Maverick Life

BOOK EXCERPT

Maria’s Keepers: One Woman’s Escape from the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church in South Africa 

Maria’s Keepers: One Woman’s Escape from the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church in South Africa 
'Maria’s Keepers: One Woman’s Escape from the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church in South Africa' by Sam Human. (Photo: Supplied by The Reading List)

Sam Human’s new book ‘Maria’s Keepers’ tells the story of Maria, a former Jehovah’s Witness in South Africa, and reveals gender victimisation, sexual abuse and cover-ups within the church.

Maria managed to escape the church’s doctrines and control, but her freedom came at a price – she is shunned by her family, and can never see her mother or sister again.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses is a worldwide, Christian-based religious group that professes an unparalleled dedication to Jehovah (God). It claims to be politically neutral, racially and ethnically transcendent, and has a membership of eight million people worldwide.

Yet many former Witnesses claim that it is a fear-based doomsday cult that considers itself above all other belief systems.

Allegations of secular, cultish behaviour, homophobia, money laundering, brainwashing and countless accusations of institutionalised sexual abuse abound.

Entering the church is easy, but leaving it can be a matter of life or death, as Maria and countless others discovered.  Read an excerpt below.

***

As Lloyd Evans writes in The Reluctant Apostate: ‘I had no idea Witnesses felt love was conditional. Forget the idea of blood being thicker than water. If you dare to disagree about Jehovah, that blood loses its viscosity in a heartbeat. Sons and daughters become dead to the very people who gave them life, and moms and dads are treated as invisible by those whom they cradled in their arms as babies.’

Against a backdrop of selfless love and a seemingly benign, unconditional serving of God, there are former Jehovah’s Witnesses who have left the church, and attest to a vastly different reality to that portrayed on the official Jehovah’s Witnesses website. One such person is Maria, a former Jehovah’s Witness in South Africa, whose story may resonate with current or former Witnesses. Shamed and ostracised by her family and her congregation for not only questioning her faith, but also for standing up against the sexual abuse she endured by the very people she ‘served’ and respected, she was eventually excommunicated from her faith and shunned by her family.

Of the many double standards that she was forced to tolerate, Maria’s experiences of sexual abuse and emotional ‘gaslighting’ at the hands of senior members of her community church are by far the most distressing. These were ‘crimes’ for which she was not only shamed, but also blamed. Sadly, Maria’s experiences are not necessarily unique. A damning 2016 report by the Australian Royal Commission into ‘Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse’ revealed evidence from case files held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation that recorded allegations, reports or complaints of child sexual abuse by 1 006 members of the organisation.

The Royal Commission found that children and young adults within the JW organisation are not adequately protected from the risk of child sexual abuse; that the organisation does not respond adequately to allegations of child sexual abuse; and, given their outdated internal disciplinary procedures, for the most part, are lacking in their understanding of what constitutes sexual abuse. The Royal Commission also found that the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation’s internal disciplinary system for addressing complaints of child sexual abuse was not child or survivor focused. ‘Survivors are offered little or no choice in how their complaint is addressed, sanctions are weak, with little regard to the risk of the perpetrator reoffending.’

Finally, the Royal Commission considered the organisation’s general practice of not reporting serious instances of child sexual abuse to authorities demonstrated a serious failure to provide for the safety and protection of children.

Similarly, Maria’s story reflects the failure of her Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation to respond adequately and compassionately to her claims of abuse and mistreatment, driving her to a state of desperate unhappiness, angst and isolation.

A BBC News report in February 2020 revealed that twenty former Jehovah’s Witnesses were suing the church in the United Kingdom over historical sexual abuse, with one former elder claiming that the church had failed to ever involve the authorities.

The report claimed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policy of not punishing alleged child sex abusers unless a second person, in addition to the accuser, has also witnessed the event (known as the two-witness rule), or unless the abuser openly confesses (unlikely, of course), to be problematic.

The official response to this report from the Jehovah’s Witnesses camp was that its elders do comply with child-abuse reporting laws, even if there is only one witness present, and that they always notify the police if a child is in danger, which the former elder of the church vehemently denied, accusing the church of failing to involve the authorities over many years.

According to the BBC News report: ‘John Viney, the former elder, says he was himself abused between the ages of nine and thirteen, by a distant family member who was an active Jehovah’s Witness: “I know for a fact now that there are parents that haven’t done anything about the abuse of their children by others because they don’t want to bring reproach on Jehovah’s name.”’

This former elder’s daughter was also abused as a child and has since spoken about it publicly. When she left the church, her father disowned her, something he has regretted ever since: ‘When I was an elder and a dad, I put being an elder absolutely first.’

In 2019, Rolling Stone magazine reported on a 2019 report by a US-based magazine and multi-platform publisher, The Atlantic, that alleged the existence of a decades-old database of accused paedophiles within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation that had been withheld from authorities for years.

This database is said to contain thousands of names and addresses of accused child molesters within the church, as well as detailed reports of the specific allegations against them. The database was thought to have been prompted by a 1997 letter that the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society sent to all congregations within the US, instructing their leaders to document all known abuse allegations and their alleged perpetrators, and to send the report back to Watch Tower in a sealed envelope without informing the authorities. These letters were then reportedly used to compile an in-house database of known perpetrators within the US chapters of the organisation.

In its response to The Atlantic’s report, the Watch Tower’s Office of Public Information claimed that their policies on child protection comply with the law, including any requirement to report allegations of child abuse to authorities. According to The Atlantic, the existence of the database was made public in 2012, when a man named Jose Lopez filed a lawsuit alleging that he had been sexually abused at the age of seven by an adult church member named Gonzalo Campos in one of the San Diego chapters of the organisation. Although Lopez’s mother reportedly informed the church elders of the abuse, they failed to inform the police, allegedly citing their ‘two-witness rule’, whereby two witnesses are required to substantiate a claim of sexual abuse.

Arguably, the suitability of this rule in the context of child sexual abuse is questionable given that any sexual abuse invariably occurs in private, where the only witnesses to the abuse are the perpetrator and the victim. Reveal, an investigative news agency representing The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), a non-profit investigative journalism and multimedia news platform, founded in the United States in 1977, has followed this particular story for several years and provides corroborating information. They report that after years of litigation, Lopez’s case against the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society was eventually settled out of court in March 2018 for an undisclosed amount. (This outcome was also covered in a San Diego Union-Tribune article, dated 6 March 2019, and titled ‘San Diego Sex Abuse Cases Against Jehovah’s Witness Organisation Settled’, as well as in The San Diego Reader, dated 12 January 2018, and titled: ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses to Settle Sex Abuse Case’.)

In a previous 2015 court decision, a San Diego state judge ruled that Watch Tower had failed to cooperate with discovery in the Lopez case and awarded him an amount of $13.5 million. Watch Tower appealed the case, and the award was rescinded on the condition that they hand over the documents that allegedly detailed the organisation’s knowledge of child sex abuse, going back decades across their congregations in the US. The court said that Watch Tower would be heavily penalised if they refused to do so, and in 2016, they acquiesced and began handing over documents to Irwin Zalkin, the attorney representing the plaintiff, Jose Lopez.

Watch Tower were said to have provided the documents on condition that they were placed under a protective order, meaning Zalkin could not discuss their contents or share them with law-enforcement agencies, reporters or the public. It marked a significant watershed moment within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation, as it was the first time that Watch Tower had allowed private files to be released into the hands of individuals outside of the church. Settling the case also meant that any chance of unsealing the documents remains, for now, unlikely.

Maria’s own experience in the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church in South Africa is a story of manipulation and despair, but it is also a story of triumph and hope. In leaving the church, Maria was forced to give up her family; she is forbidden to communicate with them and is forever shamed in their eyes. At the same time, though, she has ‘escaped’ the many years of torment, confusion and rejection she suffered at the hands of the church. Today, as a former Jehovah’s Witness, she stands tall and tells her truth, potentially exposing what lies ‘behind closed doors’. DM

Maria’s Keepers: One Woman’s Escape from the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church in South Africa by Sam Human is published by Penguin Random House SA (R280). Visit The Reading List for South African book news, daily – including excerpts! 

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.