Late last month, a crime and justice reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer came out with the kind of religion-and-sex-abuse story that’s sadly become all too familiar these days. What’s unusual about this story is that it’s about Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Witnesses are one of the toughest religious groups to cover. In the years I spent in religion reporting, I can only remember one time that the Witnesses cooperated with me as I reported a news story. That was when, as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, I went door-belling with the Witnesses sometime in the late ‘80s.
Now, they also tried to convert me, but that’s just a typical day in the life of a religion reporter, believe me.
I was amazed at how rude people were to the Witnesses. I connected with them during that time, but since then, I’ve never had any luck getting any response from the Witnesses for any other story. That is why I was impressed when an Inquirer reporter did this lengthy piece on sexual abuse in this very private, even secretive, religious group.
A second was all it took. A second was all he needed.
The little girl was 4, round-faced and freckled and dressed in her Sunday best. She was fidgeting next to her father inside the Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Red Lion, York County -- a safe, familiar space for a family that spent nearly all of its free time preaching and praying.
Martin Haugh was momentarily preoccupied, doling out assignments to his fellow Witnesses for their door-to-door ministry work. When he looked down for his daughter, she was gone. Haugh plunged into the slow-motion panic of every parent's worst nightmare.
He scrambled through the one-story brick building, calling her name, the anxiety piling up like concrete blocks on his chest with each passing moment. She wasn't in the bathrooms, she wasn't in the lobby. He tried a coatroom next, and found her there. But she wasn't alone.
Haugh's daughter was perched on the lap of a teenage boy who had quietly lured her away. He was molesting her. "He wanted to give me a special hug," the girl told her father.
Sadly, the ensuing story is all too familiar. We reported recently on the hassles the Witnesses are having internationally but this is a whole other ball of wax.
When Haugh and his wife, Jennifer, told the elders who oversaw their congregation about this October 2005 incident, they were greeted with muted concern. Then came the threats.
"We were told on more than one occasion that if we told other parents about this, we would be disciplined," Haugh, 41, said during a recent interview.
The Haughs were deeply enmeshed in the world of the Witnesses — Martin was fifth generation — but this was their first brush with the wall of silence that the religion's leaders have relied on to prevent allegations of child sex abuse from reaching law enforcement.
Internal documents show that the Witnesses' leadership, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, has long enforced a policy of secrecy in any potential legal matters. "The need for elders to maintain strict confidentiality has been repeatedly stressed," reads one passage from a 1989 memo that instructed elders to resist cooperating if police ever showed up at their kingdom halls with a search warrant.
There have been stories seeping out for several years about the Witnesses and sexual abuse, especially since January, thanks to the group FaithLeaks. All sorts of publications, including this Dutch outlet that just published a story on May 2, have come out with articles.
The Inquirer jumped on it because there were a lot of local tie-ins, plus the Witnesses were started across the state in Pittsburgh.
More than 120,000 Witnesses call Pennsylvania home, according to a Pew study that was released in 2014, with at least 7,775 practicing members in Philadelphia. Many of the kingdom halls are in North and West Philadelphia, where they have attracted predominantly black congregations. Nationally, their followers are diverse: 36 percent are white, 27 percent are black, and 32 percent are Latino.
The Inquirer does have a religion reporter, according to the Religion News Association, so I'm not sure why she wasn't involved with this story. Instead, reporter David Gambacorta did the leg-work, interviewing 14 former Witnesses to ask them why they left the faith. Several were sexual abuse survivors.
There were lots of interesting details in the story, like President Dwight Eisenhower being brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness as well as other celebrities such as Prince and Venus and Serena Williams. There’s also details about how reclusive the group is, which makes it difficult for anyone to consider leaving.
[Former Witness Barbara Anderson] also had a rare glimpse at the inner workings of the Witnesses' governing body, a group of eight men who claim to receive instructions from God. Anderson's husband was a high-ranking elder, and she was assigned to the Watchtower's massive world headquarters in Brooklyn, where she was one of the only women in the male-dominated hierarchy to work in the writing department for their magazine, Awake!
In 1991, the publication included an article on surviving child abuse, which triggered a stunning response: Thousands of abuse survivors contacted the Watchtower. Some claimed they had been molested by elders, others by friends and family members. "It was awful," said Anderson, who personally fielded phone calls from some victims…
Some turn to social media to connect and commiserate. More than 20,000 people belong to a Reddit forum devoted exclusively to ex-Witnesses, and YouTube is littered with confessional-style videos from former followers who discuss the absurdity of their experiences.
That also helps explain why it’s hard for outsiders to understand how bad it is in there.
The presence of such widespread and seemingly well-known problems raises the question: Why haven't more people spoken up? The answer could lie in what's at stake. Witnesses have few relationships outside of their religion; the risk of being shunned by the very people they hold dear is difficult to digest. (In February, a Michigan woman committed suicide after she murdered her husband and two sons. They were ex-Witnesses, and the shunning they endured has been cited as a possible motive.)
"I feel like I lived a huge number of years wrapped in plastic," Haugh said. "You're not allowed to feel anything."
The reporter wraps up by saying how the Witnesses seem to be short of money as of late, as they're selling some of their more expensive properties. One of those properties was linked to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner's company and naturally the reporter wonders if Kushner knew of any of the allegations against the Witnesses when he bought it.
The story would have been fine without the political connection, but, since the Witnesses use some video of Kushner in a promo video, mentioning the First Son-in-law is fair game. But the real story is how the sexual abuse crisis has finally caught up with this most secretive of religions.
Is there any religious group left standing where there has not been such accusations? There have even been allegations about the Amish, so no one is exempt. And if any group has roots in Pennsylvania, the Amish certainly are it. Perhaps the Inquirer can employ their talents in infiltrating secretive groups to do a story on them.