Jehovah's Witnesses downplay sex abuse, women say

The Tennesseean/May 16, 2002
By Leon Alligood

Two Middle Tennessee women said they have a full understanding of a Tullahoma woman's claim that the Jehovah's Witnesses organization has downplayed or ignored child sexual abuse for years.

''In fact, nothing happened to the man who molested me,'' said Melissa Trice, 30, of Spring Hill, about an incident she says occurred in Shelbyville 22 years ago.

''One of the elders asked me, 'What were you wearing?' like I had provoked it. I will never forget that. I was 8 years old, for God's sake.''

The other woman, who asked that her name not be used, alleged that a teen-ager in her Middle Tennessee congregation molested her repeatedly between the ages of 6 and 8.

''They prayed with him, but he didn't go away,'' said the 25-year-old woman who lives in the Nashville area.

The women were prompted to disclose their experiences after reading a story in Saturday's Tennessean about a Tullahoma woman who faced disfellowshipping, the equivalent of excommunication in the Jehovah's Witnesses faith. That woman, Barbara Anderson, risked shunning because she believed the organization repeatedly had ignored child sexual abuse by congregants.

Anderson was one of four Jehovah's Witnesses who told their stories to the NBC news showDateline , which has been investigating the denomination for more than a year. A spokesman for the show said the segment is tentatively scheduled to be televised May 28. Two of the four were disfellowshipped last week, while Anderson awaits a decision. The fourth individual, a Kentucky man, is scheduled to have a meeting with local elders in a few weeks.

The Midstate women who said they had been abused were relieved to know someone was talking about the issue.

''Finally, I thought, 'Somebody is trying to do something about this,' '' said Trice, who identified the person she said abused her, now deceased, as a member of the congregation her family attended.

The man was at her home to do odd jobs for her father on the day of the molestation.

''He sent my sister into the front room and called me to him. The elders tried to pass him off as old and senile, but he called me by my name. I don't think he was senile,'' she said.

Henry Carr of Shelbyville, who was identified by Trice as an elder in the church at the time of her abuse, would not comment on the woman's allegations.

''I'm not free to say anything on it, I guess. I don't want to get into all that stuff,'' Carr said in a telephone interview.

After the molestation, Trice said, she ran to her room and waited for her parents.

''I told them he touched me,'' Trice remembered. ''They took the matter to the elders because that's what you do in Jehovah's Witnesses.''

''You don't have associations outside church,'' said the other woman, who said her abuser also went unpunished by law because the now 18-year-old case never was turned over for prosecution.

According to state law, the women's cases should have been reported to authorities.

Since 1972, Tennessee has required that child abuse be reported even if someone only suspects abuse and has no direct knowledge of the abuse, said Carla Aaron, spokeswoman for the Department of Children's Services. Under the law, people who suspect abuse but do not alert authorities can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Trice said church elders advised her parents to keep peace in the congregation by inviting the abuser to dinner.

''Can you imagine how I felt, sitting across the table from him in my own house?'' Trice said.

The allegations of abuses in the Jehovah's Witnesses organization, which has 1 million members in the United States, follows numerous press accounts of allegations of cover-up of pedophilia by Catholic priests nationwide.

Officials at the New York office of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the incorporated name of the Jehovah's Witnesses, deny that there is an organization-wide attempt to avoid prosecution of child molesters so the organization will not be held up to public inspection.

Elders, parents and victims are encouraged to report suspected abuse to authorities, according to church officials and literature.

On one section of the Watchtower's Web site, officials deal with the subject of child abuse through statements from church officials.

Trice and the unnamed woman said the sexual abuse they suffered still affects them.

''I'm in my 20s, and I'm still not over what happened. I suffer with security issues and self-confidence issues. There's a lot that can affect a child for years and years,'' said the woman who asked to remain nameless.

She hasn't been to a meeting at her local Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall since 1997, which she said has caused a rift between her and her parents, who are still active in the organization.

''My parents and I are not on speaking terms. They don't understand.''

Trice said she was left ''thoroughly confused'' by her abuse.

''Nobody explained to me that what happened wasn't my fault, and I thought that I was supposed to respond in a sexual way when a man took an interest in me,'' she said, saying her promiscuity led to disfellowship as a teen.

''It took me a long time to understand that I didn't do anything, but I'm still working through it all, but it's hard.''

Both of the women are mothers and said they have taken extra precautions to make sure their children are not sexually abused.

''This is not going to happen to my child. I don't want it to happen to anybody's child,'' Trice said.

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