Catholic, Mormon and Jehovah's Witness churches. "But anytime anyone learns of (how the church handles abuse), they are as alarmed by it as they are by the Catholic church cases."
The Jehovah's Witness policy requires two eyewitnesses to abuse - or a molester's confession -before the church sanctions a molester. A young child cannot be his own witness. When someone is found guilty by the elders, the rest of the congregation cannot be told because doing so would be a sin, according to the church's interpretation of the Bible. A molester may be allowed to remain an active member, if he repents. In some cases, molesters have been appointed as church leaders again.
"These people make the Catholics look like saints," said Bill Bowen of Kentucky, a former Jehovah's Witness leader who started a Web site in 2001 to monitor child abuse inside the church after he says he caught the church in a cover-up. "I think the Catholic Church has made great strides in publicly apologizing and establishing polices to prevent molestation in the future.
"I think (the Jehovah's Witness church) is living in total denial and refusing to admit what they've done in order to protect themselves legally," Bowen said. He has been excommunicated from the church for his public statements and "disfellowshipped"- a total shunning by even his own parents.
Members of the local congregations in Concord, Franklin and Laconia either could not be reached or referred calls to the church's national office in New York. J.R. Brown, a spokesman there, said church leaders are told to report all abuse allegations if their state requires them to do so (New Hampshire and about 40 others do). But they are also advised to take advantage of clerical exemptions, which excuse clergy in New Hampshire and about 30 other states from reporting abuse if it's revealed in a spiritual setting.
Brown could not say how many cases the church has reported to the authorities.
"As a spiritual shepherd, your main goal is to save a sinner from eternal destruction at God's hands,"said Brown, who explained that the policy and all the church's beliefs are based on a literal reading of the Bible. "You want people to turn around and go the right way. When you have that point of view, you can see why confidentiality of the confession is important. If the person knows it's going to be out (publicly), they may be very reluctant to come."
As for what that could mean for the safety of potential victims, Brown said the church expects parents, teachers and others to report the abuse to the state authorities. He said it is against church policy to discourage parents or others from reporting the abuse and added that if a church elder had done that, it was a mistake.
Advice posted on the church's official Web site, however, questions the wisdom of going outside the church. "Some legal experts advise reporting the abuse to the authorities as soon as possible," read an article titled "Protect your children!""In some lands the legal system may require this. But in other places the legal system may offer little hope of successful prosecution."
It's difficult to know how widespread the sexual and physical abuse of children is in the Jehovah's Witness church. Or how often the church has neglected to report assaults or has protected abusive members.
Brown confirmed that the national church keeps a database of Witnesses who have been accused or found guilty of child abuse, but he declined to comment on newspaper reports that the list is 23,000 names long. On his "silentlambs" Web site, which monitors abuse, Bowen has collected stories of abuse from nearly 1,000 Witnesses who are allowed to remain anonymous. He said 5,000 others have contacted him but have not published accounts of their alleged assaults.
Prosecutors across the country and world have convicted church members for abuse, but it's unknown how great that number is. In New Hampshire, Berry and another Witness from Hollis are serving prison time for sexual abuse of children. Meanwhile, nearly 60 Witnesses nationwide are suing the church for allegedly protecting abusive members, according to Bowen.
In Massachusetts, a 14-year-old girl and her parents filed a lawsuit against the church in 2002 alleging that leaders covered up the girl's sexual abuse by a Bible study leader and discouraged the girl's parents from contacting authorities. Like Poission, the mother in that case alleges she was told to "pray more."
A Minnesota woman had similar allegations in a lawsuit she filed last year. When she complained of abuse by a church member, the elders told her to keep quiet and not "drag" the man and the church through the mud, according to her lawsuit. Another lawsuit by a Texas woman alleges the church transferred a man it knew had abused her without telling his new congregation of the complaints. He was later convicted of indecency with a child.
"If you take just the two-eyewitness principle, that alone is enough to say, 'Oh my God, what are they doing?'" Bowen said. Through his Web site, he's been invited to speak at meetings of activist Catholics, and he said the reaction is always the same.
"They are absolutely stunned,"Bowen said. "I've had those Catholics tell me that this is 10 times worse than what their leaders do."
Two years ago, with the help of several child abuse experts (and under the watch of state officials), the Catholic Church in New Hampshire rewrote its policy for handling sexual abuse in the church. The document runs 67 pages and spells out the obligation to report abuse and the training requirements for every church volunteer or employee.
The policy governing the Jehovah's Witnesses is just over one page and cites only the Bible as its source of inspiration. For example, the church takes its two-eyewitness rule from Deuteronomy 19:15: "No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin."
The policy begins with the church's belief that child abuse is "abhorrent." It goes on to advocate balancing the protection of children with the church's faith in repentance and forgiveness.
According to the policy, reports of abuse are reported inside the church to the congregation's elders, who are male and chosen for their ability to lead proper lives and teach the Bible. Together, the body of elders appoints two or three of its members to investigate the allegations, which involves the elders interviewing the accuser and the accused.
Brown, the church's spokesman, said the church does not teach its elders how to interview victims or investigate claims of abuse. They earn their livings outside the church and often do not even know their state's reporting requirements, Brown said. They are expected to call church headquarters in New York for advice on that.
The policy requires two eyewitnesses or a confession from the accused to take action, a standard victim advocates say is practically impossible to meet especially if the child cannot be his or her own witness. Brown said a victim can be a witness only if he is mature enough. The church allows local leaders to decide whether the child is mature enough to be considered credible, Brown said.
"Locally, our elders know the children best," Brown said.
If the alleged molester does not confess, the elders can require the accuser to restate his or her claim directly to the accused in case that prompts a confession, the policy says. Without two eyewitnesses or a confession, the policy requires the elders to drop the matter.
If the complaint is confirmed, an abuser is invited to repent, Brown said. (The same procedure is followed for other serious sins, including smoking, drinking and stealing, Brown said.) With a heartfelt repentance, the abuser may remain in the congregation but with restricted duties, Brown said. But he said it's more likely that the elders would disfellowship or remove an abuser.
Brown couldn't say how often abusers have been allowed to remain in the church. Unlike the policy governing the Catholic Church, there is no stated plan for caring for the victims. Those familiar with the church said counseling is not offered.
Whether or not someone is found guilty, the rest of the congregation is not told why the member was questioned, sanctioned or removed. Members hear only that he or she has been "reproved," Brown said. He disagreed with critics who complain that that silence puts other children at risk.
The church is a family, Brown said, and families don't need to be told of another member's sins.
"We can't tell them, but it will be known informally," Brown said. "In a family, everyone knows of the weaknesses of Aunt Suzie or Uncle John. Things are just known."
The policy contradicts itself on abusers being returned to positions of authority. At one point, it says a molester may not return to a position of authority. Elsewhere, it says that has been allowed when the abuser demonstrated years of exemplary behavior.
Other material posted on the church's Web site either further confuses the church's policy on child abuse or goes against the thinking of professionals who work with abuse victims.
In an article titled "Child Molesting, You can protect your child," the church advises parents to be watchful of potential abusers. It advises that a child's simple "No" can be enough to deter a molester. But it does not alert parents that molesters often spend months grooming their victims into submission.
Brown stood by the church's policy and said if abuse has been ignored or badly handled, the policy wasn't to blame.
"Do I believe elders have made mistakes?" Brown asked. "Yes, elders have made mistakes. Elders are imperfect. We are dealing with humans."