Years after the Catholic Church was found to have systematically harbored and protected child-sex abusers while punishing victims for seeking justice for their horrific ordeals, a new feature-length Vice TV documentary sets its sights on the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Aaron Kaufman’s film Crusaders—released as part of Vice TV’s “Vice Versa” nonfiction series—eviscerates the Jehovah’s Witness faith in which he was raised, giving a public platform for former members to speak out about the scourge of pedophilia within the church, and about the elders who are committed to keeping it a secret.
Premiering on Vice TV on July 28, Crusaders builds upon Douglas Quenqua’s 2019 Atlantic article about a secret database of thousands of Jehovah’s Witness child-sex offenders that’s been assembled, and concealed from prying eyes, by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit organization that governs the church. This damning list of molesters was created on March 14, 1997, when—in response to prior whistleblower complaints—a questionnaire was sent to all 10,000 nationwide congregations asking members if they suspected any fellow Witnesses of being a pedophilic predator. The church received information on many monsters in its midst, although the precise number of names remains unknown.
Most of those individuals’ identities are also a mystery—but not all of them. That’s because, as Crusaders reveals, two ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses (who in Kaufman’s film go by “Judas” and “Jezebel”) broke into a local Massachusetts headquarters and stole some of those incriminating files. Moreover, they leaked one document on Reddit, and then sent many more to a kindred ex-Jehovah’s Witness activist named Mark O’Donnell (who operated online under the alias “John Redwood”). This, in turn, led to Quenqua’s article, which made national headlines and shined an accusatory national spotlight on Jehovah’s Witnesses, who didn’t take too kindly to being outed as an organization that, in principle, condemned child abusers, but in practice made sure to keep their crimes under wraps, lest the faith get a black eye as a haven for the worst of the worst.
Crusaders works hard to slam Jehovah’s Witnesses, which also entails examining the belief systems and control mechanisms used by the religion to manipulate and dominate its adherents. The core notion embraced by Jehovah’s Witnesses is that Armageddon is imminent, and that the only way to be saved from a terrible end-times death is to abide by their tenets, which are dispensed by the Watch Tower Governing Body—a ruling council of male elders who function as God’s Earthly conduits. By toeing the line that they set forth, Witnesses will be granted access to the New System, a post-apocalypse paradise where they can begin their real lives, as opposed to their current New System-prologue existences in the here and now. Follow the rules and you’re golden; disobey—or even question—them, and you risk excommunication from friends, family, and the only community you’ve ever known.
At regular intervals, Kaufman’s documentary provides white on-screen text cards defining key Jehovah’s Witnesses terms, such as “disfellowshipped” (i.e. expulsion for insubordination), “PIMO” (short for “physically in, mentally out”), and the “Two Witness Rule,” a scriptural decree which states that no Jehovah’s Witness can be officially accused of committing a sin without two corroborating eyewitness accounts. That last stipulation is of particular importance, since it basically negates charges of sexual assault, which very rarely take place in the presence of others. Crusaders lays bare this monstrous practice through official Jehovah’s Witness videos of elders preaching this doctrine as sacred—their cocky authoritarian firmness on this issue reeking of transparent self-preservation, if not outright deviance—as well as via testimonials with a number of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who were molested by their true-believer comrades.
In the stories of Mark and Kimmy O’Donnell (the latter of whom was terrorized for years by her mother, who suffered no repercussions for her reported offenses and still has contact with children), Kameron Torres, Asher, Judas and other ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, Crusaders provides wrenching first-hand accounts of sex-abuse ordeals. In almost every one of these cases, pressure to conform and stay silent was demanded not only by church officials but also by parents, grandparents, friends and colleagues, all of whom were so convinced of their righteous path that they believed the act of cutting off their loved ones was actually a merciful gesture designed to guarantee their eventual salvation. Such was the case with Barbara Anderson, a Jehovah’s Witness for 43 years until she broke with the organization after learning about its habit of sheltering pedophiles—a decision that cost her a relationship with her son.
Director Kaufman confidently complements his heartbreaking interviews with news headlines, Jehovah’s Witness literature and documents, and illuminating videos of elders preaching to the camera and being surreptitiously recorded by Kameron (during which one bigwig states about the molestation suffered by Kameron and his own sons, “You just learn to live with it and put it behind you. Try not to bring it up, try not to dwell on it”). While some of his dramatic recreations can be clunky and stilted—be it staged sequences of Judas and Jezebel breaking into their local HQ to steal database documents, or filler shots of Mark O’Donnell typing away at his computer—his overall approach is straightforward and clear-sighted, explicating the canny methods employed by Jehovah’s Witnesses to exert and maintain authority over their followers.
The principal portrait that coalesces is one of a highly structured and immensely dangerous cult. There’s little difference between the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology—or, for that matter, Heaven’s Gate. A scare-tactic outfit that preached that the end of the world was nigh, and that they alone possessed the knowledge needed to escape death and damnation, Heaven’s Gate also required members to distance themselves from non-believers, do precisely what leaders said, and go to any length to prove their loyalty. In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the price paid by many for buying into this extreme religious dogma has been years of sexual abuse, and feelings of shame and powerlessness born from not being able to do anything about it. In that regard, Crusaders isn’t just an exposé, it’s a rousing call to arms.
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