A few mornings ago I checked my Facebook messages, as I routinely do when I first wake up. “Whoa, did you see this?,” wrote one of my close friends. A link followed to an article that both shocked and disturbed me.
Being originally from Vermont myself, of course the title was of immediate interest to me. But when I realized the congregation was not far from the town where I was raised as a child, I was completely floored.
I am well aware of the countless similar sex abuse cases involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, I have admittedly always had some sense of security concerning the Witness community I was raised in. I now recognize my perception was wrong.
On many occasions families from the surrounding congregations would visit our Kingdom Hall for meetings, or join us in field service. I have visited the Kingdom Hall in question on several occasions, and I shudder to think that at some point I could very well have been in close quarters with a pedophile; a pedophile who was being sheltered by this quaint and “loving” congregation.
Two sisters, Miranda Lewis, 23, and Annessa Lewis, 27, have come forward and accused Norton True of sexual abuse dating back about 20 years. At the time, True was serving as a ministerial servant.
Annessa alleges that she was abused first, when True was babysitting her at his home. Miranda’s abuse is thought to have occurred at a later date, likely sometime between 1995 and 1996. She says the first incident was after a congregation meeting, when True took her hand and held her back as the rest of the congregation was departing. Both women reported being sexually abused on “multiple occasions.”
“It’s difficult to put to words the effects the abuse has had on me,” Miranda Lewis said. “Throughout my life I have struggled with depression, anxiety, self identity and countless other issues I now realize stem from my sexual abuse.” She believes that pursuing this case will help her heal, while also protecting other children from abuse.
The mother of the two girls, Marina Mauvolean-Folsom, is also involved in the lawsuit. She learned of the abuse when she caught True trying to isolate Miranda Lewis in his barn during a church member’s going away party. True denied touching Miranda, but her sister Annessa confirmed her mother’s suspicion by saying that she had been fondled by True.
Their mother reported True to the body of elders, but no apparent action was taken. For this reason, she and her daughters are also suing the elder body of the Bellows Falls congregation, along with the Watch Tower Society.
Mauvolean-Folsom explained that the elders wanted her to keep quiet about what had happened. Instead of taking any action, she claims they had her and the girls switch congregations. A few years later, the family left the Watchtower organization altogether. It is unclear what True’s current status is regarding his affiliation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“We were told we were liars by a lot of people,” stated Miranda Lewis. “There was no support for my family. No understanding at all.”
It appears that the abuse incidents were reported to a therapist in September of 1996 and passed along to the state. The girls were interviewed by the Department for Children and Families and a local police department, but no charges were ever filed against Norton True. The reasons for this are unclear, although it could be because it can be difficult for the police to press charges when the victim is a very young child.
Representing the women is attorney Irwin Zalkin of Zalkin Law Firm, and Jerome O’Neill of Gravel & Shea PC. O’Neill has won millions in sexual abuse cases against the catholic church. Irwin Zalkin, already well-known for taking on Watchtower in court, specializes in sexual abuse cases. He is currently involved in a similar case in Connecticut involving the Witnesses.
Zalkin publicly spoke out against Watchtower’s two witness rule, saying, “When and how often do we believe a sexual pervert is going to admit what they’ve done, and how often are there eyewitnesses to that sexual abuse? Virtually never. So, by their own policy they can rarely if ever take action.”
For those unfamiliar with the two-witness rule, it requires a confession by the abuser or two eye-witnesses of the event (or of two similar events) for the leaders of the church to take any action.
Zalkin says he believes Watchtower is more concerned with avoiding scandal than in protecting the children under its care. The more sex abuse cases are revealed, the more Zalkin is proved right. If Watchtower truly cared about children, they would surely take more action against pedophiles.
There are also allegations that three other children in the congregation were molested by True before the Lewis girls. The elders are accused of refusing to warn other parents about the threat posed to their children.
In this particular case, Zalkin believes legal action will depend upon what kind of documentation the congregation has about the events. However, in all of the cases Zalkin has been in, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have refused to provide any documentation.
Zalkin says that in one case in California the court passed a default judgment against the organization due to non-compliance in this area. He appears confident that the Vermont court system will not allow the Bellows Falls congregation to get away with hiding documentation relevant to the case.
Zalkin might also run into an issue regarding the statute of limitations. In most cases, the statute allows victims to bring action until age 18, plus whatever the statute of limitations is in that State. In Vermont, it is 6 years.
Since Annessa is 27, she is beyond that limitation. Jerome O’Neill explained that in some cases, though, victims are allowed to make claims up to 6 years after they realize they have problems resulting from sexual abuse.
The outcome of Annessa’s case will in part be determined by whether or not she will be allowed to sue on the basis of awareness of harm. This will be settled in court, O’Neill said. The girls are both asking for an unspecified settlement amount, and a trial by jury.
Attempts were made to reach True, the body of elders in Bellows Falls, and the Watchtower headquarters. All such attempts were unsuccessful.
The fact that problems with sexual abuse are showing up in the most remote areas indicates just how pervasive these problems are among the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also sounds a note of caution for those who accept that there are issues with Witness doctrine, but believe their congregation is close-knit and safe enough to shield them and their loved ones from harm.
To many active witnesses, this case will only be seen as another attack from Satan. No doubt those heavily indoctrinated will fall back on the idea that “Satan’s media” is not to be trusted. A recent Awake! article strongly suggested that their members should be highly skeptical of any information not originating from the Watchtower organization.
For some Witnesses, such propaganda might be convincing. But what many will fail to realize is that these kinds of cases have been surfacing since long before the recent publication of anti-media rhetoric. Jehovah has not been sending a warning about future events; Watchtower is spreading its propaganda as a defense based on ongoing problems.
I am hopeful that at least some thinking Witnesses will see these cases for what they really are. From an outside perspective, it is obvious that any organization who places its own reputation above that of a child’s well-being cannot be one directed by God.
I am of course also very interested to see how my own family will be affected by the news. As members of the religion in very good standing, I am not hopeful of any profound changes in their thinking. As appalling news such as this culminates, however, I believe there will come a time when even the most steadfast members of the religion will be forced to scrutinize their belief system.
I live for the day when the Watchtower organization no longer holds a grip on the thinking processes of its members. I applaud those involved in this website, and all ex-JW advocates who work hard to help make this day a reality. I recognize the value behind spreading the real truth, and sticking together as a community. I hope you do too. Together we can make a difference.