Ex-Jehovah's Witness elder describes how he was abused by fellow worshipper as a boy

John Viney was a church elder when his own daughter revealed she had been assaulted by her uncle. Now the 67-year-old has described how he himself was systematically abused for five years

Wales Online, UK/February 16, 2020

By Laura Clements

John Viney is startlingly frank as he describes the moment, aged 13, a male family member led him into the woods at the back of his home and raped him.

Stood with his back to someone he trusted implicitly, amid the trees in what the kids called 'The Hole and The Hollow', he admits he didn't really know what was happening.

As the man carried out his depraved serious sexual assault, John can just remember his relative telling him it was a way for him to see how old he was.

When it was over John pulled up his trousers and went back to his parents and his sister and carried on as normal. It never happened again and it would be 50 years before he ever mentioned it to anyone else

Even when John's own teenage daughter Karen told him that she had been raped by her uncle, John kept that bit of his own past buried deep out of reach. Karen, however, was deeply affected by her experiences and, unlike her father, was unable to package up her feelings neatly in a box. She turned to self-harm as a coping mechanism.

But at that moment when his daughter needed him the most John, who was by then a highly-regarded elder in the Jehovah's Witnesses in Barry, made a choice and found himself publicly shunning her.

It was only years later that the price of his own silence was finally revealed to John – his abuser had gone on to abuse two more young boys after him.

While his story is a heartbreaking one of destructive abuse which nearly tore a family apart, it is much more profound that that.

Thanks to John's "normalness" and his striking ability to talk in a way that induces neither shame or embarrassment, he has started an important conversation around emerging evidence of alleged institutionalised child abuse within the Jehovah's Witness organisation.

Why has he decided only now to open up about his own experiences, I ask.

"I was asking other people to come forward about their abuse when they felt they could," said John, who has given up his automatic right to lifelong anonymity to speak out. "Then I thought to myself: 'I’m being a hypocrite' and I decided it was time I said something.

"I don't beat myself up for not reporting it when I was a kid. But as you get older that's when the shame creeps in and then a few more years down the line you talk to yourself that you should say someting. But so much time has passed you think people would ask why you didn't say anything earlier.

"You go from being the victim to supporting the crime so then you just don’t do it. "

Although he publicly announced his own experiences of abuse on national TV recently, John's story begins 62 years ago when he was just five years old after his parents converted to the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"It's all I have ever known, being a Jehovah's Witness," he said. "It stopped us having Christmas – I can just about remember getting presents and putting decorations up in the last year but then our lives completely changed.

"Jehovah's Witnesses don't acknowledge celebrations of any kind so we had to sit at the back of the class while my classmates made Easter cards, Christmas cards, Mother's Day cards – anything that was fun really.

"And I remember sitting outside the school hall as my friends all went past for morning assembly – they would shout out: 'Oi, Viney, why aren't you coming in?'. It was embarrassing."

The worst thing was being dragged around the streets with his parents at the weekends, as they went from door to door, preaching about their faith. It meant Saturday matches for the young John, who "absolutely loved football", were very much out of the question.

Despite that he remembers a "happy childhood" and said he never doubted his parents loved him. "They were normal parents and that's what I attribute my normalness to now," the 67-year-old said.

Even so John would learn that piety did not always translate to morality. After his eighth birthday a distant male relative and fellow Jehovah's Witness would come and stay with the family at their three-bed home in Kent. He would sleep in the same bed with John – the start of a five-year campaign of abuse.

"It wasn't constant and every week but it was every couple of months when he came into our house or when I went to his house," John explained. "I can look upon it now as...." He doesn't finish the sentence as he struggles to find the right words. He starts again: "I guess it's sad but I just didn't let it affect me and ruin my life."

By the time he was 13 John and his family had moved to Stamford in Lincolnshire and that's where the abuse stopped one day without any apology or explanation.

"That last time is the time I have got in my head that I can remember," said John as he described the incident in the woods. "Naively I believed it when he said: 'This is how I see how old you are'.

"I had my back to him. I didn’t really know what was going on behind me. I didn't know what was happening. I wish I could say there was some sort of emotional pain or confusion afterwards but there wasn’t. I just got on with life."

That life was all about being a good Jehovah's Witness and it was a lifestyle the teenage John didn't question. He doesn't go as far as calling the religion a cult but he does call it a "strong, closed control group".

"You are being programmed so by the time you get to 11 or 12 you don't stand a chance," he said. "It’s like they cut the top of your head off, rewire it, then put the top back on.

"I call it the Hotel California religion, after The Eagles: 'You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave'."

John left school at 15 and started working as a window cleaner. The freedom of the job allowed him to carry out the specified 100 hours of preaching, or pioneering work, every month. That flexibility is the reason why thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses across the world are window cleaners, said John, who is still a window cleaner in Barry today.

At 17 he wrote to the Watchtower, which represents the headquarters of the organisation, and asked where they needed more support. They suggested the south of Wales and so John packed his bags and ended up in Treharris.

It was at a large gathering at the Barry Memorial Hall that John first set eyes upon Mary, the woman who would become his wife. "I saw this woman and thought: 'Wow', what a woman," recalls John with a smile and a low whistle. By 1972 they were married and three years later their first daughter Karen was born. Kathrin followed in 1978 and then Joanne in 1981.

For 15 years John and his family were committed Jehovah's Witnesses and highly thought of among the community who would meet at the Kingdom Hall in Barry. "I just put my head down and thoroughly enjoyed myself," said John. He was chair of the hospital liaison committee in Wales, trying to work with the medical profession to offer alternative treatments that didn't use donated blood for Jehovah's Witnesses.

"Jehovah's Witnesses don’t have a death wish so I genuinely felt my work was helping people," he said. But then came the bombshell that Karen, who had just turned 16, had been abused by her uncle and Jehovah’s Witnesses elder Mark Sewell.

Karen was just 12 when she first indicated that something was wrong, telling John she didn't like the way Sewell was kissing her when he visited. "It went over my head what she was trying to say," sighed John. "I don't remember ever thinking about my own abuse. I had no idea that there were other things going on." It wasn't until she wrote it all down on paper when she was 16 that Karen's parents discovered the full truth.

Like "good Jehovah's Witnesses" they dealt with the issue through the church's internal judicial system.

The Jehovah's Witnesses religion is one that polices itself and teaches members to avoid interaction with outside authorities. One of the rules set by the main governing body requires that for child sexual abuse to be taken seriously there must be two witnesses to it. In addition any alleged child sex abuse victims must recount their allegations in front of their abuser.

The whole process was a harrowing ordeal for Karen and the family eventually involved the police too. Even so no prosecution was brought at that time and Karen had to live with the judgement and disbelief of the religious community for 20 years.

It wasn't until July 2014 that businessman and former Butlins holiday camp driver Sewell was jailed for 14 years after being convicted of eight historic sex charges against girls and women in a period spanning more than eight years.

While she was still a teenager Karen chose to leave the organisation, which led to her being 'disfellowshipped' – a brutal public shunning of the individual who "does not remain in the teaching of the Christ". Advice from the Watchtower tells followers how to treat a disfellowshipped person: "Do not receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him. For the one who says a greeting to him is a sharer in his wicked works."

Karen did not speak to us for this piece but in an interview after Sewell's three-week trial, which you can read in full here, she described how she was forced to face Sewell at three meetings organised by the Jehovah’s Witnesses after she first reported the abuse.

“I think that’s probably the worst part about the whole thing. I would even go as far as to say that it’s even worse than what he did to me,” said Karen at the time.

“To say I was crushed would be a bit of an understatement. The bottom line is no child should ever be made to sit in front of a person who has touched them and say what that person has done to them.”

Discussing Karen's disfellowshipping, John added: "Kathrin suffered emotionally too. All of a sudden she couldn’t speak to her sister and she left too. I had two girls who needed help but who I couldn’t talk to. They had to go."

Looking back now, I ask how that makes John feel.

"I do carry grief now but because I was trying to be a good Jehovah's Witness, I had to adhere to the faith. When you disfellowship someone you are basically telling them no-one trusts you.

"We were making trouble for the congregation – I was trying to still see them.

"I strongly believe that the shunning of disfellowship can be much much worse than the abuse. You lose your family, who won't believe you, when you need them most.

"Then you leave and are seen to get on with your life. It looks like you are okay and it plays right into the hands of the abusers. The rest of the community think you must have been lying."

"You need two witnesses, which of course you're never going to have in a child sex abuse case. If the abuser says 'no I didn’t do it' then that's the end of it."

John tried his hardest to placate both sides and tried to keep seeing his daughters but he was being "stretched like a piece of string" in two opposite directions. That string finally snapped when Karen asked her father to walk her down the aisle at her wedding.

Straightaway he knew to do so would only cause trouble – but he couldn't say no. "I told her I would but would try and keep it a secret," he said. "But such is their network I walked her down the aisle on Saturday and by Tuesday I was at the back of the hall receiving a censure.

"They said: 'Just give up your daughter and stay an elder' but then something just went off in my head.

"Somewhere along the line I have lost my sense of smell, and I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but I strongly believe it was from around that time. The only thing I can smell now is strong coffee and cut grass. I’m convinced it's as a result of the emotional trauma.

"At that meeting I had a kind of out-of-body experience – I can remember looking down at myself, sat on the sofa in that room, the two elders on two chairs opposite. I know now it was a reaction to the extreme stress. That stress was the reason why I knew I had to stop being a Witness.

"I remember walking out of that hall and punching the air. It was the most fantastic feeling which I have never forgotten."

It took a few more years before his wife Mary decided to leave the organisation but today all immediate members of John's family have nothing more to do with the Jehovah's Witnesses.

That former life, however, has come to the fore with a new vigour following John's own revelations on national TV.  He had no plans to go public like he did, having only told his family about his own abuse last year. But midway through his interview on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Show he decided now was the time.

"I told my daughter first, about 18 months ago, and she was upset," said John. "She suggested we sit down and tell the rest of the family. It was this big family announcement – it was like a coming out party. I just told them my story and I was really happy that I had decided to do that."

He stopped himself telling anyone else, though, because he didn't want his 94-year-old mum to find out. But that changed when John discovered the person who had abused him had done it to someone else after him.

He is reluctant to name his abuser but says he was sent to prison as a convicted paedophile for the abuse of those two boys who were the son of another Jehovah's Witness in London.  He died in prison aged 70, said John.

"I have no emotions about the fact that he is dead. But knowing what he did compounded my guilt because I then knew had I mentioned it perhaps I could have prevented other people from suffering."

After telling his family and giving his account to the police the first thing John did was phone his old congregation and tell them about his allegations. He leans forward from across the table as he says: "It was important – I was only telling them because, although I knew he was dead, they now had two witnesses if someone else comes forward.

"There are parents who haven't done anything because they don't want to bring reproach on the Jehovah’s name. They put being a Jehovah first before doing the right thing. But there’s a saying among us ex-Witnesses: 'When did you wake up?'. Well, I have woken up and I'm all fired up now."

Part of the fuel stoking his fire is the fact that he is repeatedly seeing cases brought to court where senior figures in the organisation lie to the judge and jury, and even destroy documents which record child abuse allegations.

"They call it theocratic warfare – they are lying for God," he said. "Any attack on God’s organisation means the gloves are off. They lie from the top down."

In a case earlier this month a High Court judge issued a warning after a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses were more concerned with the "spiritual counselling" of a sexually abusive father than protecting his young daughter.

Mrs Justice Lieven said there had been a "failure to take effective steps to protect a young child" which gave rise to "deep concern". The judge said evidence in a case she had analysed showed that the elders in a Jehovah's Witness congregation knew about the allegations in December 2016. However the police were not notified until July 2019.

In her written ruling, she said: "The facts of this case raise very great concern about the safeguarding of children within the Jehovah's Witness community."

Mrs Justice Lieven made her judgement on the same day as John revealed his own abuse story and the news that at least 20 former Jehovah’s Witnesses were suing the group over historical sexual abuse they claim to have suffered.

It was also the same day Labour's Sarah Champion, the chair of a cross-party group of MPs looking at adults who experienced child sexual abuse, accused the Jehovah's Witnesses organisation of "fostering abuse, enabling abuse, and deliberately not reporting abuse".

For John there is no question that the Jehovah's Witnesses has a problem with child sex abuse among its members. "They are spending thousands of donated money to keep people quiet," he said, claiming victims were being paid to settle out of court or sign non-disclosure agreements.

"Nothing will get them to change their policy. Their child protection policy is completely inadequate. It’s the money that is making it all go away.

"The victms want a sorry but when they don't get sorry and don't see any change – that’s when they go to court. Karen never wanted to go to court – she wanted a sorry from the Watchtower."

What angers him the most, however, is the statement the organisation provided in response to his comments, which said: "The only way that a child abuser can gain access to children in a religious organisation like ours, which does not have any programmes that separate children from their parents, is through parents themselves."

The implication was clear, said John, that parents were being complicit in any alleged abuse. However the organisation denied this and provided a response to WalesOnline saying: "The protection of children is of utmost concern and importance to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Our organisation has for years informed parents, victims and others who are aware of an allegation of child abuse that they have the right to report the allegation of child abuse to the authorities.

"In addition when our elders learn of an allegation of child abuse they clearly inform an individual making the allegation that they have the right to report the allegation to the authorities. Elders also comply with child abuse reporting laws even if there is only one witness to alleged abuse.

"Further, even if the elders have no legal duty to report an accusation to the authorities, the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses will instruct the elders to report the matter if a minor is still in danger of abuse, even if there is only one witness to the alleged abuse.

"Therefore any statement that the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses is fostering or enabling abuse or deliberately not reporting abuse is false. Likewise, any suggestion that the Scriptural requirement of two witnesses applied by Jehovah’s Witnesses is inadequate to ensure abusers are reported is unfounded since the requirement of two witnesses has nothing to do with the reporting policy of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

"As noted above, our elders will report an allegation of abuse to the authorities when the law requires or when a child is in danger, even if there is only one witness."

The Charity Commission confirmed it has an ongoing investigation into Jehovah’s Witness charity Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society over its approach to safeguarding. Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission, said: "The testimonies that have been shared are highly distressing. We understand the public’s concern and we welcome the spotlight that is being shone on these serious issues.

"Our priority is, and must be, to tackle the concerns that we are examining through our investigation. While that continues it would be unhelpful and a disservice to those affected for us to discuss or speculate on these issues in public.

"We understand why people care and it is crucial that we get to the full truth of these very serious issues before speaking out publicly about our findings. I urge anyone with information that may be relevant to our inquiry to contact the commission or the police as appropriate."

Witnesses ordered to pay damages to Sewell victim

Earlier this year a High Court judge ordered the Jehovah’s Witness leaders to pay a woman raped by Sewell more than £60,000 damages.

A “judicial committee” of elders had in the early 1990s found the woman’s allegations against Sewell “not proven” at an internal inquiry but he was iconvicted in 2014 of raping the woman and indecently assaulting two other victims, including Karen Morgan.

The woman, who is no longer a Jehovah’s Witness, said she suffered depression as a result of the rape and sued for compensation.

She said a “proper” internal inquiry had not been conducted and leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were “vicariously liable” for the rape.

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, which is based in New York state and is the worldwide governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the trustees of the local congregation the woman had been a member of did not accept they were vicariously liable.

But Mr Justice Chamberlain ruled in the woman’s favour after a High Court trial in London.

He concluded that her psychiatric injuries were attributable to the rape and ruled she should get £62,000 general damages.

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