As 2013 winds to a close, we can now pause to reflect on what has proved an eventful year for Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watch Tower Society.
In preparing my notes for this review, it struck me how some months of 2013 were far busier than others. There were times last year when nothing seemed to be happening, punctuated by periods of relentless news reports, filing of lawsuits and controversial Watchtower articles when it was difficult to keep up.
Of course, Watchtower has no such concerns when it comes to keeping its followers abreast of events. No stories showing the organization in a less-than-flattering light receive any coverage whatsoever on JW.org, or in the publications.
It is for good reason that in September 2013 an Awake! was released warning skepticism of the media. Watchtower is beginning to get far too much bad press, and they are desperate to insulate Jehovah’s Witnesses from this as much as possible. All must be seen as rosy and blissful in Watchtower’s spiritual utopia.
Here at JWsurvey we are committed to keeping track of what’s REALLY going on with Watchtower, whether it flatters the organization and its doctrine or not. We hope you will enjoy our whistle-stop review of the events of 2013.
January saw millions of Witnesses receiving their copies of the 2013 Yearbook with its review of the previous year’s activity. One story on pages 29 and 30 reported that a Witness family in Lagos, Nigeria, had survived a devastating plane crash that claimed the lives of 153 passengers. They had been in attendance at a meeting when the plane hit their apartment block. “Jehovah’s hand” was thus suggested as having played a role.
Elsewhere, on page 138 of the Yearbook, the experience was given of a couple in Myanmar who abandoned their livestock in favor of attending a District Convention, resulting in the deaths of 19 chickens. The next year, it was reported that their flock had increased dramatically, while chickens of others in their village perished due to disease. Governing Body member Anthony Morris III would later recount this story in a talk at the summer Special Convention to illustrate how Witnesses are “never disadvantaged” when attending conventions.
January also saw the Watchtower threaten legal action against this website for publishing a copy of the now infamous October 1st 2012 body of elders letter regarding child abuse (download link here). On January 3rd, JWsurvey was taken offline by our hosting service for 24 hours after lawyers from Patterson threatened legal action and we were unable to remove the letter from our server in time.
This heavy-handed approach backfired dramatically, because it clearly demonstrated to Witnesses that Watchtower is prepared to go to extreme measures to withhold any embarrassing information. A YouTube video was made explaining the incident which, at the time of writing, has been viewed over 25,000 times. The letter has also since entered the public domain after being cited as evidence in an Australian lawsuit.
Many current and former Witness parents were shocked and dismayed in February after JW.org released a number of highly inappropriate images in its children’s section. “Connect the dots” puzzles and cartoons depicted a terrified Lot’s wife being consumed by salt. Another child’s puzzle showed one of Solomon’s soldiers holding a baby aloft, preparing to kill it.
In March an extraordinary article was published in Australia’s The Age, in which Psychologist Raphael Aron (above left) described Watchtower as a “cruel cult” for its shunning of former members. In drawing attention to the shunning issue, Aron added his voice to that of Senator Nick Xenophon (center) who has called for more scrutiny of religious organizations in Australia.
Perhaps one of the most unexpected developments of 2013 was the unprecedented leaking of the July 15th Watchtower (with its explanation of the “new light” regarding the “faithful slave”) nearly three weeks before its usual release.
A source of mine within the organization was able to email me a scanned copy without being discovered. It thus fell to me to get the word out, but first I needed to try to untangle the twisted logic and bizarre reasoning with which the Governing Body had attempted to justify their new authority. The resulting article was a big hit with JWsurvey readers. It received nearly 5,000 unique visits in the first 48 hours, and was later translated into several languages.
March also saw the launch of the 2013 Global Survey of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has now gathered over 1,700 votes!
April witnessed the birth of a new officially registered corporation whose stated aim is to raise awareness of Watchtower abuses. AAWA (Advocates for Awareness of Watchtower Abuses) has since been joined by committed volunteers from numerous countries. It has so far succeeded in releasing a number of high quality videos, getting op-ed pieces published in several newspapers, setting up a support forum, and forging a partnership with SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests).
On May 2nd Governing Body member David Splane (above left) addressed an audience in Malmo, Sweden, and effectively told them that child baptism was NOT optional. Splane responded to parents who might urge caution in forcing their children into a lifelong commitment with an organization by asking, “is that really wise?” He went on to compare the need to force children to engage in worship with the need to force a teenager to get out of bed for his summer job at MacDonald’s.
JWsurvey also revealed in May that Indian nationals living in the United States would be asked to return to their homeland to help supplement the floundering preaching efforts there. The May 11th letter to bodies of elders, marked “strictly confidential,” represented further evidence that Witnesses are struggling to make headway in the sub-continent, not to mention other parts of Asia where Witnesses are almost non-existent.
May also saw the release of an Awake! magazine offering advice to parents of teenagers who self harm. Instead of urging the involvement of mental health professionals in all cases where a teenager is discovered self-harming, Awake! simply advised parents: “tell them to pray.”
The article was released only days before a suicide attempt by Paris Jackson, whose grandmother Katherine is a Jehovah’s Witness.
June is the month when the District Convention program of Jehovah’s Witnesses normally gets into full swing. The program for 2013, entitled “God’s Word Is Truth,” was found to contain some quite alarming material, at least as far as former Witnesses are concerned.
One talk warned against “human apostates,” employing strong rhetoric that contravened Watchtower’s own condemnation of “name-calling” propaganda tactics. Witnesses were also urged to shun family members who leave the religion. A recording of the latter talk was uploaded to YouTube, and has so far been viewed more than 34,000 times.
June also witnessed the unveiling of a “JW.org store” in France, not far from the French bethel. With large graphics and laptops on which only JW.org can be accessed, the store represented a new strategy on the part of Watchtower in attracting interested ones by avoiding direct use of the name “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
And in a JWsurvey exclusive article by author Joanna Foreman, Nestor Kuilan came forward for the first time and told the story of his involvement in the 1980 “purge” that also saw Governing Body member Raymond Franz ousted from the organization.
The Ex-JW community was shocked and angered when a glut of child abuse cases came to light in July, further highlighting Watchtower’s mishandling in this area.
Gordon Leighton (above left), Massimo Capazzo (above center) and Gonzalo Campos (above right) were all revealed as pedophiles whose crimes were not reported to the authorities by investigating elders. The latter, Campos, is understood to have abused upwards of seven children, some during his tenure as an elder in San Diego. At the time of writing, the full extent of Campos’ crimes has yet to come to light.
None of the above cases were reported on JW.org, but Watchtower was pleased to report the official commencement of building work on its new World Headquarters in Warwick on July 29th. This development came in the same month that the organization netted a windfall of $375 million from the sale of its remaining Brooklyn factory buildings. Together with other deals, this took the proceeds from Watchtower’s Brooklyn portfolio comfortably beyond the Billion-dollar mark.
By comparison, the new Warwick headquarters, which is being built predominantly using volunteer labor, looks set to cost Watchtower a mere $11.5 million according to one source.
If anyone was hoping reports of JW child abuse would drop off in August, they were in for a bitter disappointment.
Lawyer Irwin Zalkin introduced two new clients to the media, both of whom had been molested as Witness children but had their abuse concealed by the elders. Elizabeth McFarland (above left) was between the ages of 9 and 14 when she alleges to have been molested, and Monica Jaramillo (above right) claims to have been raped by an elder when she was only eight years old.
In a telephone interview the following month, Zalkin would tell JWsurvey that he was representing no less than 11 child abuse lawsuits against Watchtower across six US States. Rick Simons’ claim that child abuse is “rampant” among Jehovah’s Witnesses, made during a JWsurvey interview together with Candace Conti earlier the same year, was already proving to be only too accurate.
Meanwhile, Watchtower continued pursuing its Warwick headquarters project. A special talk was given by elders in America to request volunteers. What was essentially a case of real estate “flipping” was compared by the Governing Body to the building of the walls of Jerusalem under the supervision of Nehemiah. Back in Brooklyn, bethelites gathered to observe the Watchtower signs being removed from the old factory buildings.
Also in August, Watchtower shocked the Ex-JW community with arguably one of its most radicalized and cult-like articles to date, urging Witnesses to “close ranks against Satan.” In an article clearly designed to bypass critical thinking and impose the unquestioned authority of the Governing Body, the following astonishing direction was issued: “All of us must be ready to obey any instructions we may receive, whether these appear sound from a strategic or human standpoint or not.”
More than a year on from her remarkable victory against Watchtower in a California courtroom, Candace Conti (above right) thrilled her supporters by speaking at the RNA 2013 conference in Austin, Texas.
After telling journalists her story and outlining the reasons for Watchtower’s mishandling of child abuse at the event on September 27, Candace told journalists: “Through your diligence in getting these bad and inadequate policies in the public eye, you force these organizations and institutions to make changes, so please go out and continue to make a difference.”
Candace’s appearance came only a few weeks after Watchtower filed their reply brief in their appeal against the June 2012 verdict. Among the more crazy arguments made in the brief was the assertion that because Candace’s abuse was said to have happened after ministry arrangements, it therefore had nothing to do with the ministry arrangements themselves. Watchtower’s lawyers also tried to exempt the organization from responsibility by claiming that Candace wasn’t a full member of her congregation at the time of the abuse. The appeal is ongoing.
The number of Watchtower branches was reported to have taken a further dip in September, as the organization continued its “consolidation” initiative. The Estonian and Latvian branches proved to be among the latest casualties of Watchtower downsizing, even though both branch offices received dedication ceremonies as recently as 2010.
And September also saw Watchtower’s release of a new article showing characteristics of apostate paranoia. Witnesses were urged to “be on guard against those who speculate.” In addition to avoiding “personal speculations and critical conversations,” Witnesses were reminded to curtail “time wasting pursuits” such as “keeping in contact through social networks, reading and answering electronic messages, avidly pursuing hobbies, or constantly keeping abreast of sports events.”
Finally, in September it was reported that a teenager in Sydney had been ordered to accept a blood transfusion, despite being only a few months away from maturity in the eyes of the law. The case highlighted the role played by parental coercion in cases where minors need life-saving treatment with blood.
For most Witnesses, the real highlight of 2013 came on October 5th at the Stanley Theater in New Jersey, when Geoffrey Jackson (above, in yellow jacket) released the new revised New World Translation, later nicknamed the “silver sword.” Jackson and other Governing Body members teased the audience over the shortage of English bibles in the months leading up to the release without offering any explanation as to why rank and file Witnesses had been kept in the dark.
Eyebrows were also raised when Jackson quipped that the new bible was developed to be “sister proof,” causing some (myself included) to wonder whether this was some sort of sexist joke. Jackson also revealed that the printing press at Wallkill had enjoyed an unusually mild summer, thus enabling more bibles to be printed. This change in the weather, he suggested, was evidence of “Jehovah’s hand.”
Only a month later, Super Typhoon Haiyan would plough through the Philippines, claiming the lives of 27 Witnesses.
Also during the Annual Meeting, chairman Guy Pierce announced that a new video would shortly be released showing the progress on the new headquarters at Warwick.
Sure enough, a week later a 13-minute video was released in which all 8 members of the Governing Body featured prominently. Jehovah’s hand was again credited, this time with expediting the project amid concerns over planning permission. “When the approval came through, we knew it was only by Jehovah’s spirit that that happened,” said Richard Devine of the Construction Project Committee.
October also yielded a surprising news report from Arkansas, where 35-year-old homeowner John Baldwin (above, right) was taken into police custody after allegedly firing 19 rounds at a group of Witnesses who called on his property. Mercifully nobody was injured, but the incident did highlight the risks Witnesses take when calling on homes unannounced.
Governor Jerry Brown was to deal a blow to Kathleen Conti and her fellow campaigners in October after vetoing SB 131 – a bill that would have seen the Statute of Limitation extended for victims of childhood sexual abuse in California. In his comments to the press, lawyer Irwin Zalkin hinted that the decision was likely due in no small measure to heavy lobbying by the Catholic Church – an unlikely ally of Watchtower over this issue.
One pedophile who could not escape justice over any such technicality was Jonathan Rose (above left). On October 30th, Manchester Crown Court sentenced the former elder to nine months in jail for molesting two young girls, one of whom was only five years old when first assaulted. As later revealed by JWsurvey, Rose succeeded in getting his congregation to support him throughout the trial, with the judge being inundated with letters from local Witnesses. Despite having been removed as an elder, Rose continues (at the time of writing) to escape disfellowshipping for his crimes.
Three Witness-related stories were covered by the media during November, but none received any mention in the “newsroom” of JW.org.
On November 5th the Tampa Bay Times reported that a Florida teacher had been suspended for forcing a Jehovah’s Witness child to salute the flag, in clear violation of its rights to free speech and freedom of religion.
Then it emerged that on Sunday November 17th a Mexican family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including three children, had been brutally murdered by a gang in their own home over unpaid debts. The bodies of all eight victims were discovered after they failed to show up for their meeting.
Also in November, 76-year-old Witness elder Ronald Lawrence (above right) was arrested in Oklahoma on 19 counts of sexual abuse of children he is said to have molested more than thirty years ago. Media coverage suggested that police were investigating whether elders in his congregation bore responsibility for failing to report him after his alleged confession to them.
Despite missing all of the above stories, JW.org did at least have something to shout about – the Annual Meeting the month before. A video was released by Watchtower showing a carefully manicured depiction of the event. Gone were Geoffrey Jackson’s “sister proof” and “Jehovah’s hand” comments. Instead, the onus was on gushing appreciation for the new bible. Witnesses were shown embracing their Bibles and waving them in the air, ala Tiananmen Square.
This website also reported in November of how the MTS school (later known as the Bible School for Single Brothers) was effectively scrapped – to be replaced by a ministry-oriented “School for Kingdom Evangelizers” available to both genders.
And, lest we forget, November also saw the release of a Watchtower study article warning that the “carnage will be earthwide” when Armageddon strikes. The Hitchcock-esque article told of how birds would be summoned to dispose of the remains of non-Witnesses who perish.
December was a mostly quiet month at the end of a busy year.
One interesting development was the release of a Watchtower magazine claiming that the divorce rate is “skyrocketing.” When comparing the actual United Nations divorce statistics, it turned out this claim could not be further from the truth. In most countries, including the United States, divorce rates have actually fallen over the last ten years. This lends further doubt to Watchtower’s claim that “the Writing Department insists on using only material that is accurate and truthful, even regarding seemingly insignificant details.”
Also in December, the Ex-JW community gave its reaction to videos uploaded to YouTube by Jehovah’s Witnesses without Watchtower’s endorsement. In one video, a Witness mother of four revealed that her husband would be walking out of his job, without another job to go to, at least partly due to a desire to attend more meetings. This decision was apparently reached moments after the couple attended the Annual Meeting.
And in another “unapproved” video uploaded the month before, a YouTube channel called “JW Defense” took aim at “Apostates of Jehovah’s Organization” using material taken straight from the 2013 District Convention “Human Apostates” talk. A series of video rebuttals from yours truly ensued.
On a personal note…
2013 has proved to be a tumultuous year for my wife and I. In November we finally decided to sever our ties with Watchtower after learning of the impending birth of our first child. This decision led to me telling my story and showing my face for the first time, and I have since enjoyed making personal videos on my YouTube channel and being interviewed on the David Pakman Show.
So far this activity has gone mostly unnoticed by my local elders. Thus, as of this moment we are “unofficially” disassociated, meaning that we consider ourselves disassociated but local Witnesses who don’t know this are still being friendly with us. There is therefore unease and uncertainty within our family as to how they will respond once things become official, but we are trying to take things in our stride – confident that whatever happens we have made the right decision both for ourselves and future generations.
Throughout this personal turmoil I continue to be grateful to JWsurvey readers for supporting this website in so many ways. Likely 2014 will be just as eventful as 2013. Whatever developments the new year has in store, I look forward to sharing these with those of you who join me in my belief that “independent thinking” is no bad thing.
It’s good to be free!