2019-08-13 16:43:50 UTC
GROUNDBREAKING LAWSUITS CLAIM JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES
COVERED UP YEARS OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE
BY DANIEL AVERY
Two lawsuits being filed this week are targeting the leadership of the
Jehovah's Witnesses for what the plaintiffs claim is a history of child
Heather Steele, 48, and John Michael Ewing, 48, were abused as children, but
they're filing suits this Wednesday, when New York's new Child Victims Act
goes into effect. Signed earlier this year, the measure removes the statute
of limitations on abuse suits, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.
Steele was still a toddler when, she says, a Jehovah's Witness elder started
molesting her in the mid-1970s, when her family lived in New York."My first
memory would be of him fondling me when I was just about 2 or 3 years old
while he held me in the back seat of my dad's car," Steele told The New York
There are approximately 8.4 million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide, including
1.2 million in the U.S.
When she was 10, Steele finally told her mother. But rather than tell
police, her mom went to the elders. "It was basically them trying to
convince us it was in our minds, that none of this stuff actually happened
or that we had bad dreams," Steele said. The elders "told us that we should
pray for [Nicholson]."
After Steele's parents finally went to secular authorities, Nicholson was
arrested and served three-and-a-half-years in prison. But when he got out,
he was quietly placed in a New Jersey congregation where few knew of his
Ewing was 14 when he was paired with a Ministerial Servant at Florida's
Coral Springs East Congregation. The two worked as "pioneers," going
door-to-door to proselytize. According to Ewing, the older man raped him
repeatedly, everywhere from Virginia to New York, where his case is being
filed. (The World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses recently moved upstate
from Brooklyn to Tuxedo Park.)
"He groomed Michael, made him think sexually abusing him was part of the
religion," attorney Irwin Zalkin, who is representing both Steele and Ewing,
tells Newsweek. "Like, 'I'm going to teach you what you need to know to be a
At 21, Ewing reported the abuse to his father—who, like Steele's
mother—brought the allegations to church elders. A religious tribunal was
convened but because Jehovah's Witnesses have a "two-witness rule"—any act
of wrongdoing must be corroborated by two witnesses—Ewing wasn't believed.
Accused of engaging in homosexual activity, both he and his abuser were
disfellowshiped, a severe form of excommunication where family and community
cut all ties.
"Michael still considers himself a Jehovah's Witness," says Zalkin. "His
parents are vehemently opposed to what he's doing. But he feels the silence
needs to stop. He wants to be a voice for change."
Zalkin has represented 24 former or current Witnesses in abuse lawsuits,
plus about 10 more than settled out of court. In most, accusation were
brought to congregation elders, who either dismissed them or disciplined the
"They don't tell anyone else why the person is being disciplined," says
Zalkin. "And if someone confesses and demonstrates—in their mind—that
they're repentant, they'll get a 'private reproof,' which is like a slap on
Over the past two decades there have been dozens of cases alleging the
church hid or mismanaged allegations of child sexual abuse. In September
2018, a Montana woman who claimed her elders were ordered not to report her
abuse won a $35 million suit. The Watchtower is currently petitioning the
Supreme Court to review another case in California, claiming a database it
maintains of alleged molesters is protected by clergy-penitent confessional
Zalkin has previously targeted the Watchtower, local congregations and
alleged perpetrators themselves. But Ewing and Steele's cases mark the first
time he's named the eight-member Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses, the
organization's ruling council, as defendants.
"Before, having to sue from another state, we've had trouble even getting a
deposition from these guys," Zalkin says. "But given that [the Governing
Body] operates from the state of New York, and control the conduct of
Witnesses worldwide, we think have a good shot."
He's also encouraged by the fact that some of Ewing's abuse happened while
he was staying at the Bethel (branch complex) in Wallkill, New York, in the
mid-1980s. Steele lived in New York State when her abuse occurred.
"There was an incredible amount of knowledge among elders about Heather's
abuser," he says. "There's such a volume of evidence. There's very little
question of responsibility on the part of the Governing Body."
In a statement to Newsweek, the U.S. Branch Christian Congregation of
Jehovah's Witnesses said it would not address current litigation "out of
respect for the judicial process and the privacy of those involved."
"Watchtower's stand on the subject of child abuse is very clear: we abhor
child abuse in any form," it added. "Over the years, Watchtower's
publications have addressed this topic with a view to equipping parents to
protect their children. In addition, Watchtower's practice is to always
follow the law, and we support the efforts of elders in congregations of
Jehovah's Witnesses to do the same."