I have sat through many Jehovah’s Witness conventions and assemblies over the years.
Without exception, the time always seemed to pass very slowly and, even at my most indoctrinated, I would catch myself counting the hours and minutes before the seemingly endless parade of talks and demonstrations would mercifully terminate.
By contrast, a JW-related full-day event recently hosted in London by Reveal (from the Center of Investigative Reporting) seemed to be over in no time at all. In fact, myself and other former JWs in attendance were left wondering when we might look forward to the next one. So, what was the difference?
There were no tedious sermons this time round – no sanctimonious calls for the audience to sacrifice more of themselves in Jehovah’s service or grave warnings of the imminent end of civilisation as we know it.
Instead, the 60+ who attended on April 26 were treated to a series of genuinely engaging presentations by speakers and interviewees who each contributed their knowledge and expertise in pursuit of tackling one central question: How can lawyers, journalists, survivors, activists and lawmakers come together to address the rampant child abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses?
The theme of the conference sounded a welcome note of urgency: Bringing Abuse to Light: A convening to address the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ child safety crisis. There was no room for ambiguity; no need to waste time arguing over whether there is a child safety crisis. An abundance of testimony from lawyers and survivors would be presented that would bring any who were hitherto ignorant or undecided up to speed.
The Morning Session
Lawyer Irwin Zalkin gave the first address, having put his legal work on hold to fly out to London. Zalkin is as charismatic in the flesh as his reputation suggests (he is without question the most prolific architect of child sexual abuse lawsuits against Watchtower, having filed over 20 in the United States).
Zalkin’s presentation ran overtime, but nobody noticed as he cooly dismantled the apologetics of Monica Applewhite from her 2015 testimony at the Australian Royal Commission.
For example, Applewhite had suggested that Watchtower, like many organizations, had been caught off guard by the relatively-recent public awareness of institutional child sexual abuse. Zalkin eviscerated this argument by showing a series of scans from Watchtower publications dating as far back as 1981 (prehistoric in the context of child abuse awareness) showing that Jehovah’s Witnesses understood both the scale and gravity of child sex abuse long before most other institutions did. There was thus, he brilliantly argued, no excuse for Watchtower dragging its feet over several decades.
Following his presentation, Zalkin was asked about the Jose Lopez case in which Watchtower had been slapped with a $13.5 million default judgment, only to have this partially overturned by the appellate court. Zalkin explained that appellate judges tend to show more leniency and deference to religious institutions, which was why the part of the judgment chastising Watchtower for failing to produce the most senior Governing Body member – Gerrit Lösch – had been reversed.
On appeal, it had been determined that Zalkin had not been sufficiently persuasive in arguing for Lösch to be called upon to explain Watchtower’s policies. Zalkin told the Reveal conference that, having learned from this experience, he would make sure the Governing Body would be cited as defendants both collectively and personally in a future lawsuit, meaning that they would be compelled to answer for their harmful policies.
The prospect of the Governing Body being imminently sued caused an audible gasp in the room, especially among those like myself who are former Witnesses. (I felt so elated at this point, I almost jumped out of my seat!)
During the lunch break I told Zalkin that this revelation – that the Governing Body would be held personally accountable – had been the highlight of the morning presentations. Zalkin reaffirmed that the Governing Body would definitely be sued, but that it would take considerable planning by his legal team to preempt all possible objections. I recall thinking that I would not want to be in the Governing Body’s shoes when the court documents start coming through. Zalkin has become arguably the biggest thorn in the organization’s side in recent years (an observation also made by Trey Bundy during the conference) precisely due to his formidable persistence and expertise.
Perhaps the most emotional part of the conference was the personal testimony of three child abuse survivors: Debbie McDaniel, Candace Conti and Nick French.
Debbie McDaniel, author of Out With Consequences, told of her abuse at the hands of Ronald Lawrence, who escaped justice thanks to his crimes being covered up by Debbie’s elders (including her own father) just long enough for the statute of limitations to lapse. In the court case in which the District Attorney’s attempts to prosecute Lawrence were frustrated, Debbie’s parents had sat on the side of her molester in a show of solidarity, perfectly highlighting how easy it is for humanity and parental instincts to be bypassed when indoctrination is involved.
Candace Conti told the story of her long battle to bring Watchtower to justice following her abuse at the hands of Jonathan Kendrick – a man who was allowed to cultivate a friendship with her as a child despite elders being aware of his history of child molestation. Candace’s 2012 victory against Watchtower fired the starting gun for a flood of cases in subsequent years as other survivors were emboldened to step forward.
Nick French revealed the harrowing story of his five years of abuse by his JW stepfather into his early teens. Nick has since seen his abuser sent to prison, but the way his ordeal was dismissed and covered up by elders has left lasting scars. (A video in which Nick tells his story can be seen here.)
Next up was a presentation by Richard Fewkes, the National Coordinator for Operation Hydrant – the UK police investigation into allegations of “non-recent” child sexual abuse. It was left to Fewkes to deliver the crushing news, made even more astonishing by the testimony of the survivors who had preceded him, that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) – the UK’s version of the Australian Royal Commission – thus far does NOT plan to hold a public hearing for Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite scheduling hearings for other religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England.
In the Q&A session following Fewkes’ presentation, I asked him whether this decision might be revisited. I also wanted to know what was stopping Operation Hydrant from seizing records related to child molesters from Watchtower’s UK headquarters. Fewkes explained that the decision to not hold a public hearing for Jehovah’s Witnesses had not been taken by him or his colleagues, so he was unable to give any explanation or commitments. Fewkes also indicated that seizing the records would require a search warrant from the Crown Prosecution Service originating from a criminal complaint. In other words, without someone with specific knowledge of the database alerting the authorities, their hands are tied.
Then followed a panel, chaired by lawyer Kathleen Hallisey, of lawyers who, like her, have enjoyed some success in bringing legal action against Watchtower. The panel comprised James Counsell QC, Lisa Flynn (a partner from Shine Lawyers who had flown all the way from Australia for the conference) and Irwin Zalkin. A highlight of this panel was the revelation of the extremely well-spoken James Counsell, QC, who related some of the circumstances surrounding the High Court case involving A versus Watchtower, in which he was a barrister for the plaintiff.
Counsell told of how Jehovah’s Witness elders and ministerial servants had filled the court room on the first day of proceedings to such an extent that the victim and her lawyer were surrounded on all sides by Watchtower representatives in a truly intimidating show of force.
When the Judge entered the courtroom and surveyed the scene he was visibly incensed and ordered for the seating to be urgently rearranged to bring some relief to the victim. Counsell said that, from this point on, the case was “plain sailing,” because it was a visible demonstration of what little regard Watchtower had for the trauma experienced by child sex abuse victims.
The Afternoon Session
The morning session ended with attendees departing for a sumptuous lunch buffet abuzz with talk of what they had just seen and heard. I was intrigued as to whether the afternoon session could maintain the barnstorming momentum.
Though the afternoon session mostly involved presentations from journalists and filmmakers (the producers of “Spotlight”), the information was equally fascinating and helped frame the issue in terms of what practical measures can be taken to increase awareness.
To begin with, a panel of former elders was assembled, each with direct experience of dealing with child sexual abuse. Trey Bundy questioned John Viney (father of Karen Morgan), Patrick Haeck and Roger Bentley on their experiences as representatives of Watchtower. Each had troubling stories to tell that painted a picture of spiritual leaders who are entirely unequipped to deal with child molestation.
Then followed a presentation by Spotlight producers Blye Faust and Nicole Rocklin, who explained the process of recreating the story of the Boston Globe investigation of widespread abuse in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston in 2002. They commented on the enormous burden of making sure the movie (the trailer can be seen below) did the story justice for the sake of the survivors. It was encouraging to contemplate that, perhaps some day, Watchtower’s grave negligence and failure to protect children might similarly get the Hollywood treatment.
The keynote panel was a discussion between Trey Bundy (well known to JWsurvey readers as a journalist specializing in covering JW child abuse cases) and Mike Rezendes (an investigative reporter who was portrayed by Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight).
As someone who knows Trey Bundy well having had numerous Skype conversations with him over the last three years and can vouch for his sincerity and tenacity, I found it very moving to see him shoulder-to-shoulder with a man who had similarly shown great integrity and persistence in “bringing abuse to light” over a decade earlier.
Speaking of which, I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly explain how lucky are those of us in the ex-Jehovah’s Witness movement to have any journalist at all working to expose Watchtower’s negligence with child abuse, let alone one of Trey’s caliber.
A Word About Reveal
During the Bundy/Rezendes panel, a journalist from a major national UK newspaper questioned Rezendes on the time and resources he and his colleagues had been allocated to pursue their investigation of the catholic church – an investigation that continued over many months at an estimated cost of $1 million per year. The journalist commented that, essentially, there are no longer any dedicated investigative news teams in the UK that are given more than “two or three days” maximum to piece together a newspaper story. Rezendes replied that he would describe this approach as “drive-by journalism,” adding that complex problems often require a great deal of time to do the required research.
This was a powerful observation, because during the course of my own activism I have often been struck by how little journalists seem to fully understand what is happening with Jehovah’s Witnesses. It would seem that the lack of dedicated investigative news teams is working heavily in Watchtower’s favor, which is why I am more grateful than ever that, thanks to Reveal, Trey Bundy is on the case.
Trey had told me a couple of days before that, if it were not for the insistence of his CEO, Joaquin Alvarado, it is unlikely that he would have been able to devote as much time to covering Watchtower. (I think I’m safe writing this, as it was also mentioned at the event!)
Those like me who yearn for Watchtower to be held accountable for the organization’s failure to protect children should hence feel a huge debt of gratitude, not just to Trey, but also to the people who write his pay-check. You can have all the passion in the world to expose abuse – and Trey undoubtedly has this in spades – but with bills to pay you will still need the support of a news organization dedicated to throwing money at the truly important stories, and in Reveal this is precisely what Trey has, in just the same way as Rezendes and his colleagues enjoyed the full backing of the Boston Globe.
A key goal of the event was to start a conversation about child abuse that so far has been virtually muted, with Watchtower seemingly able to get away with almost anything – including refusing court rulings and defying the recommendations of the Australian Royal Commission.
Lawyers, survivors, activists and journalists had been brought into one room to thrash out the nucleus of a strategy aimed at protecting Jehovah’s Witness children and raising awareness. There was even a representative of the Charity Commission of England and Wales on hand, albeit purely in the capacity of observer. (I made a point of thanking him for attending even though I remain skeptical that the Charity Commission can meaningfully intercede even if it wanted to, because parliament has not given it the power to revoke charitable status.)
As the event drew to a close, there were promising signs that Reveal’s objective had already been at least partially realized. The BBC had sent a handful of personnel to sit through the proceedings, and one of these – a producer – stood up to tell those assembled how astonished he and his colleagues were at the information that had been presented.
The producer disclosed that they had already decided to cover the event in a broadcast for Radio Four, to be aired in the next few days, but they were so dumbfounded by the presentations that they were hurriedly pushing for the information to be presented in a Newsnight special (for national television).
Whether this television exposure materializes in the weeks ahead remains to be seen, but even so, it was heartening to see Radio Four cover some of the main stories from the event as promised. (You can listen to the coverage by skipping to the 26-minute mark in the recording below.)
What Reveal had essentially done by organizing this conference (in association with the UK law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp, I should add) was to take all the information and leading voices pertinent to Watchtower’s mishandling of child abuse and serve it on a plate with all the trimmings. When the problem is spelled out in such a thorough, compelling way, those in positions of power and authority cannot help but take notice. The BBC coverage, I would hope, is only the beginning in that respect.
Aside from raising awareness, the real triumph of this gathering lay in the opening up of networking opportunities – new bonds forged between activists and lawyers, survivors and journalists, that will continue to yield results for years to come.
The age of Watchtower covering-up child abuse with imperviousness is already behind us. The pushback has not only started – it is well advanced, sophisticated and matured. Information is being shared and strategies are being perfected. The years ahead do not look promising for the Governing Body if they continue to abdicate their duty toward children.
Indeed, we may yet see the Governing Body members take the witness stand to account for their stubbornness before long. Even when that day comes, there will be much work still ahead. But those of us who care about protecting children can at least take heart in knowing that non-Witness, worldly “outsiders” do get it, and – as this conference has powerfully demonstrated – they are busily doing something about it.