Mark Sewell, the disgraced former elder convicted of a string of sex abuse offenses, including 5 counts of indecent assault against two young girls and the rape of a woman, has now been sentenced to 14 years having shown “not a thread of remorse.”
His crimes were committed during the time he was serving as an elder between the years of 1987 and 1995. Like most Jehovah’s Witness elders he was respected in his congregation, and he used this respect to inflict great damage on people’s lives.
News of the sentencing has prompted the Charity Commission to open an operational compliance case on Sewell’s congregation. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has also weighed in by issuing a press release expressing gratitude for the “brave victims who worked courageously to get Sewell behind bars.”
One such victim has bravely stepped forward and waived her anonymity by giving a series of media interviews.
Karen Morgan is the perpetrator’s niece who he took advantage of sexually, bribing her with alcohol. She has recounted how, tragically, her congregation did nothing simply because Sewell refused to confess.
Karen told the BBC: “Those group of elders who sat me as a child in front of a guy who’d been abusing me for years, and expected me to talk about it in front of him, and hear him calling me a liar… I think that probably has had the most effect on the rest of my life, because what Mark did to me I’ve had to try to deal with, but I’ve also had to try and deal with how the whole thing was handled… and I want answers for that.”
“I blame them for what continued to happen to me because no-one dealt with it,” she added.
Karen was sadly forced to attend three church meetings with her abuser in attendance. Sewell even organized an interrogation before other elders where he tried to get her to confess to lying. Astonishingly, it seems Sewell had an entire congregation in his back pocket, and was using it to cloak his appetite for sexual crime.
My heart goes out to all the brave victims who have been put through such an unthinkable ordeal. Their horror stories should rightly shatter the image the Watchtower portrays of their elder arrangement. Mark Sewell is a perfect example of how bad it can truly get when power is handed to someone of an evil, manipulative disposition.
But why was he given that power in the first place? And why was he allowed to hold on to it for so long?
Still waiting on Jehovah
“Wait on Jehovah” were three words I often heard growing up as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. For instance, when it was known that an elder had been overstepping his power, we were told to let “Jehovah” take care of things, and wait on him.
In the meantime the elder was to be considered innocent of any alleged wrongdoing, and talking about it with others, including outsiders, was considered taboo or “gossiping.” Unfortunately, this way of doing things meant that if the elder was engaging in some form of abuse, the victims would have to endure considerable suffering while their community did nothing but watch.
Elders are given a special privilege in the congregation, and this is evidenced by a 2013 Watchtower article telling parents with disfellowshipped children:
“Also, do not blame others. Respect Jehovah’s arrangement for discipline. Take your stand against the Devil—not against shepherds who act to protect the congregation.” – Watchtower, Jan 15, 2013, p. 16 par. 18.
Elders are granted an enormous amount of power over the lives of others. They have spiritual guardianship over their congregations and are respected as shepherds. They are called upon to judge whether wrongdoers under their care are repentant, and they wield the power to sever such ones from their friends and family, all in the name of “keeping the congregation clean.”
Naturally, any position of power, whether inside or outside a religion, will attract people who wish to exploit it. What measures, then, does the Watchtower take to address this problem?
Jim McCabe, a Watchtower spokesman, once told the media: “our problem is that there are some bad men that sneak into organizations. They snuck into our organization, they snuck into other organizations. When we discover who they are we take the action that we can take as a religious organization.”
As you can see, when Watchtower leadership is shown to be entangled in extreme wrongdoing, they have no problems equating themselves with the rest of the world’s organizations.
McCabe paints his organization as the victim of outside forces beyond their control. Yet, when they speak to their membership through their publications they deliver an entirely different message – one where their leadership is “appointed by holy spirit” and can be trusted as if the guiding hand of God directs them.
Never is the congregation warned that any elder could at any time be a “Mark Sewell,” who has “snuck into” God’s organization and assumed one of their positions of power.
Leadership appointed by holy spirit?
Sewell’s atrocities, and how he got away with them for so long, are part of a larger pattern that many throughout the decades have been desperately trying to highlight.
Unfortunately, Watchtower’s propaganda machine has successfully concealed this pattern of abuse from their membership. Astoundingly, many witnesses are completely unaware of the seriousness of their organization’s predicament. They simply operate on the “wait on Jehovah” mantra, and explain all negativity away with the idea of “human imperfection.” Are the gross sexual crimes committed by Sewell, and others in the organization, simply a case of human imperfection?
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, God’s “Holy Spirit” is perfect, but operates through imperfect people. The glaring question is how can a monster like Mark Sewell pass through this alleged supernatural recruitment process of appointment unscathed?
How can an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God be circumvented by the criminal mind of a single human being? The extreme suffering that Sewell has caused could have been avoided by simply intervening at the beginning of the process, something a perfect supernatural entity should be capable of doing.
By claiming that the leadership is appointed supernaturally, Watchtower is creating a false sense of security for their entire membership with devastating results. This is especially the case with children who naturally look up to spiritual shepherds, thus providing an opportunity for predators. This was what happened in the case of Mark Sewell, and there are undoubtedly more predators still lurking in the religion yet to be identified.
Interestingly, the governing body has recently handed over responsibility of appointing elders to circuit overseers, effectively further distancing themselves from liability in this extremely flawed recruitment process.
Tip of the iceberg
Sexual crimes are altogether horrific, but I don’t believe they should overshadow the many other forms of abuse that religious leadership is capable of inflicting on their “flocks.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses, and all of the world’s religions, need to come to terms with the fact that their problem is much more than just “bad men” sneaking into their organizations. The Mark Sewell case is symptomatic of a much larger problem which includes a wide spectrum of spiritual, physical and sexual abuse. This abuse is enabled by an imperfect system much more than imperfect operators.
Imagine, hypothetically, that the court found Sewell innocent and all allegations against him entirely fraudulent. We can be sure that Jehovah’s Witnesses, either locally or further afield, would use the story to reaffirm their faith that the Watchtower is God’s organization on earth. But since the case didn’t turn out in the Watchtower’s favor, it will not be reported on, and Watchtower will allow the story to fade in the memories of those who know about it with the passage of time. It will simply be another historical blemish to whitewash years later.
Their mode of operation is confirmation bias – that’s how propaganda machines work. They make sure all positive information is artificially inflated and anything negative is swept under the rug.
If you asked a random Jehovah’s Witness about the Mark Sewell case, they’d probably reply, “Mark who?” and would likely demand some type of proof that his former elder colleagues were indeed “spiritually corrupt and morally bankrupt.” Such circumstances simply don’t fit with the way Watchtower wishes to portray its elders, and this lies at the core of the problem.
It’s frightening to note that people like Mark Sewell had the power to disfellowship people in their congregations for something as simple as refusing to quit smoking cigarettes, all the while engaging in sexual crimes against the ones he swore to protect.
Sadly, Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to believe that they have an exclusive relationship with God despite conclusive evidence that their claims are no more valid than those of other religions. Perhaps one day that bitter realization will dawn on the leadership, and they’ll make the necessary changes and offer modern policies that protect their communities against predators; especially for the sake of their young ones.
In the meantime, how long will they “wait on Jehovah” to protect them against predators who seek to exploit them? How many lives, like that of Karen Morgan, need to be severely damaged in order for Jehovah’s Witnesses to wake up and do what needs to be done?
According to Rick Simons, who represented Candace Conti in yet another Watchtower sex abuse scandal, “Watchtower’s going to need more than one lesson, the Catholic Church sure did, and they’re going to get more than one lesson!” As more abuse scandals pile up for Watchtower, his words continue to be proven a devastating reality.