It should come as no surprise that the Catholic Church is not the only insular religious institution that would allow child sex abuse to go unchecked for decades — or that when the stories come to light, the leadership seems to care more about protecting the abusers than helping the victims.
A story published by the Philadelphia Inquirer today describes how three years after a Center for Investigative Reporting expose revealed tales of widespread sex crimes in the organization, its leadership denied them.
Stephen Lett, head of the small governing body that oversees the Witnesses, appeared on video in 2015 to undermine the accusers, urging his followers to reject “false stories” and painting the accusations as religious discrimination.
“As an example, think about the apostate-driven lies and dishonesties that Jehovah’s organization is permissive toward pedophiles,” Lett said, according to the Inquirer. “I mean, that is ridiculous, isn’t it? If anyone takes action against someone who would threaten our young ones, and takes action to protect our young ones, it is Jehovah’s organization.”
As the Inquirer report indicates, however, Lett was well aware of the mishandling of abuse—long before his public denial.
Twenty-nine-year-old Chessa Manion says that when she was just 5 when she was raped by a 14-year-old neighbor, whose family were also Jehovah’s witnesses. A doctor confirmed her parents’ fears and told them they had to go to the authorities.
Her mom said the powerful members of the congregation pressured her into not reporting the crime.
“There were friends of both families that felt if we would just make peace with this and each other that we wouldn’t have to go to the authorities,” she said in a recent interview.
Marion tells the Inquirer that she was forced to hug her rapist. “I was made to hug him,” she said, “because the elders told our families that we needed to keep the peace.”
“My parents received a lot of opposition, even though I was only 5,” Chessa said. “I was marked as ‘dirty.’ ”
In 2002, Manion’s father sent a letter to Lett describing their ordeal.
“Most of the people we have told over the years have shunned us,” he wrote. “Some even thought and said openly to others that we must have done something to deserve this.”