These Sydney women left a 'cult like' religion — this is what they learned

ABC News, Australia/September 3, 2021

By Paige Cockburn

Sherrie D'Souza was 46 when she was first allowed to sing the national anthem.

Naomi Mourra was 22 when she was first allowed to celebrate her own birthday.

Both were discouraged from voting in elections for many years.

The Sydney women spent decades of their life living in a bubble where they were told what to think, say and do and the consequences for disobedience were life altering.

Sherrie and Naomi were Jehovah's Witnesses.

According to the organisation, there are currently more than 70,000 Witnesses in Australia.

The sect is headed by an all-male governing body and elders adhere to policies laid out in a guidebook that's kept confidential from other followers.

The religion preaches that Armageddon will happen any day, wiping out the entire human race except for all Witnesses who will live forever in paradise.

"I felt special, like I was going to be one of the people who survived," Naomi said.

Some Witnesses don't have any superannuation or savings as they are told these will be unnecessary in "paradise" where everything will be plentiful.

To get there, preaching must be life's focus and anything that is a distraction from that is condemned. This includes everything from higher education to playing a musical instrument.

The religion's rule against receiving blood transfusions is well known, and has led to many legal battles, though some Jehovah's Witnesses may conscientiously accept certain blood products.

But there are many lesser-known rules which aim to keep believers separate from the world.

For example, members must remain politically neutral and not vote in elections. They also cannot join the defence forces or celebrate birthdays.

Sherrie and Naomi were raised in devout Jehovah's Witness families.

They both finished school in Year 10, were discouraged from getting full-time work and became "regular pioneers" — spending about 70 hours a month door-knocking and recruiting new "disciples".

But then, they say they "woke up".

A patriarchal society

Sherrie spent 26 years of her life being the best Witness she could.

She said that meant being subservient to men.

In 2015, when Sherrie began a university course in health, her husband Sacha was questioned by elders at their local Kingdom Hall as to why he was letting her study.

"I wasn't deemed to be a husband who was taking a headship role in my family seriously and I was setting a bad example to other husbands," Sacha, who left the religion at the same time as his wife, said.

After decades of silent obedience, in 2017 Sherrie broke the rules against reading anything from the outside world and had an experience known as "waking up".

She read the final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual abuse and realised her religion couldn't be true.

"In its most simplistic form, the religion teaches that everything within the organisation is from God, and everything outside is from Satan. So I was like, why is it taking Satan's organisation to tell God's organisation how to protect children? That doesn't add up.

"I felt emotionally manipulated, abused and betrayed. How could I have been so stupid?"

The pair claim women are defined by their relation to men and wives must let their husbands make all decisions.

The royal commission heard from survivors of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah's Witnesses and found allegations of abuse had been made against 1,006 members.

None were reported to police.

After learning this, Sherrie began to push the boundaries and speak out against the religion.

In 2019, the organisation used the greatest weapon in its arsenal — Sherrie was disfellowshipped.

According to the Jehovah's Witnesses website, disfellowship occurs when "unrepentant sinners" are expelled from a congregation.

Family and friends are encouraged to shun the person who has been excommunicated.

"The fact that there is no easy way to leave without ramifications is incredibly cult-like," Sherrie said.

Tom Pecipajkovski, the Jehovah's Witness national spokesman, told the ABC the organisation didn't automatically disfellowship or shun anyone who breached the bible's standards but would do so if the person repeatedly breached standards and was unwilling to change.

"Courts have upheld the right to religious freedom in this area [including] the European Court of Human Rights...," he said.

"Individual congregants exercise their personal religious conscience and apply the bible's admonition to limit or cease their association with a disfellowshipped person.

"When a family member is disfellowshipped, the religious ties change, but normal family affections and dealings continue."

As Sherrie expected, her entire family cut contact with her and former friends now cross the street to avoid her.

From the closet to the stage

Naomi, 43, had to extricate herself from the religion after realising that living in the closet as a gay woman forever would destroy her.

The religion condemns homosexual acts and thoughts so Naomi's sister suggested conversion therapy but instead she decided to escape to London.

She started doing stand-up comedy there as a way to build confidence and, although she felt she was sinning, she also started embracing her sexuality.

"My first visit to a gay bar was overwhelming ... it was like taking someone to Mecca when they just wanted a lip balm. But I eventually found my way," she said.

Upon returning to Sydney everything was different. Everyone, except her mother, had shunned her.

But she had a new "go for it" attitude as she no longer believed she'd live forever so she took a leap and set up a women-only stand-up comedy night in Sydney.

She said she became "Sydney's only Lebanese, lesbian ex-Jehovah's Witness".

Naomi began performing biblical comedy which she said was all about making "gentle prods" at religion.

"There are people who will not like it but I just don't care. The message is, nothing is so holy that it can't be laughed at."

Adjusting to the outside world

Both Naomi and Sherrie had to undertake therapy to recover from years of what they call "indoctrination".

Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a relatively new term coined by US psychologist Marlene Winell and puts a name to the symptoms many people struggle with after leaving an authoritarian religion.

"The psychological damage does not go away overnight. The fear of hell can last a lifetime, despite rational analysis," Dr Winnell said.

But because RTS is only just starting to be recognised, both Sherrie and Naomi struggled for a long time to find the right help.

The woman claim several therapists told them to pray about their trauma.

But eventually they both found a not-for-profit group called Recovering from Religion which helps those struggling with doubt or non-belief.

The peer support group is huge in the US but only launched in Australia this year.

The group says people from around the country have already contacted it to ask for help.

"These people need to be heard, understood and able to trust as it's often so hard for them to leave a religion and make any friends," Sherrie said.

Jehovah's Witnesses hold onto charity status

Although Sherrie and Naomi say they have done a lot of healing, they are not sure the organisation will make the changes they believe it should.

In 2016 the royal commission recommended the Jehovah's Witnesses abolish their "two-witness rule" — two people must see abuse for it to be dealt with — and that women be included in investigations of abuse.

Neither of these recommendations have been introduced.

Mr Pecipajkovski said the two-witness rule was a requirement of the Bible and did not stop elders from reporting abuse to the authorities.

"Elders will report an allegation of abuse to the statutory authorities as required by law, or in the absence of a mandatory reporting law, whenever it appears the victim or any other minor is in danger of abuse from the accused. The elders will make that report even if there is only one witness," he said.

However victims told the royal commission they were often intimidated out of making reports.

Mr Pecipajkovski also said the religion had no plans to include women in investigations as the Bible mandated only men could be elders.

"That religious belief and teaching is not unique to Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, in the Roman Catholic Church there are no women serving as cardinals, bishops, or priests," he said.

Until this year, the Jehovah's Witnesses also refused to sign on to the National Redress Scheme for victims of child sexual abuse.

They argued they never should have been included in the royal commission as they don't run activities that put children in their care or supervision.

"The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse acknowledged that Jehovah's Witnesses do not have the institutional settings that exist in many faith-based institutions," Mr Pecipajkovski said.

"[And the] recommendations in relation to Jehovah's Witnesses specifically, all exclusively relate to our Bible-based beliefs. As such, they are beyond the scope of the Royal Commission's terms of reference."

After much pushing by the government, new laws were introduced which threatened to strip the charitable tax exemption for any religions that didn't join redress.

Two weeks before the law came into effect, the Jehovah's Witnesses signified their intention to join redress and are due to sign on later this year.

Sherrie and Naomi say the definition of what counts as a charity in Australia is too wide.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses and all other religions should be held to the same rules as a workplace's. Bullying and harassment, homophobia, misogyny ... these are all outlawed in workplaces," Sherrie said.

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