A panel comprising former Jehovah's Witnesses meeting with Echo observed that the sect at times seems obsessed with sexual sin. The gathering of men and women agreed that at times, the organization seems willing to forgive its members of anything, but sexual sin.
At the same time, the group's long history is spotted with plenty of stories about some of the sect's elite involved in inappropriate sexual behavior. These stories have included elders who controlled individual congregations and the Governing Body of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (WTB&TS), which controls the entire membership.
Bethel boys will be boys
At Brooklyn Bethel, the Governing Body holds sway over the 5.6 million members of Jehovah's Witnesses. It cannot handle such a task alone, however. Help comes from Pioneers, Jehovah's Witnesses who volunteer to distribute literature, teach Bible classes, build Kingdom Halls, or do what is necessary to keep the sect operational.
Select Pioneers are privileged to go to Bethel* to serve God--and the GB.
In his book Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah's Witnesses, M. James Penton described the strange life within what he calls the publishing houses or "factories" of Brooklyn Bethel.
"Besides two huge factory buildings, the complex includes several residence buildings for the many hundreds of workers who produce literature for Witnesses throughout the world and, additionally, for the administrative, clerical, and support staffs which are necessary for the governance of a highly centralized religious movement."
Originally, only young men were granted entrance to Bethel. In more recent years, after a number of scandals hinting at homosexual activity in the dorms, women have been allowed.
Because marriage between Bethelites was forbidden, admitting women did little to relieve the young men's sexual tension. The rumors of homosexuality continued.
Today, married couples are permitted to toil together for the organization. However, several correspondents told Echo that gay pairings still are common at Bethel. The conditions are ripe for what psychologists call "institutionalized homosexuality."
Until the mid-1970s, Bethel pioneers stayed and worked at least four years, Penton wrote. Now, one year is expected, although workers who maintain a good record can stay longer.
The workers are not paid a living wage. They receive a stipend for personal items. The factories would be considered sweatshops by today's standards, but Penton explains that workers "accept the regimen of life at Brooklyn .... They are both ideologically committed and highly disciplined individuals who have been taught to accept authority, usually without question."
However, Penton continues, "This does not mean that there are no serious problems brought about by the severity of lifestyle; there are."
Promiscuity became a problem once women were admitted to Bethel. But "heterosexual offenses have never been the serious problem that homosexual ones have been," Penton states. "In fact, [former Watch Tower leader Nathan] Knorr, who seems to have had a fixation on sexual sins, kept the matter of homosexuality and masturbation so constantly before workers at the Watch Tower headquarters that one is forced to wonder if he did not have homosexual tendencies himself."
If so, it might explain why he seemed to protect Percy Chapman, the alleged one-time lover of GB member Leo Greenlees. In 1959, under hint of homosexual scandal, Knorr went to Canada to replace Chapman, who was the Canadian Branch overseer.
Knorr demoted Chapman to janitor, but let him remain at Toronto Bethel--on condition he marry.
According to Larry D., a gay Toronto former JW, "Percy ... was totally anti-marriage and he made sure that none of the "Bethel boys" even contemplated the subject ...."
Larry described the Bethel boys of the 1950s. "They were all young and handsome, hand-picked by Percy Chapman; there was even an elite group known as 'Percy's boys' who would accompany him to expensive restaurants and bars ... at the time, Bethel was on Irwin Avenue in the center of the gay district of Toronto. There was even a Kingdom Hall above 'The Parkside,' one of Toronto's few gay bars in the fifties and sixties."
After Chapman's disgrace, Larry, who personally knew Greenlees, wrote, "Poor Leo Greenlees, Percy's close companion for three decades ... had to find himself a new roommate. ... He was very open about his homosexuality to those few good-looking young brothers .... He would bring along another Bethel boy, Lorne Bridle, who was very good looking and charming."
Regardless of his dubious relationship with Chapman, Greenlees became Treasurer of WTB&TS and one of the Governing Body. According to Larry, "He managed to escape the witch hunt at Brooklyn Bethel in the early seventies when dozens of Bethel boys were disfellowshipped after learning of their midnight trysts in the sauna in Brooklyn Bethel."
Other Bethel stalwarts also became grist for the rumor mill.
Come here, little girl
The heterosexual indiscretions of Jehovah's Witnesses founder Charles Taze Russell are more shocking and easier to document than JW gay activity.
When Russell's wife Maria sued for divorce, court records show she testified that Russell had engaged in an "improper relationship" with Rose, an orphan who was about 10 years old when the Russells took her into their home.
Maria told the court that not only had she caught Russell at night in Rose's bedroom, but in the servant girl's room as well. In fact, "I found him locked in the servant girl's room," Maria said.
According to Maria and other witnesses, Russell fondled Rose, kissed her, held her on his knee, and called her "his little wife." When the girl responded, "I'm not your wife," Russell answered, "I will call you daughter, and a daughter has nearly all the privileges of a wife."
The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society denies any impropriety took place. In fact, it denies Russell, who lived apart from Maria for the next 50 years, ever was married.
"No one was ever produced who gave testimony against the moral character of Pastor Russell," WTB&TS Secretary/Treasurer W.E. Van Amburgh wrote. "To his dying day, he was able to say ... that he lived a life of absolute celibacy."
To hear something other than the WTB&TS party line, Echo contacted active Jehovah's Witnesses through a bulletin board service on a JW Web site. We e-mailed 25 BBS visitors--male and female, from the U.S. and several foreign countries--and asked, "How do you feel about the presence of gay members within your congregation?"
Only two U.S. women answered. One said, "I would rather not comment on that one. I feel the best people to ask on that subject are Jehovah's Witness elders. You will find them in any one of our many congregations worldwide ... all I can say is that Jehovah loves everyone that follows what the Bible says."
The other woman was a gold mine of information. For several weeks, she carried on an e-mail dialogue with this reporter. The woman, who identified herself as Kathy A., a Jehovah's Witness for 37 years, opened up a Pandora's box of child molestation, homosexuality, and anger--hers.
In her initial letter, Kathy wrote, "Since I try very hard to live by what the Bible says, I must let [God's Word] speak on this subject." She listed every familiar Biblical injunction against homosexuality, concluding, "So as you can read for yourself, God condemns homosexuality, including lesbians."
We answered that for the purpose of this article, we wanted to know how she personally felt about gay people, and whether she knew any.
"I hate immorality ... whether it be homosexuality, adultery, bestiality, etc. And yes, I do know some homosexuals. One died from aids (sic) one has it, the other I don't know," Kathy wrote. After more religious instruction, she ended the letter with an intriguing tease: "I do have a personal experience on homosexuality you may not want to hear."
But we did. It took several more exchanges to coax it out of her.
Although she denies he is gay, it appears she may have a gay son. She wrote that her son was "raped and ruined" as a child by his cousin.
"When my son was born there was obviously a difference ... no one wanted to play with him because he was a hard child to get along with .... When he was almost eight, a family member, 16 at the time, said he would baby-sit him."
According to Kathy, the older boy babysat her son for the next several years. During that time, the cousin sexually molested the younger boy.
"My son was 12 when he told me what happened to him .... The police got involved but this 16- (now 20-) year-old denied it. But in his room there was found behind a picture on the wall some women's clothing."
A doctor told Kathy her son's sphincter muscle was "destroyed." Emotionally, she also was destroyed, as she was left to deal with the uncomfortable reality that her child had engaged in homosexual activity for four years with another boy, and never told her.
"My son went to the mental hospital for six weeks as his behavior was out of control," Kathy continued her story. "There we were told that when this kind of sexual behavior happens to a young child, this is what they come to expect as normal and that when he got out of the hospital he would need to be closely monitored for years and he shouldn't be around young children unattended.
"This was a nightmare for us. When my son turned 16, we had to have him committed ... my son was confused for a long time about his sexual identity .... My son (now 22) is not normal today. He is scarred for life, and so is the other young man (the son's cousin). My son is not a homosexual, but neither does he have any female relationship ... my son is still in therapy."
Kathy said she believes homosexuality is caused by child molestation. She said the victims become sinners who molest other children and destroy families. Her experience is all the proof she needs.
"I don't hate homosexuals. If they want to experiment, then let them experiment on people their own age, not on young children."
The Bible according to WTB&TS
Professional counselors have trouble helping JWs deal with sexual problems, because to them, all sexual behavior is determined by biblical interpretation. There is no room for understanding, forgiveness, medical science or alternative viewpoints.
JWs hold the Bible before them like a shield. The Bible they use is the WTB&TS' own translation, which it publishes as the New World Translation.
According to Edmond Gruss, who wrote Apostles of Denial, Watchtower representatives claimed that when New World Translation was released in the 1950s, it had been translated and approved by competent scholars.
In the foreword, the translators wrote, "Religious traditions, hoary with age, have been taken for granted and gone unchallenged and uninvestigated. These have been interwoven into the translations to color the thought."
In his book, Gruss countered, "With the arrogant statement, the Watchtower committee waves aside hundreds of the greatest linguists of all time and substitutes the Committee of Seven ... a committee composed of unknowns who hold little in the way of degrees or scholarly recognition."
In his definitive study, In Search of Christian Freedom, Raymond Franz, a former member of the Governing Body, points out the convenience of creative Bible translation.
"Who really is the faithful and discreet slave whom his Master appointed over his domestics, to give them their food at the proper time? Happy is that slave if his master on arriving finds him doing so. Truly I say to you, he will appoint him over all his belongings."--Matt: 24:45-47, New World Translation.
"In their calls for loyalty and submission, no other portion of Scripture is so frequently appealed to by the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses ... it is employed primarily to support the concept of a centralized administrative authority," Franz writes.
"There is not the slightest question that in the minds of Jehovah's Witnesses ... the "food at the due time" provided by the "slave" is the information supplied by the Brooklyn-centered Watch Tower Organization," Franz says.
Follow or perish
The Jehovah's Witnesses' hold on members is so tight, most find it difficult to leave the sect. Some escape intact. Others, unable to cope with the dichotomy of JW beliefs and the real world, opt for suicide.
In April 1997, Air Force Capt. Craig Button, on an Arizona training flight, broke formation from his unit, flew to Colorado, and crashed his plane into the side of a mountain.
The story made national headlines. People speculated about reasons for what happened. One newspaper report suggested Button committed suicide over a gay love affair with another officer.
In a Dec. 25 New York Times article, James Brooke wrote, "The pilot's parents ... angrily reject the conclusion that he committed suicide." Brooke revealed that Button "raised as the only child of elderly parents, broke as a teenager with the faith of his parents, who are Jehovah's Witnesses."
"My mother is a Jehovah's Witness, raised me to think that joining the military is wrong," Button once wrote.
The Air Force claims Button committed suicide over unrequited love for a woman. "It was a dramatic example of a man who seems to have everything going for him in his life, yet cannot have the woman he loves passionately," the official report concludes.
At the time of the original investigation, however, the woman in question denied she and Button were ever more than friends.
Even more damning is the story of Kelly Blake, a Phoenix woman who poured gasoline over herself and her three children, then set the family ablaze in March 1998.
TV reporters said the woman had become very religious and that she was obsessed with the "sinfulness" of herself and the children she had out of wedlock.
The woman's daughter died at the scene of the fire. The rest of the family was rushed to the hospital. The mother and one son were in critical condition.
A neighborhood boy told Arizona Republic reporters that Blake refused to allow her children attend school for "religious reasons." He said the family was Jehovah's Witnesses, the Republic reported.
National headlines of abuse, sexual dysfunction, suicide and murder are not surprising to the former JWs who talked to Echo. In the next issue, they will tell their individual stories.
*Each JW branch has its own Bethel: London Bethel, Toronto Bethel, etc. For the purpose of this article, unless otherwise noted, Bethel will refer to Brooklyn Bethel, the international seat of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.