Pittsburgh woman testifies for grand jury investigation into Jehovah's Witnesses and sexual abuse
PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Recently, three local Jehovah's Witnesses -- two from Butler County, one from Allegheny County -- were indicted on charges of sexually abusing children. The indictments are part of an ongoing state investigation into the church itself and whether it has a history of covering up incidents of sexual abuse across Pennsylvania.
KDKA Investigator Andy Sheehan interviewed a woman from Pittsburgh who's cooperating with that investigation, testifying before a state grand jury about being sexually assaulted when she was 12 years old and how she says church elders told her she was to blame.
"It is a religion that encompasses your entire life."
Meet EJ. She's not using her real name, but she's telling a real story about being born into a family of devout Jehovah's Witnesses -- a religion she says encompasses your entire life.
She says she spent her childhood in Kingdom Halls during the week and on the weekends, reluctantly knocking on doors with her parents, trying to convert people to the faith.
"I hated it. I wanted to stay home and watch cartoons, 'The Smurfs,'" she said.
It is a church governed exclusively by men -- the elders are in charge and a step below them are the ministerial servants. EJ says one of them, a 26-year-old man, groomed her when she was just 12 years old -- befriending her parents and doting on her, taking her out for ice cream, telling her they would be married in the future but they should practice having sex now.
"So he would train me on all this stuff. And he would do this in his car and my parents would never question, they'd just let me go anywhere with him," she said.
A three-year grand jury investigation recently resulted in the indictment of nine Jehovah's Witnesses statewide, including 65-year-old Marc Brown of Forest Hills – accused of sexually assaulting two young girls.
He's currently in the Allegheny County Jail. He faces a preliminary hearing next month, but so far has not entered a plea.
And now, sources say the state attorney general is going further, looking at whether the church, statewide, has systemically covered up sex abuse and kept allegations from law enforcement.
EJ says when she was 14, she told her parents, who in turn reported the man to the church elders, who she says conferred with the society -- the church headquarters in New York.
"And the three elders said, 'we have reached out to the society and they have directed us to let you know we are not going to the police and we are not pursuing any criminal charges because it would be a bad witness for Jehovah.'"
She says the elders then called her a Jezebel -- a biblical reference to a shameless, unrestrained woman -- and that she had bought this on herself.
"They called me whore and seductress and I had led him on. I think that was the moment I learned the lesson that I had no value. I didn't have guilt for doing bad, I just had shame for existing. That no one was ever going to protect me."
For his crime, EJ says, her abuser was "disfellowshipped" -- meaning he was temporarily shunned by church members. But she says two years later he was welcomed back into the fold -- welcomed even by her parents.
"I saw my mom talking to my offender, laughing, smiling like he was her best friend, and I said, 'Mom, why are you talking with him?' And she said, 'well if Jehovah forgave him, I must too.'"
EJ then decided to leave the church. Her parents shunned her and she says their message that she was no good turned her life even further into despair.
"I became an alcoholic, a drug addict, married, divorced twice. Can't keep friends. Always angry. It took me until I was 35 years to realize: I'm not a harlot, I'm a victim."
Clean and sober now, EJ testified in front of the grand jury about her trauma, where she was asked questions about a practice in the church called the "two witness rule," requiring a second eyewitness to verify any molestation or sexual assault before any action can be taken against a predator.
"The child tells. They don't do anything. There's no witness. Go home."
She hopes her cooperation with the investigation will help spare others.
Sheehan: "You don't want this to happen to another little girl or little boy."
EJ: "I want them to know this is not OK, and you're not alone. There's a lot of us out here, a lot of us, and just tell somebody, get help. Tell somebody outside of the organization."
In a statement, Jehovah's Witnesses says the "two-witness rule" does not apply to criminal matters and says elders in the church comply with "secular laws" about reporting allegations of abuse and tell alleged victims and their families they are free to contact authorities.
The statement reads as follows:
"Child sexual abuse is an especially repugnant wicked deed. As Christians, Jehovah's Witnesses despise the mistreatment and abuse of anyone, especially precious children. While it is inappropriate to comment on cases pending before the courts, we want to express our concern for all victims of abuse regardless of faith."
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