For decades Paul Grundy and Trish Karr lived under a culture of indoctrination, oppression and control.
Both were brought up in the Jehovah’s Witness religion which, they say, kept them naive, scared and submissive right into adulthood.
Upon leaving the religion, both were shunned by their parents who, to this day, refuse to speak to them. Lifelong friends and family members crossed the street to avoid them.
Now they’re using their voice and their platform to help other vulnerable Jehovah’s Witnesses escape the grips of the church, which has 70,000 members in Australia.
The religion denies that it coerces people and says that people who are Jehovah’s Witnesses have free will.
Since the 2013 film Witness My Journey documenting her transformation from Jehovah’s Witness to Sydney’s party queen, Trish Karr’s inbox has been flooded.
“I get messages saying your story has helped me in more ways than you know – I’ve decided I’m leaving,” she tells news.com.au.
“I’ve realised I was put on this earth for a reason – to inspire and help people. Ex Jehovah’s Witnesses get depressed and commit suicide because they believe they’ve got nothing in life. I want them to know this: I’m there to help you and guide you, if the religion isn’t in your heart: look me up.”
She describes herself as a “baby” when the religion encouraged her to marry aged 17, and strictly forbade sex before marriage.
It wasn’t until she turned 40 that she had an epiphany: “I’d slept with one man and just realised: I want to live. I don’t want to go to the grave with regrets.”
The Church tried to get her to come back, and visited her regularly, but she’d hide. “They were playing mind games,” she says.
Trish felt a natural affinity with the LGBTQI community: “I related to some being rejected by their own families for being gay. My sister, brother, mother and friends I’d had for 25 years all cut me off 14 years ago when I left. I’d cry over it a lot thinking it was my fault,” she says.
“Then I realised I need new friends who accept the real me that I’d suppressed for so long – I’m a naturally very outgoing person; I love the limelight. That’s when the gays became my adopted family.”
She discovered Sydney’s gay village: “I threw myself onto Oxford Street. I’d never even met a gay person in 40 years. I remember feeling like a kid in a candy store, thinking: wow! Where have I been? My head’s been in the dirt. I’ve been reborn.”
Having worn “knee to neck” clothing all her life, Trish describes the initial shock for her kids, who were 16, 12 and 3 when she left, as she was allowed to wear bikinis for the first time. “I wanted to be the best mum I could. I also needed to get out there and not waste a minute more. At first they were like, what’s going on?! Then they accepted – this is me.”
In 2009, she created Hot Kandi, a series of party nights for gay and straight people to express themselves and have fun.
Since leaving the church, Paul Grundy, 50, has set up two groundbreaking websites to help disillusioned Jehovah’s Witnesses strategise how to get out: JW Facts and JW Support.
He knows just how hard it can be to make that final decision, and how tough life outside the church’s control initially feels.
“You hate being in it, but think you’ll hate being out of it even more – you’re convinced you’ll lose everything” he tells news.com.au.
Living outside the faith was initially excruciating for Paul. He lost his job, suffered post-traumatic stress and needed therapy.
“Leaving is designed to break you. It’s what the religion wants,” he says. “They hope you’ll hit rock bottom, then come crawling back.”
Today, he urges the religion’s followers against that. “You’ll humiliate yourself for the rest of your life. That’s what kept me in for so many years – they convinced me I’d end up drug addicted or kill myself in the outside world,” Paul says.
“I realised I support gay people and abortion – so I left.”
When (exclusively male) elders heard about Paul’s emerging doubts, they visited him and told him to study, pray and research more. “‘Research’ means their own indoctrination,” he says. “I realised I hadn’t done any actual outside world research in encyclopedias etc.”
Paul went through each topic, starting with their opposition to abortion and working his way through, including their stance against same-sex marriage and blood transfusions. “I realised I didn’t agree with any of their far-right nonsense,” he says.
At 35, he knew it was time to leave. But he was terrified of being shunned.
The day Paul’s disfellowship was announced, his mum – who’d always claimed she disapproved of shunning – cut him off completely. He was labelled an ‘apostate.’ His sister told him: “You’re against Jehovah.” They haven’t spoken in years.
His entire community ostracised him. On one occasion, a former friend was paying for her shopping and spotted him in the store. “She fled, leaving her shopping at the till. The shop assistant looked baffled!” Paul says.
Under new rules, Paul was only allowed to speak to people from his old life if there was a death or emergency.
When his dad died, he was briefly allowed back for the funeral. But Paul was numb. “I’d already mourned him” he says. “Shunning is worse than when someone dies.
“The irony is, they treat you in this terrible way, but claim they’re the only loving and moral religion. They convince you everyone outside this religion is immoral.”
In his new life, Paul, who describes himself as polysexual, began experimenting sexually with different genders. He also set to work.
“I’d realised this religion is evil. I processed my trauma by writing it all down. Then that became the website JW. Facts.”
The website dispels myths and highlights inaccuracies and inconsistencies, such as the date of Armageddon: predicted to occur in 1914, then 1925, then “within our twentieth century”, Paul writes.
Paul initially thought approximately ten people a month would visit. Before long, it had thousands of visitors a week. It’s now helping other Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide to liberate themselves and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese.
“Potential leavers need to realise others have done this,” he says. “The religion makes you feel so isolated. Often I’d hear them say, ‘I didn’t know anyone else felt same way as I do’ – they felt stupid, weird or guilty for feeling it,” he says.
Then things started to take a life of their own.
Petrified Jehovah’s Witnesses contacted Paul, pleading him to help them leave, too. And he did, at first.
“There were daily emails from JWs desperate to leave. Every couple of weeks I’d meet in secret with a Witness and help strategise their exit plan,” he says. They’re nicknamed PIMOs – physically in, mentally out.”
But they had high emotional support needs. “Many quickly get into destructive, controlling relationships when shunned by their family,” Paul says. “They’re unsure what they deserve.”
Finally, he couldn’t keep up with demand.
“It became overwhelming,” he says. He also felt pressure from the church which called him for a meeting as the website hit over 50,000 unique visitors a month and demanded to know if it was Paul’s work.
It was then he realised he needed to create a new resource: JW. Support, which specifically helps Witnesses to prepare for leaving.
One woman helped by Paul’s groundbreaking resources was Hannah Lunnon, 27.
She moved to Brisbane from New York to escape the American Jehovah’s Witness Church.
She remembers feeling “extremely lonely” growing up in the church and wasn’t allowed to call her mates outside the church her friends.
“The word I had to use was acquaintances,” she says.
“I was constantly at war with the criteria of the church – nothing felt right.
“Especially because I was too scared to talk about it with anyone. I couldn’t go to my parents with anything.”
This led to depression and anxiety. But things changed when she met outsiders through the online gaming community and discovered Paul’s websites.
“Through those I realised what the Witnesses were saying about the outside world wasn’t true,” she says. “Not everyone who lives in the outside world is unhappy/miserable/pushing drugs. They gave a very extreme view of what ‘worldly people’ were like.”
Hannah is bisexual and different sexual orientations are forbidden within the church.
“We were told you can have those feelings but mustn’t act on them and must pray the gay away,” she says.
Paul’s resources gave Hannah the confidence to chat online to the Australian who’d become her husband, then 24.
Aged 19, she decided to take the leap and emigrate to Australia, with his help. Her parents tried cancelling her plane tickets. They called airlines and tried to report Hannah to the police, but she escaped.
She now has two children with her husband, who she’d never met in person before boarding the plane.
“Paul’s site taught me to build your support system before you leave. Have somebody who’ll be there for you on the outside. Even a therapist. Anybody so you’re not alone” she says. “I’d have been lost without my husband.”
Trish Carr reminisces uncomfortably about life growing up. “I remember a family friend, another Witness, would get me to sit on his lap. His hands were here [she points to her pelvis]. I was eight. I’ve never forgotten it. It made me feel yucky and dirty.”
Another friend disclosed being sexually abused at 15. “They swept it under the carpet,” she says. “It was reported to the elders and they dealt with it ‘in house.’ They didn’t report it to the police.”
The Jehovah’s Witness Church is the largest of just three organisations refusing to join the Australian government’s national child abuse redress scheme – and the only religion opting out. A total of 450 organisations have opted in.
The Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission found that not a single abuse case was reported by the Jehovah’s Witness Church to secular authorities despite there being 1006 alleged perpetrators investigated by the elders since 1950.
The church refutes this. Tom Pecipajkovski from Jehovah’s Witnesses Australasia tells news.com.au: “Any suggestion that Jehovah’s Witnesses shield perpetrators of abuse, or prefer to deal with it in-house, is false.”
He claims that, of those 1006 case files, 383 were reported to the police at the time they had happened, and 161 had resulted in convictions. “Unlike most religions, Jehovah’s Witnesses take steps to remove from the congregation any who make a practice of engaging in sexual misconduct.”
Mr Pecipajkovski also said: “Jehovah’s Witnesses are well-known for their educational work of sharing the positive message of the Bible.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses have distributed billions of copies of Bibles and Bible-based literature without charge and in more than 1000 languages. Accessing this information does not obligate a person in any way to become a Witness.
“We do not coerce people into changing religions as we recognise that faith is a personal matter. Furthermore, each individual believer has the right of free will to make personal decisions.
“A person can resign from our organisation at any time. No-one is coerced or pressured to remain as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Each person makes his own choice regarding religion.
“We believe that those who worship God must do so willingly, from the heart. This is one of the core religious beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
One of the Commission’s recommendations was for the religion to end shunning “where the reason for disassociation is related to a person being a victim of child sexual abuse”. The church, however will not adopt it, stating if an individual leaves, members will continue to “obey what the Bible says about how such a person should be viewed”.
Their claim that they don’t need to join the redress scheme because they don’t run youth services isn’t accepted by the Commission who state that the abuse occurred in an “institutional context.” But they continue to refuse to join the scheme, which offers victims compensation.
“That says it all,” Trish says. “When I was in that religion, we looked down upon everyone else – we believed we have only true religion and Jehovah will save us.”
Now it’s her doing the saving – helping others to escape its tight grip. “It’s not a loving religion,” she says.
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