Diane Lynn was just a toddler when her mother was door-knocked by a Jehovah’s Witness, offering the hope of a future of paradise on Earth. Instead, Ms Lynn was subjected to years of sexual abuse at the hands of a member of her mother’s new congregation. And when she finally found the courage to speak out, she was greeted with inaction and cover-ups, even as the abuse continued.
Ms Lynn is one of more than 1,800 alleged victims of child sex abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness organisation in submissions to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
And yet despite findings by the commission that the organisation failed to adequately protect children in its care, it has not joined the National Redress Scheme intended to compensate victims, or changed the practices that allowed abuse to flourish.
Told she was wearing ‘improper clothing’
Ms Lynn said she was abused by a male member of her congregation for years on end, but when she built the courage to speak up, her complaints fell on deaf ears.
“When I was about five we had a circuit overseer come to our house and I was brave enough to tell him what was happening. He said he would take care of it, to listen hard at his next talk,” she said.
The Jehovah’s Witness organisation:
- oversees each congregation by a body of elders who look to God on all matters
- interprets the bible literally
- believes that the end of the world is imminent in a final battle between good and evil, called Armageddon
- has a strict male headship, women cannot take on senior roles in the religion
- maintains separateness from those outside of the religion
- practises evangelising to convert others to the religion
“That weekend he gave a public talk about David and Goliath and how David was just a little boy, but my oh my how he killed that giant, and that was it, that was how he handled it. “I just cried my eyes out and I didn’t understand why he didn’t do anything, and it didn’t stop, and the abuse continued.” Ms Lynn said she was made to feel like she was to blame.
“I was told I was wearing improper clothing, I was giving the brothers improper thoughts, it was my fault,” she said. “They’d say, ‘You can’t bring reproach on Jehovah’s name’, ‘The congregation is meant to be seen as clean’, ‘We’re God’s chosen people’.
“My father would repeat teachings about how, unless the girl screamed, it was consensual.”
At 35 years old Ms Lynn eventually left the religion, leaving many family members and friends behind. “It’s hard for people to understand why you would stay in a religion like that, but you think you’re doing the right thing. You know nothing else,” she said.
“You’re taught to believe the world is wicked. You don’t trust anyone else. And if you leave, you have to leave your family and friends behind and go through it all alone. That’s really hard to face. But I just had to. I couldn’t raise my kids in something like that … if one child is hurt that’s one child too many.”
Assumed it happened in ‘every other’ home
Aged 67 and living in rural New South Wales, Sylvia Marinus (formerly Milne) shares a strikingly similar past.
She was five years old when her Jehovah’s Witness father began abusing her, before he moved up the ranks to become a ministerial servant in her Victorian congregation.
“Our family lived such an isolated life that I assumed what happened at our home must be the same as at every other,” she said.
“Even if I had wanted to tell someone about it [the abuse], I couldn’t have told anyone outside the Jehovah’s Witness organisation because we were taught not to trust them. And I couldn’t tell anyone inside because of my father’s position.”
As she grew older, Ms Marinus thought the trauma of her childhood was over — until decades later when she had her own daughter, Clare.
When she was just three years old, Clare began revealing details about her grandfather that made Ms Marinus’s heart sink, and she grew concerned that her daughter had been abused too. Following their religion’s beliefs, Ms Marinus and her ex-husband took the matter to their congregation’s elders.
But without two witnesses or a confession, the matter was dropped and no internal investigation was conducted by the elders. Ms Marinus said she was forbidden from pursuing the matter any further.
She knew something terrible had happened to her daughter, and years later her fears were cemented.
Suspicions were right
“We were driving and she told me [about what her grandfather had done] … and I went absolutely hysterical and I got the police involved,” Ms Marinus said.
“I got a policewoman to the door, she spoke to Clare and said, ‘She’s definitely been abused’. But my ex-husband came home and found the policewoman there and told her to leave. He said that we have our own way of dealing with things and wanted it dealt with within the organisation. We went to the elders and had a big discussion with them [and] nothing happened. I was told to keep it to myself. Another elder in the congregation [who] I tried to pursue said ‘You’ve gotta keep it quiet and pretend you still love your father’.”
Disturbed by the lack of action by the elders, Ms Marinus took matters into her own hands, resigning from her congregation and making a formal complaint to police.
Ms Marinus’s father pleaded guilty and was convicted of indecently assaulting a child — and received a 12-month suspended sentence.
“I sent a copy of the charges to the elders but they still took no action to remove my father. He pleaded guilty and still they blamed me,” she said. After leaving the religion and taking her father to court, Ms Marinus was shunned by the organisation, her family, and her friends.
Her daughter Clare later died at 17, due to an unrelated medical condition and seizure in her home.
“I lost my whole family. I was taught as a child that my parent could abuse me with impunity,” Ms Marinus said.
“And I found out as an adult that if I wanted to get help for the abuse, I would have to lose my connection to my family and my community — but I’ve become strong and I’ve got a voice. “And even though my daughter’s not around anymore, she knows I care.”
Royal commission findings
In 2013, a royal commission found Ms Lynn and Ms Marinus were not alone, with records showing more than 1,000 complaints of child sexual abuse had been made to the Jehovah’s Witness organisation.
It found the organisation had not reported a single case to the police, later concluding it “did not adequately respond to allegations of child sexual abuse and it did not adequately protect children from the risk of sexual abuse”.
The royal commission later handed down a number of findings in order to make the organisation safer for children.
It recommended the removal of the organisation’s two-witness rule, which meant there had to be two witnesses to allegations of abuse before internal disciplinary action was taken by elders.
“The commission found the approach failed to show an understanding of the nature of child abuse, which does not happen in the presence of independent witnesses,” Warren Strange from Knowmore, a free legal service for abuse victims, said.
“The commission found quite simply that approach was wrong. Whilst ever that process is adhered to by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they will not be a child-safe organisation that protects children to the level required.”
In 2017, a National Redress Scheme was established for institutions to opt into, to assist victims in accessing support services, compensation, and recognition of their abuse. However, more than a year on, the Jehovah’s Witness organisation has failed to take part and still refuses to move away from its two-witness rule.
‘Child abuse a sin’ say JWs
When contacted, the Jehovah’s Witness organisation did not respond to direct questions about its lack of involvement in the redress scheme and current practices, instead providing a link to publications on its website.
According to the site, the Jehovah’s Witness official stance is that it “abhors child abuse”, viewing it as a “grave sin”, and does not protect perpetrators of abuse from “legal consequences”.
The website said it now allowed its members to go to the police and where secular laws around mandatory reporting existed “elders endeavour to comply”. However for the organisation’s own internal investigations, the two-witness rule still applies.
Elders then “conduct a spiritual investigation [and] if the individual denies the accusation, the elders consider the testimony of witnesses”.
“The absence of a second witness does not mean that the one making the accusation is untruthful, even if a charge of wrongdoing cannot be established by two witnesses,” the website said.
“The elders recognise that a serious sin may have been committed. The elders provide ongoing support to any individuals who may have been hurt … and the elders remain alert about the alleged abuser to protect the congregation from potential danger.”
‘There is a way out’
Meanwhile, Ms Marinus and Ms Lynn fear that with no changes to the organisation’s practices “children will continue to be abused”, while perpetrators and the organisation will not be held to account. While they are not confident it will ever change, the women hope by speaking up they can help other Jehovah’s Witness survivors know they are not alone.
“It takes courage to speak out, it takes a long time to leave and have another belief system. But it does happen, it can happen,” Ms Lynn said.
Ms Marinus hopes her words will encourage others to speak up too. “I hope I help somebody out there thinking ‘This happened to me, I’m scared’,” she said.
“Yes, you lose the life you had, but I’ve got a life now, I’m happy, I’m a survivor.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation has until June 2020 to opt in to the redress scheme.
(This article was published on abc.net.au on October 10, 2019 and has been reproduced here in full.)
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