Slamming the door on Jehovah

The Age, Australia/March 15, 2013

She is an apostate, which sounds like a strange disease, and in many ways it is. According to the Jehovah's Witnesses, Bec Taylor of Traralgon, since she escaped from them, is unable to have a life worth living.

In 2011, The Watch-tower, the scripture magazine for the bizarre yet outwardly benign Christian sect, described those who abandon the church as "mentally diseased" outcasts, or apostates, who "seek to infect others with their disloyal teachings".

They can be "shunned" – cut off from their families and, according to ex-members, subjected to bullying, threats, harassment and stalking to lure them back. Families are told that if they mix with their apostate children, they are traitors too.

Even minor infringements within the Jehovah's Witnesses such as smoking can result in "disfellowshipping", and disfellowshipped people can also be shunned.

Critics of the religion call the practice psychologically and emotionally harmful.

Many ex-members do not speak publicly for fear of reprisals. But not Taylor, 29. She was a Jehovah's Witness in South Australia and then Queensland for most of her life until just a few months ago. She was born into them. Now she cannot speak to her family and was not invited to her late mother's wedding.

Her story covers two most troubling aspects of the religion she calls the "Jo-Ho's" – shunning and the harm it can cause and, more disturbing still, persistent allegations of sexual abuse and even paedophilia by church elders and members.

Victoria's current state inquiry into how churches handle child sex abuse has submissions from former Jehovah's Witnesses.

One includes allegations from four states including rape, sexual assault, blackmail and death threats. There will also be a national royal commission.

"I don't need an apology from them," says Taylor, "and I don't need their love or forgiveness."

She has started an arts degree in anthropology. Education is discouraged within the sect. "It is my final victory over them," she says. "It is a giant f--- you."

Taylor says she grew up in a dysfunctional family and was sexually abused as a child by a teenage boy who was not a Jehovah's Witness. This was in remote South Australia. She says her mother, a devout but erratic Witness – she never knew her father – was also abused as a child and nothing was done or reported, so the pattern continued.

The church's rule for dealing with complaints or suspicions of sexual abuse is that generally there must be two witnesses. The Jehovah's Witnesses consider they are the only ones who know the truth, or "The Truth"; they are suspicious of government, police and media when it conflicts with their doctrine.

British sociologist and author Andrew Holden, who has written books on the religion's culture, calls this a "world-renouncing" approach. Members are not allowed to vote, celebrate Christmas or birthdays, get blood transfusions, sing the national anthem or salute a flag.

But, also, if a member or an elder hears of illegal behaviour, such as abuse or violence, it is usually kept internal. "To protect Jehovah's name," says an insider.

Taylor says in her teens she was again sexually assaulted, this time by a devout Witness. Nothing was ever reported to police. Taylor says she stayed with the church because she had low self-esteem and the Jehovah's Witnesses offered her some hope: "the illusion of a better life," she says. "I didn't want to break Jehovah's heart."

She began caring for her ill mother, was baptised as a Witness and doorknocked every day to fulfil a quota set for her of 90 hours a month. Doorknocking, also known as "pioneering" or "publishing", is the recruitment front line; most Australians have answered their door to a pair of Witnesses offering The Watchtower or Awake! magazines.

By the age of 18, Taylor, a smart and feisty young woman, had begun working as a South Australian advocate for Young Carers Australia and had contributed to policy developed by senator Amanda Vanstone, the then Minister for Family and Community Services. Taylor was also offered work experience and training as a journalist with ABC radio in Renmark. But she says "pressure and hatred" from her fellow Witnesses, and suspicion of her being too educated or upwardly mobile, forced her to turn down the offers in order to stay door-to-door preaching. She got a part-time job cleaning toilets instead.

The Jehovah's Witnesses are puritanical Christians who think they have God's messages to themselves. Only they are "in the Truth". They have 8 million members worldwide and 64,000 in Australia, in 800 "congregations" or parishes located in "Kingdom Halls".

The religion's proper name is the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. It was founded by American draper Charles Russell in 1872. They believe in the end of the world and also the paradise beyond and have predicted five times that Christ would come again to signal it. The last time this happened was 1975. More than 1 million devotees abandoned them in the following six years. In America the Jehovah's Witness have the lowest retention rate of all religions.

They also believe Satan has ruled the earth since 1914. The only way to make things better is by creating a heavenly kingdom on earth of a small number of believers. The Jehovah's Witness' trait of being aloof and "separate" comes from this idea that Satan runs things, so the best way to survive is to avoid society.

Membership has flatlined against population growth in most developed countries. The reach of the internet has had a big impact as whistleblower groups, ex-Witness forums, websites, "leaks" sites and negative publicity abounds.

The church is run by a "governing body" in Brooklyn, New York. In Australia there is a headquarters for the "branch committee" where all the senior officials live, in Ingleburn in the southern suburbs of Sydney. It is known as "Bethel".

Former "ministerial servant" (a trainee church elder) Paul Grundy, of Sydney, lived there for four years in the 1990s. "It's like a big four-star hotel," he says. Another former member who visited Bethel says: "It's nice, but it's like a bubble. They walk around like robots." People involved in the church's administration, publishing business and legal affairs live there too, about 400 people in total. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Australia is a public company; the directors are president Harold "Viv" Mouritz, vice-president Donald MacLean, Gordon King, Terrence O'Brien and Winston Payne.

Mouritz, who was born in Nagambie in country Victoria, is aged 86. MacLean, a Canadian, is 90. Company records show the company's income for the 2011 tax year was nearly $19 million and mostly came from donations. It earned nearly $350,000 in interest.

There is no suggestion the directors directly profited. Insiders say they live frugally and money is spent on investment properties. Every country's branch committee is answerable to the cabal in Brooklyn, who they believe God communicates through, but within each country the national branch committee, local elders and more senior men called overseers are authoritative. Elders can form judicial committees to investigate either each other or members of the congregation.

Kingdom Halls are plainly decorated, like school classrooms, with no iconography or adornment. Congregations meet twice a week to listen to Biblical passages. The structure for disciples to live by is uniform and rigid. Moral conservatism (anti-gay, anti-abortion, no sex before marriage) is strictly enforced.

The British sociologist Andrew Holden says the church has a "quasi-totalitarian" approach in which converts "defer unquestioningly to the authority of those who are appointed to enforce its doctrine". The individual, he says, "becomes the property of the whole community".

To defect is to embrace Satan because Satan lurks outside the church's insular micro-communities. Homosexuality, drug addiction and disease are used as warnings of what can become of the apostate. It is considered a betrayal and heresy to want to leave, which is why the practice of "shunning" plays such a large and controversial part in the lives of those, like Traralgon's Bec Taylor, who are connected to the religion.

The director of Cult Counselling Australia, Raphael Aron, a psychologist, says the Jehovah's Witnesses are not a cult. However, they "display symptoms common to numerous cults" with "a warped view" of family.

From his office in the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield, he counsels ex-members and also families trying to regain contact with those lost to the sect. He says the Witnesses appear as "almost mainstream" but some of their practices appear to be "draconian, cruel and callous".

For a Christian religion, he says, they lack a "spiritual touch" and also lack tolerance and acceptance. "Shunning means that any member who chooses to leave the church for their own personal reasons will be totally cut off from the family that remains there – zero contact with parents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents for the rest of their lives."

Aron says new recruits are often unaware they will go without birthdays and Christmas. "It's a religion without a soul." A young person flirting with the religion can suddenly find him or herself offered accommodation – a sharehouse or a flat – with Witnesses. Young disciples can be physically moved far from their parents, interstate or overseas.

Shunning comes in many guises. I met a man in his mid-40s now living in country Victoria who says when he was a teenage Jehovah's Witness in Queensland in the 1980s, he confessed to having the beginnings of a consensual but frowned-upon sexual relationship – fondling – with a teenage girl in the same congregation.

An elder ordered that he sit in a glass room at the back of the Kingdom Hall at every meeting, twice a week, for four months, for two hours at a time. The glass room was called the fish bowl and members of the congregation were allowed to humiliate him while he was in there. The man says the same elder had sexually assaulted both him and his brother.

Another middle-aged woman, from Melbourne, says that among people she grew up with in the church there was a "conscious class" – she knows about 40 – who only attend so they can keep seeing their families.

They do not believe in the teachings any more but live a complex lie in order to maintain family ties. The woman, who would not give her name for fear of retribution, wants to "break the cycle" for her own children and last year held a secret Christmas at her home for them.

She was baptised into a congregation in Melbourne's south-east despite that congregation later being exposed by Channel Nine for harbouring men – one later convicted of paedophilia offences – involved in sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Another country Victorian man (and ex-Witness) says when two young girls were abused by the older son of a local elder, the elder was moved to another congregation on the fringes of Melbourne.

Congregations in NSW and SA have also held convicted paedophiles. Meanwhile, in Melbourne, a former elder, Richard Hill, recently faced court charged with two counts of indecent assault on a six-year-old girl in 1981.Police and ex-Jehovah's Witness sources say congregations on the Gold Coast and Adelaide and in Cranbourne, Skye, Traralgon and Langwarrin in Victoria remain a concern.

The church's spokesman in Australia, solicitor Vincent Toole, says if the church knew of an elder committing or covering up child sexual abuse he would be removed "from serving in that capacity".

"Witnesses abhor child abuse and consider the protection of children to be of the utmost importance," he says. He also says shunning is a myth and that baptised members who drift away are not treated badly.

Toole supplied a statement from the Frequently Asked Questions on the Jehovah's Witnesses website which reads in part: "We reach out to them and try to rekindle their spiritual interest."

He said the religion did not have a distrust of the wider community but that "the permanent solution to humankind's problems ultimately rests with God's government".

A Victoria Police taskforce, Sano, is investigating allegations of abuse and cover-ups within church groups on behalf of the Victorian government inquiry into the church's handling of such allegations.

One allegation before Sano and also the Victorian Health Services Commissioner is that a Traralgon elder was allegedly able to get into a young girl's hospital ward at Latrobe Regional Hospital in Gippsland without the permission of the girl's parents and without the right access cards.

"The complaint raised with us by the Health Services Commissioner in connection with the Latrobe Regional Hospital has nothing to do with sexual abuse," Toole said.

"We have never heard of taskforce Sano."

Whistleblower Steven Unthank, meanwhile, a carpenter and ex-Witness from Toongabbie in Gippsland, has given the Victorian parliamentary inquiry a submission claiming his family were persecuted after he tried to tackle child abuse. He says the church has covered up widespread abuse and violence over four decades.

"It is a paedophiles' paradise," he says. Unthank has also waged a long campaign to make elders and door-to-door preachers get Working With Children police checks, which the church has now begun to comply with.

In Traralgon, Bec Taylor says she is now a "work in progress" after cutting all ties late last year with her "brainwashed" family and with the church she once loved and pledged loyalty to. She had found herself living in Brisbane, worshipping at the Newfarm congregation and working in a call centre.

She was mugged early one morning walking to work. It took a month for anyone from her congregation to telephone, she says. Then when she finally went back to the church and had a massive panic attack, an elder drove her to hospital and dropped her at the door.

Suffering from post-traumatic stress and the effects of being abused as a child, she ideated suicide alongside the Brisbane River several times. Again, no support from her fellow Witnesses. And that was that. She began to quit, was ostracised further by her family, then quit entirely and moved states.

Too many cover-ups, she says, too little compassion.

"At least now I can say what I hear in my head is actually coming from my own head. I just hope others start to speak out too."

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