Tidings and salutations bibliophiles! Thank you for joining me in Episode 16 of True Crime: By The Book. I am the Librarian, Tasha Pierce, and your host. This week I decided to go into another documentary because this subject is receiving a ton of attention lately and I’ve got shit to say. Awareness is everything and I need my audience to have eyes and ears on this situation as it unfolds. Today, I want to share with you my thoughts on the Oxygen docu-series “The Witnesses”. But first-
This week I had some new reviews for the podcast. The first was sent by the lovely Sarah K from Toledo, Ohio! I really appreciate your support, Sarah. It’s Murder Up North sent a five star review from across the pond- and she has a great show to boot. You can definitely find her on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Newbie2016 had some nice words for me- thanks Newbie! As for the rest of you- what are you waiting for? Reviews are a huge help to the podcast. It helps to ensure that others are able to find the show and also shows me who is listening. So, make this a priority this week- leave reviews for your favorite podcasters (even if it’s not my show).
With that out of the way, let’s hop into today’s episode.
I’m sure that most of us can recall sleeping in on a Saturday morning, worn out from a whole week of whatever when a sharp knock on the front door stirs you from your dreams. Reluctantly, you get out of bed and stumble to the window. You look out and see two or three well-dressed people with briefcases on your steps. They look like they’re selling something and you don’t particularly want to buy anything. One of them spots you peeking out of the window. You don’t want to seem rude so you crack your door to tell them you’re not interested. Before you can say anything, the “leader” introduces themself and politely asks if they can talk to you about the Bible. The hook is usually something like, “Would you like to live forever on a paradise earth?” This is just an example of encountering a Jehovah’s Witness in the preaching work- what they call field service. For many of us, that is the extent of our experience with this Christian sect.
I bet you’re wondering what beef I could possibly have with Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are some of the nicest people in the world and they spend their free time sharing the “good news of Jehovah’s kingdom”. I have to agree that, as a whole, the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are full of people who sincerely want to be good citizens. However, there are policies that are put in place by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses and enforced by each congregation’s elders that leave the most vulnerable members in danger. “The Witnesses” places these policies under a microscope and we hear stories from former JWs that have left them scarred for life.
I will also tell you more about what the JWs believe and how their practices could be considered cult-like. This documentary will shed light on problems that have slid under society’s radar because of the secretive and isolated nature of this sect. I hope you hear this before you join the JWs or that it helps you better understand friends or family who practice this religion.
In this documentary, we meet several former JWs, beginning with Debbie McDaniel. Her family lived in Houston, TX, where her dad worked for NASA. That’s right- NASA. He was part of the “race for space” in the 60s. The US and the USSR were competing in space exploration- who would be the first to put a man on the moon. We know who eventually won that battle. It was after this milestone in human history that Debbie’s mom was visited by JWs in field service. They introduced her to the wonders of Jehovah’s kingdom and she was sold. She shared this good news with her husband and after studying with the Witnesses, the family packed up and moved to Oklahoma to join a congregation. The family had to leave old things behind- observing holidays such as Christmas and Easter, celebrating birthdays, and being a part of “Satan’s world”. They learned that the entire world was under demonic control- “world” meaning anyone who was not a JW. The only safe place on Earth was Jehovah’s chosen organization- the JWs. This type of isolationism is common in cults, and it allows for unthinkable acts to be committed against members.
There is a hierarchy in this religion that kind of puts me in the mind of a multi-level marketing business. The bottom tier consists of rank and file Witnesses-called publishers. Next are the congregation’s elders- who are said to be handpicked by Jehovah himself. Then there are the traveling overseers, who go from congregation to congregation ensuring that they are following mandates from upper levels. The next tier is Branch Committees, followed by the highest level, The Governing Body. The GB consists of 8 anointed men. (explain anointed) They are said to be guided by Jehovah’s Holy Spirit. The entire organization is supposed to guided by the Bible- their own special translation of the texts, The New World Translation. They also publish companion texts and literature- for example, the Watchtower and Awake magazines- that are to be followed as if they were sent by God himself. In fact, many Witnesses have an extensive library of companion literature that they must keep updated and follow. These books contain direction on nearly every aspect of everyday life. This creates kind of a hive mentality amongst publishers. Anyone caught thinking or speaking independently of the teaching will be reprimanded or removed.
You heard that correctly- if you THINK the wrong thing, you will be expelled. They are very good at enforcing this because they turn the members loose on one another. They are encouraged to keep the congregation clean by snitching on each other. If you are caught on the wrong end of this independent thinking conundrum you could lose privileges or worse- you could be disfellowshipped.
There are a number of sins besides thinking independently that could be a disfellowshipping offense. These include the big ones like adultery and fornication but there also weird ones like selling tobacco or participating in yoga. And there’s a LOT in between. So, are you asking me how any of this constitutes a crime? It is shameful but these people make a choice to live like this, right? What about the children? They are in a position that the parents raise them in this organization because they sincerely believe that it is “the Truth”. So, if you are an infant- literally minutes old- and the only thing standing between you living a long healthy life or dying within the hour is a blood transfusion, your parents will choose for you to die. As a Jehovah’s Witness, blood transfusions are equal to eating blood. There have been many people that lost their lives because they abstain from taking blood transfusions. It’s one thing when there are adults who make these decisions for themselves and something else entirely when adults are making decisions on behalf of children.
There are so many ways to find your way on the outside looking in of the religion. It all starts with a judicial committee presided over by three elders. They show you what rule you broke using their Bibles. They hear your side of the story and then determine if you are being truthful and remorseful. Once you have been disfellowshipped, an announcement is made from the podium by the elders. That goes something like, “Tasha Pierce is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses”. They don’t go into why they just make the announcement. With that, a flip is switched in all Witnesses in good standing and they immediately begin to shun the ousted individual. It’s considered a spiritual death- the worst thing that can happen to a Witness because being disfellowshipped means no resurrection to the earthly paradise.
This brings me back to Debbie’s story. What happens when the person committing the disfellowshipping offense is an elder? The whole congregation feels as if this man (it’s ALWAYS a male) was appointed by Jehovah through his Governing Body. That means there should be no mistakes. An independent thinker would argue if Jehovah can be wrong about HIM what else might he be wrong about? But independent thinking is discouraged. Wonder why? Unfortunately, Debbie would find out the congregation had a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Ronald Lawrence was a respected elder in the congregation. He would often assemble the teams that would go out in the community for field service. It was looked at as an honor to be paired with him, so imagine the excitement that Debbie and her mom felt when he chose Debbie to be his partner. I guess I should mention that this is a very patriarchal religion. Women are only as powerful as the men they are associated with. Women and girls don’t hold positions of authority in the congregation. They can ascend to the level of Pioneer- a person who devotes at least 70 hours per month to the field ministry. Women who pioneer are held in higher esteem over ones who don’t- and if a man is looking for a wife he’s looking at these strong women of faith first. The level down is auxiliary pioneers who only do 50 hours per month. This is likely the capacity that Debbie served at 7 years old. Little Debbie, turning in her little time slips and preaching the good news. And now she’s out preaching with Brother Lawrence. It seems, however, that Ronnie Lawrence had other things on his mind. Debbie says that, on that morning, he began a campaign of sexual abuse that would last 7 years.
Deloris Lyles was another JW child who was entrusted to Ronnie Lawrence. At ten years old, after her dad passed away, she was sent to do janitorial work with him because the family needed money. This wasn’t odd, as JWs are encouraged to do this type of work in order to have more time to devote to the Watchtower. The family business would be window washing or cleaning office space. This gave Ronnie all the time he needed to molest Deloris, using scripture to justify his actions. The abuse was ongoing, including at a pool in Arkansas when she attended a District Convention with the elder. Ronnie also had a pool at his home where he routinely abused girls.
In 1994, Deloris found her voice and reported this abuse to the body of elders. So, a judicial committee was formed with three elders to investigate her claims. They spoke to Deloris who gave an uncomfortable and in-depth account of Ronnie’s abuse. They then spoke to Ronnie, who vehemently denied her accusations. The hearing ended with no disciplinary action- and this is where the conduct can be considered criminal by the organization. Ronnie didn’t get disfellowshipped because the Witnesses adhere to an archaic biblical rule that was used to litigate civil disagreements between god’s people. This rule is known as the “two witness rule”. Basically, there need to be two witnesses to any sin. Of course, this is ridiculous. Most child molesters do not keep a witness around to report their wrongdoing. In the case of a child against an elder, it was her word versus his. No disciplinary action was taken and Ronnie was free to molest again. Notice that at no point did the elders (window washers and janitors by trade) decide that this situation was too big for them to handle. You know, maybe report this kind of crime to the secular authorities. They specifically followed the mandate handed down to them by the GB via memo in 1989. In so many words, the memo cautioned elders to remain quiet about incidents of sexual abuse. These matters were confidential and taken care of in-house. The only call they were required to make was to the Legal Department of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. The Legal Department.
Because they didn’t have a “second witness” to this abuse the elders closed the case, putting many other children in harm’s way. And remember, these are people who go door to door preaching to families. If any of those families decide to have an ongoing bible study, they could be inviting a predator in their homes.
This brings us back to Debbie. Deloris caught up with her and asked if she had the same experiences with Ronnie. By this time Debbie was 29 and married with a child. A good witness woman. She was also a SECOND witness to Ronnie’s conduct. They were now in the position to bring this monster down. Debbie reported her abuse (one of the presiding elders was her dad), her testimony along with Deloris’ was credible. Finally, Ronnie stopped lying and took his punishment. He was disfellowshipped. Now I already explained that once disfellowshipped, the congregation views that person as dead. There is a way back to the truth. That would be by being super gung ho in meeting attendance and showing your remorse. If you prove that you want to be part of the congregation again you will be reinstated. It’s a matter of time and if Jehovah sends word to the elders that you are totally repentant it might not take very long. You would think that Jehovah would’ve gotten word to the elders before this shit happened, but I digress. In the meantime, the congregation has no idea why Ronnie had been disfellowshipped. When he is reinstated, he regains all the privileges of a regular congregant- including being a traveling, child molesting, door to door doomsday peddler.
During this time, Debbie decided to report her abuse to the authorities. She was warned that if she did that she would be punished. See, another rule that JWs adhere to is not taking a brother or sister to court. If it hasn’t become apparent, these rules protect the worst kinds of people although it may be inadvertent. The JWs are very concerned with not bringing reproach on Jehovah’s name and keeping the congregation clean but they seem to give zero fucks about the COMMUNITY they operate in. And this still may not be enough info for many people to see how this makes the Watchtower organization the subject of a true crime podcast.
Well, in 2013, Debbie does report her abuse to the police. She is also disfellowshipped for admitting that she was attracted to women (because homosexuality is also a no-no). While describing her situation to the detectives, she mentioned a filing cabinet that had all the dirt on every member of the congregation. Armed with this knowledge, the police obtained a search warrant so they could get to the bottom of these allegations. Imagine their surprise when they got to the Kingdom Hall and the contents of that cabinet were removed! These fuckers were attempting a coverup, and the elders make no moves without consulting the Governing Body so this likely went all the way to the top.
Debbie’s life was now in shambles. Her family was shunning her. She was having an identity crisis. Her child was being kept from her. And the congregation’s elders were now practicing “theocratic warfare” a doctrine that teaches that refusing to cooperate with criminal investigations involving Jehovah’s Witnesses is sanctioned by God because outsiders are not entitled to the truth. Now we’re getting into real criminality. Under theocratic warfare, all the nice shit goes out the windows. JWs are allowed and encouraged to lie to protect their beliefs. The wild card is PIMO JWs- those are people who are physically in, mentally out. They haven’t come up with an escape plan that won’t turn their lives upside down, but the indoctrination has worn off. It is believed that one of those PIMOs called the police and tipped them to re-execute the search warrant. The police did just that and hit the mother load.
In that once empty filing cabinet there were documents that not only supported Debbie and Deloris’ accusations, there were others. The JWs keep meticulous records. The elders from one congregation will send letters to elders in another to introduce them to publishers who are moving into their area. In this letter, they spell out any problems or issues that came up involving the new congregant. In essence, there is a database that exists which details all the lurid secrets in a member’s history with the organization. Then it was learned that an even BIGGER database that holds each congregation’s secrets exists at the Watchtower HQ in New York. This is a worldwide organization. Imagine the scores of people the Watchtower has intel on.
When Debbie had her day in court, she had no support. In fact, the people she once considered friends and family had shown up in full support of her abuser- including her mom and dad. Unfortunately, Ronnie was protected by the statute of limitations and the charges were dismissed. Debbie had to watch as her family and friends celebrated this “victory”.
Debbie McDaniel and Deloris Lyles are no longer a part of the organization, but they are still advocating for victims of sexual abuse.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses Church in Australia failed to report more than 1,000 alleged child sex abusers to the police, an inquiry has heard.
Instead, the commission says, the Church itself handled all the cases – some of which date to the 1950s.
One elder told the hearing that notes relating to abuse claims were destroyed so they would not be discovered.
Australia began a national inquiry into child sexual abuse in 2013, after claims of abuse in the Catholic Church.
Members of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, whose remit includes religious groups, NGOs and state-care providers, say more than 4,000 victims have come forward.
The commission has heard allegations of abuse taking place within the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Jewish community, as well as schools and children’s homes.
Angus Stewart, counsel for the commission, said that of 1,006 alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse identified by the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church, “not one was reported by the church to secular authorities”.
The Church dismissed 401 members following internal abuse hearings, but more than half were later reinstated, the inquiry was told.
One Church member, identified only as BCB, gave testimony to the commission, saying that she was sexually assaulted by an elder as a teenager, and suffered depression as a result.
“The abuse changed who I was,” she said. “It destroyed my confidence and my self esteem.”
Another woman, given the pseudonym BCG, will give evidence that she was abused by her father, but forced by Church authorities to confront him about the allegations, Mr Stewart said.
Her father responded by blaming her for “seducing him”, Mr Stewart said.
One Jehovah’s Witnesses elder who handled BCB’s complaint, Max Horley, admitted he destroyed notes about her allegations in case they fell into the “wrong hands”.
“We do not want our wives knowing our stuff – what sort of things we are dealing with,” Mr. Horley told the hearing, adding that they wanted to limit the number of congregation members who knew about it.
Over the past two decades there have been dozens of cases alleging the watchtower hid or mismanaged allegations of child sexual abuse. In September 2018, a Montana woman who claimed her elders were ordered not to report her abuse won a $35 million suit (later overturned by the Montana Supreme Court). The Watchtower is currently petitioning the Supreme Court to review another case in California, claiming a database it maintains of alleged molesters is protected by clergy-penitent confessional privilege.
Zalkin has previously targeted the Watchtower, local congregations and alleged perpetrators themselves. But Ewing and Steele’s cases mark the first time he’s named the eight-member Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the organization’s ruling council, as defendants.
“Before, having to sue from another state, we’ve had trouble even getting a deposition from these guys,” Zalkin says. “But given that [the Governing Body] operates from the state of New York, and control the conduct of Witnesses worldwide, we think have a good shot.”
He’s also encouraged by the fact that some of Ewing’s abuse happened while he was staying at the Bethel (branch complex) in Wallkill, New York, in the mid-1980s. Steele lived in New York State when her abuse occurred.
“There was an incredible amount of knowledge among elders about Heather’s abuser,” he says. “There’s such a volume of evidence. There’s very little question of responsibility on the part of the Governing Body.”
In a statement to Newsweek, the U.S. Branch Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses said it would not address current litigation “out of respect for the judicial process and the privacy of those involved.”
“Watchtower’s stand on the subject of child abuse is very clear: we abhor child abuse in any form,” it added. “Over the years, Watchtower’s publications have addressed this topic with a view to equipping parents to protect their children. In addition, Watchtower’s practice is to always follow the law, and we support the efforts of elders in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses to do the same.”
There are so many other cases in different phases of litigation and I will do my best to stay on top of details as they become available. In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about this wacky cult there are a lot of great YouTube activists you should check out: Lloyd Evans from the John Cedars channel, JT and Lady Cee of Ex JW Critical Thinker, and Ex JW Analyzer should get you started. I’ll leave their links on my website, TCbyTB.com.
I’m at TCbyTB on all the things. You’ll notice I added More Than a Movie to my title- because we do talk about movies and such. Please share with a friend or loved one who may be considering joining this cult and implore them to DO THEIR OWN RESEARCH. The Witnesses would rather you use their literature to research their religion but that’s a huge circle jerk. If it’s the truth it can stand up to scrutiny. Please leave ratings and reviews on your platform of choice. We’ll get together again real soon to discuss all things true crime. Later Bookworms!
Sources & Shit
Website devoted to informing the public of the truth about “The Truth”
Official website of jehovah’s witnesses:
Oxygen doc- the witnesses
JT & Lady Cee (Ex JW Citical Thinker)