Two former teachers have been charged with failing to report child sex abuse.
One of the private school teachers who became the first in WA to be charged with failing to report sexual abuse has revealed he will plead guilty to the charge, but he will not learn his punishment until the victim has had a chance to describe his pain.
The incident, in 2017, led to both teachers leaving the school and disciplinary measures against the students involved.
But the school has never revealed exactly what the punishments were and no criminal charges were laid against the perpetrators. Instead, it was two of the teachers on the trip who were yesterday in court, charged under the WA laws that make it mandatory for them to report sexual abuse.
Neither appeared in Perth Magistrate’s Court, but the lawyer for one of them, Michael Tudori, said his client wanted to plead guilty and get the matter dealt with.
But prosecutors stepped in and applied to have a victim impact statement from the boy who was bullied and sexually assaulted on the trip considered by the court.
Magistrate Mark Millington, who told the court he was an old boy of the school involved, agreed. Mr Tudori said his client accepted that the non-reporting of the incident had caused the pupil “great distress”.
“But it has also caused all sorts of distress to my client,” Mr Tudori said, including not being able to work as a teacher.
One teacher will return to court later this month.
The other, who is currently in the US, was ordered to return to court next month.
It has been said that “no one escapes childhood unscathed.” But sayings like these can have an especially significant meaning for a person who was abused as a child. Unfortunately the effects of childhood abuse don’t usually stay confined to childhood — they often reach into our experience of adulthood.
Maybe your experience growing up with abuse left you with a steady internal monologue of not good enough, not good enough, not good enough whenever you try to accomplish a task. Maybe the only way you can fall asleep is if you rock yourself to sleep — literally rocking back and forth on your bed. Or maybe you experience intense internal shame that no one sees behind the smile you plaster on your face every day.
We wanted to know what “hidden” habits people who were abused as kids have now as adults, so we asked our Mighty community to share their experiences with us.
No matter what your experience of childhood abuse was, it is important to remember you are never alone and there is help available. If you need support right now, reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.
Here’s what our community had to say:
1. Rocking Back and Forth Before Going to Sleep
“I rock myself back and forth to sleep every night. I can’t stop myself from doing it unless I concentrate really hard.” — Vade M.
“I sleep in [the] fetal position every night. I rock back and forth when I get too emotional. I run at any sign of yelling or raising of the voice. When someone cusses at me, I get defensive and angry.” — Leo G.
2. Hiding Food
“I hide food. It sounds ridiculous but I have random stashes of canned food spread throughout my house in the most ridiculous places. I always got shamed for being hungry and fighting for food was commonplace in my house because my parents thought a dinner meant for two people could feed their two growing kids as well as themselves. If I didn’t get much dinner to eat then, ‘Oh well, better luck next time.’ So when I got a little older, I got smarter about stockpiling cans of tuna and soup to eat with the money I made from walking other people’s dogs. It wasn’t too bad then, but it’s still prevalent in my life 14 years later whenever I go grocery shopping.” — Ai L.
3. Engaging in Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors
“Biting and chewing at the inside of my cheek until it bleeds. I’ve also developed a bad habit of picking until I create holes in my feet.” — Patience A.
“I shake my leg and/or fidget with my skin, sometimes causing small sores.” — Princess K.
4. Carrying a “Grounding” Object
“I carry a special pillowcase with me wherever I go. It’s my security blanket. I can’t go anywhere without it. I will play with seams with it in my purse and it’s weird that my hand hangs out in my purse all the time but it’s how I handle my anxiety and my flashbacks and just life.” — Kimberly L.
5. Always Having a Secret “Escape Plan”
“I have a really hard time with people walking up behind me. I always have to have an escape plan, and I hate being cornered or my movement restricted in any way. I was chased and cornered a lot as a child, so it’s very triggering. I also struggle with physical contact, especially when I don’t initiate it.” — Shalene R.
“I always know where every exit and possible hiding place is in a room. It’s the first thing I look for in a new place.” — Jenn S.
6. Having Imaginary Friends
“I’m 37 years old with six imaginary friends. One is a comforting mother to me, and three are parts of little girl me at different traumas in my life that I comfort, as if someone was comforting me during those traumas.” — T B.
7. Not Eating Around Others
“Not eating much when I’m around people, then sneaking and stealing food later. One parent was lenient with what I ate so the other one made up for it by trying to ‘keep me healthy.’ Doesn’t help that the first one was always trying to lose weight and not hiding it.” — Sadie B.
8. Sleeping With a Flashlight
“I sleep with a flashlight always on my bed or constantly in reach of my bed ( so I can see what’s coming if I hear any noise or footsteps). I’ve been doing this since I was 3 years old and never felt safe.” — Linda C.
“I was taught as a child to lie. I was forced to lie to cover my abuser, I was forced to lie by my mother to cover the fact that she didn’t protect me, I was forced to lie by my school system because they didn’t zero in on the fact I was being signed out by my abuser once a week so he could abuse me on his schedule. As an adult, I feel compelled to lie to protect people I shouldn’t have to. It’s an everlasting revolving door.” — Jammie G.
10. Having a Complicated Relationship With Sex
“I started to believe I was only an object. I let people use me because I thought that was what I was supposed to do — especially men. I felt I was supposed to have sex when they wanted to, not when I was ready.” — Maria M.
“I get shameful and feel dirty if I enjoy sex.” — Debbie C.
“[I] couldn’t say no to sexually pleasing others, even if I didn’t want it.” — Miranda D.
11. Feeling Responsible for Other People’s Feelings
“I often feel responsible for how other people feel. I feel guilty when others feel bad, even when the situation has nothing to do with me. I sacrifice my own needs in order to make others feel good.” — Kaitlyn L.
“I feel responsible for other’s feelings and their state in life. Like it’s my responsibility alone to make sure their bills are paid etc. I also adopt animals, and most recently learned that it’s probably because animals don’t withhold affection when they are ‘upset’ with you.” — Summer S.
12. Being Unable to Fully Relax
“I am hyper-aware of my surroundings and find it hard to relax and just be. Sometimes I find myself in a fight-or-flight mode, even if I know I’m safe.” — Anthea V.
13. Never Asking for Help
“I’m too afraid to tell people what’s wrong or ask for help. The first time I went to my mother about an issue (I was being bullied in school), she told me to deal with it myself. As a result, I’ve just allowed things to build up because I’m so afraid I’ll be rejected, that I may as well keep it to myself.” — Veronica S.
14. Being Hypervigilant
“I’m hypervigilant. Physical touch isn’t something I do easily, [and I’m] always looking for exits. I size people up, look for physical vulnerability, [have] strong boundaries [and] over-protect my children. That translates to an overly ‘hermitty’ existence, but I’m not complaining.” —Yoli T.
“Hypervigilance 24/7. It’s helped in some of the jobs I’ve had where you need to be on alert, to mask the true source of my hypervigilance. Being overwhelmed and exhausted and needing time to recharge my batteries after going out with friends. I love to be around people, like going to concerts and stuff, but it takes a few days for me to recover from the sensory overload. Insomnia I’ve learned to just accept is part of my life now.” — Jason T.
15. Pushing People Away
“I push people away when they get close to me. I push people away when I get in fights with people. I am reactive. Negative self-talk. I feel guilty a lot.” — Ryan C.
16. Reminding Yourself You Deserve to Live
“When I’m alone I tell myself I deserve to live, that I deserve to be happy. It’s a struggle every day. I still have suicidal thoughts sometimes, but thankfully I have the most supportive group of people around me who love me. Without them I don’t know where I would be.” — Ginna B.
This video started with a conversation. In fact, it started with many private and professional conversations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men who have been sexually abused about how difficult it was to speak about what happened to them as a child, about how their lives and relationships had been negatively impacted and about how isolated and alone they felt. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has highlighted this over representation and sexual abuse of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children within government, community and church run institutions and the difficulties they face in being heard and accessing support.
Anthony Newcastle, Gordon Glenbar and I were discussing how to reach out and offer further support and encouragement to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men who have been sexually abused in childhood. Many of these men have said they will never speak publicly about what was done to them, they have said how difficult it is to access support, how they do not know who to trust and how they are unsure if healing is even possible. These men have also said how important the connection to community and country is for them and how the encouragement and support of fellow community members is particularly meaningful and important for them. —Gary Foster, Living Well.
A starting conversation with Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander men
by Anthony Newcastle, Natjul.com. In late 2015, I met with Gordon Glenbar, an Aboriginal man working as a special projects officer for Link Up, supporting community members to engage with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and Gary Foster from Anglicare: Living Well Service who works with men who had been sexually abused in childhood. Gordon and I have known each other a long time. We’ve always talked about our community, about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and about the ongoing challenges our communities face confronting the negative impacts of colonisation and resulting inter-generational traumas.
Gordon, Gary and I spoke together of how to raise awareness and offer support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait men who have been sexually abused in childhood. We spoke of how individuals, families and communities are so often struggling to cope and live life in the present that the subject of helping men sexually abused as children is not talked about. We discussed how difficult it was to raise this subject, how the men themselves struggled to talk about it. We acknowledged the importance of qualified and connected individuals and organisations to lead discussions and negotiate community workshops and the extensive work done by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in addressing sexual violence. We also discussed how important it was for local Aboriginal men to take responsibility to start supportive conversations with Aboriginal men and their communities about this issue.
The didgeridoo group
Every second Sunday I run ‘Didgeri’ at an inner city park in Brisbane. Didgeri is an Aboriginal men’s didgeridoo group. Didgeri has between 9 and 15 men. Didgeri is a place or gathering where we as Aboriginal men can come along and learn the didgeridoo as a way to connect or re-connect with culture and heritage. It is also a place where we talk about community, identity, culture, about raising kids, dealing with anger, about family and about being a good dad or husband.
All the men who come along know they are welcome to bring a son or nephew, grand-son or friend. Didgeri is a place where Aboriginal men can build and enrich connection. No alcohol or drugs, no carry on or yukai. The boys and young men are encouraged to show respect to older men, to each other and to the purpose of the gathering. At times wives, mothers or grand-mothers do come along. They generally come to drop off family and say hello, but they don’t stay as part of Didgeri.
It was at Didgeri that I raised the idea of the men putting their voices to supporting men who had been sexually abused as children and now living with the consequences. We discussed the idea of us, as every day community members acting to help raise awareness and offer support.
The discussions at Didgeri
On a couple of occasions I found myself standing with three or four other men, all leaning on our didgeridoos talking about what to do about this, and how to support the men and families who suffer as a result of this issue. We talked about community and organisational responses to women who have been sexually abused, and of the advocacy groups, which so rightly wrap around these. None of us could think of a group or advocacy organisation established for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men who were sexually abused as boys.
We talked about taboos and silences within the community. The idea of creating a video that makes a public statement addressing this issue started to sound important. It would be an expression of solidarity and support, by community members, for community members. It would be a way to start a conversation.
There was some talk about approaching well known footballers to see if they would like to participate. I’m happy now that talk lasted about 10 minutes before we moved on. Real happy. We had some quiet respectful discussion about who would be involved, we did not want the message being misunderstood, or not responded to, because we included men facing domestic violence charges or public nuisance charges. What was significant here was that ‘we as men’ from the community were talking about supporting men who had suffered sexual abuse as boys and young men – something we had not discussed before.
We talked about how men struggled, how many had attempted suicide, some dying. We talked about the guilt and pain many men carry about not being able to protect their friends, brothers and sisters from the abuser when they were children.
What became part of our discussions, is that by putting our voices and our images to this, we are giving voice to something that is almost silent, something almost invisible. We are saying silence is no longer OK. We want to lend our voices to acknowledge this as a challenge in the lives of men in our community. We very much wanted to offer support to families that are falling apart, where wives and children are seeing their husband and fathers become changed men because the demons from the past visit them late at night and torment them during their day.
We talked about how men found it difficult to talk with their families about why they are coming apart at the seams. Even though these men love their families dearly and would die without them, the taboo around this issue means it is difficult to speak about. Men do what men too often do. Push it down, ignore it, drink your way through it, yell at it, yell at others, feel ashamed, feel responsible, feel judged, feel alone, blame yourself, but don’t talk about it. As one man said:
“How the bloody hell do you talk about it anyway, and to whom?”
We want to find ways to talk about sexual abuse of males that invite participation. We want to communicate this in a way that invites empathy, understanding and respect, and says no more. Over the weeks we discussed how, if people aren’t talking about it, then nothing is being done. Some of our discussions had long pauses, or some changing of subject, before resuming. Some men stood in silence. We concluded that if nothing is being done about it and our brothers and our sisters lives are falling apart because of it, let’s do something.
We wanted to address the isolation and silence. We wanted to say,
“We know this happened to you and we are sorry it did. We want you to know that you are still our brother.”
We want to help address the fear of being judged and the feelings of shame. The shame is not yours to carry.
We talked about the importance of speaking, not just to men who have been sexually victimised, but to men and women across our communities.
Over the following weeks I rang, met with, and talked to about 20 people. All of the Didgeri group wanted to participate in some way. There were men who said straight away, “Yes, I want to support that and I will say it to camera.” Some said that they really wanted to offer support in some way, but because of family, work or how their involvement might be seen, they couldn’t be part of the video at present. There were men who said that although they felt for the fellas, they didn’t know if they could do it, as any talk of sexual abuse of children was hard for them to be around. Those who did not appear on camera, shook our hands and said, “Good on you for doing this.”
Making the video
Eleven of us gathered in a studio at the 4BE Multi-cultural radio station at Kangaroo Point to record our bits. We decided that in the room we would have only the person speaking to camera, the camera operator and myself, in order to help people relax and feel comfortable. We wanted to remove any shame-job. But with eleven Aboriginal people together in the waiting room, among the chats and yarns, people talking about who their mob were, and where their people are from, as always, family reconnections were found. “Hey, your mob from Roma? Your uncle is George from that cattle station? That’s my uncle too, that’s my tribe, we cousins.”
As people felt more comfortable with each other, as personal connections were made and a feeling of being in this together came over the group, then people started pairing up, saying, “Do you mind if I do it with Wayne, because he my cousin and we never met before.”
Others would say things like, “Brother, I never done anything like this before, can you sit with me and do one together?”
Before we knew it everyone was in the room supporting each other with comments like, “Oh that sounded deadly (really good) what you said then sis.” Or, “You two fellas look and sound good there when you said that.”
Ownership had shifted. Now the participants were making suggestions and talking about how good a project this was to be involved with.
It was on this day in the studio that some of participants spoke of how personal this was for them, their families and community. This issue impacted on members of the Didgeri and had not been discussed before that day. The gathering became an opportunity to talk and make a difference. The mood in the room changed, embracing connection, listening, caring, sharing and laughing together, offering support and genuine regard.
Talk turned to, “When this being released, we going to get to see it before?” and, “Do you think we can do another one?”
Six weeks later
It is now NAIDOC week and this Sunday afternoon we will have a first public showing of the video on a big screen at the Musgrave Park Cultural Centre in South Brisbane, where the guests of honour are the eleven people who participated, their families and friends. Over the weeks I have been constantly asked by those involved about when everyone gets to see the video.
This Sunday many of our Didgeri group will bring their didgeridoos and we will have our didgeridoo lesson aside before the video showing. My wife is making sandwiches, a curry and rice and some finger food. Gordon has been a constant source of encouragement and Gary has had almost boundless energy to keep pace, to bring this project together.
Now only days from the launch of our video I think about our first meetings (Gary, Gordon and I). I think of how appreciative I am of those individuals and organisations who work to address sexual violence and its impacts on our communities. I am however, particularly pleased that this project and these discussions happened in and amongst a group many would call grass roots. I am pleased that Aboriginal men and women stepped forward and put their face and voice to raising awareness and generating discussion that offers support to men who have been sexually abused in childhood, as well as their families. Community taking action and responsibility for community.
I was reminded of a discussion about suicide prevention and response I had with a 72 year old Aboriginal man on a remote Cape York community some years ago. When I asked him, “What can we do about this lack of counsellors and social workers and psychologists who can support people in remote places like this?” The old man said:
“When someone is finding it hard to live, we all know they might be finding it hard to live because we are a small town. Sometimes the best thing you can do for somebody else is go and see them, and sit on their porch and sit down and have a cup of tea with them. Even if you don’t know what to say about that thing that is a problem for them, you can still have a cup of tea with them. And they will know.”
We wish to express our appreciation to the men and women who have supported the development of the No More Silence: It’s Never Too Late to Start Healing video. This video reflects the power of everyday community members to make a difference.
We are only too aware of the profound impacts child sexual abuse can have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys and men, girls and women and their communities:
Isolation, feeling alone and different.
Guilt, shame, self blame, distrust.
Feeling overwhelmed, hurt, angry, not good enough.
Disconnection from family, community and country.
Mental health problem, depression, anxiety.
Flashbacks, nightmares, sleep problems.
Suicide, self harm.
Relationship and sexual difficulties.
Drink and drug abuse.
Involvement with police and criminal justice system, prison.
Physical health problems.
Barriers to speaking
Men sexually abused in childhood report multiple barriers to speaking about what happened and accessing support:
Fear he won’t be believed or will be judged.
Sense of shame.
Concern his sexuality or manhood will be questioned.
Worry he will be seen as less of a man or people might think he will go on to abuse.
Distrust of authority, police, of anyone.
Fear of being blamed or that he will face payback for speaking up.
Worry that he will fall apart if he starts talking.
Being told to keep quiet that the community is not ready to talk about this.
Wanting to protect family members and others who were abused.
Having no-one to talk with.
Pressure from the abuser and others to keep the silence.
As well as hearing how difficult it is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men to speak about childhood sexual abuse, we hear that the pressure not to talk increases the sense of isolation, and makes it difficult to get the help they deserve.
A conversation starter
The video is designed as a conversation starter. Sharing the video is one way for community members to raise awareness and offer support, encouragement and hope to those who have been sexually abused in childhood. It sends a message to all those who have been sexually abused or sexually assaulted across Queensland and throughout Australia to say:
You’re not responsible for what happened to you as a child. You are not alone. We care. The blame is not yours to carry. The shame is not yours to carry. Keep talking until you get the help you deserve. Take care of yourself, you’re worth it. It’s never too late to start healing.
1800 Respect Website: 1800respect.org.au 24/7 telephone and online crisis counselling, information and referral for anyone in Australia who has experienced or been impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence. Staffed by trauma specialist counsellors. Phone: 1800 737 732 Online Counselling: 1800respect.org.au/telephone-and-online-counselling
Lifeline Website: lifeline.org.au 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention. Phone: 131 114
Link Up (QLD) Aboriginal Corporation Website: link-upqld.org.au Provides counselling, healing and culturally appropriate support for indigenous Australians. Phone: 1800 200 855
Healing Foundation Website: healingfoundation.org.au The Healing Foundation is a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation with a focus on building culturally strong, community led healing solutions. Phone: 02 6272 7500
Micah Projects Inc / Lotus Place (Find and Connect QLD) Website: lotusplace.org.au Support and resource service for Forgotten Australians and former child migrants. Phone: 1800 161 109 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Relationships Australia QLD Website: raq.org.au Family, children and relationship counselling. Relationship Australia are committed to offering the best possible counselling, mediation, education and support services in a professional, relaxed and confidential environment. Phone: 07 3423 6890 Phone: 1800 552 127 Government Funded
Bravehearts Website: bravehearts.org.au Specialist case management, counselling and telephone counselling for child and adult survivors, non-offending family members and friends. Services include counselling, support engaging with the Royal Commission, preparation of written statements, attending private sessions and public hearings. Phone: 1800 272 831 (8am – 8pm AEST/AEDT, weekdays) Email: email@example.com
Blue Knot Foundation Website: blueknot.org.au (Formerly Adults Surviving Child Abuse – ASCA). National professional phone counselling, information and support for adult survivors of child abuse with referral database of experienced professionals and agencies. Provides workshops for survivors, family members, partners and friends. Professional development for health professionals is also available. Phone: 1300 657 380 (9am-5pm AEST/AEDT 7 days) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Murrigunyah Website: murrigunyah.org.au Murrigunyah Family & Cultural Healing Centre is a community based sexual assault support service run by Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander women of Logan City. Phone: (07) 3290 4254 Email: email@example.com
BeyondBlue has programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and general information on mental health, including how to recognise depression and where to get help. Phone 1300 22 4636
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service (ATSICHS) Call the ATSICHS Healing Centre on (07) 3240 8907 to access culturally appropriate counselling services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Brisbane affected by mental illness.
Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Services (TAIHS) The TAIHS Social and Mental Health Unit offers mental health counsellors and run regular men’s and women’s groups to help cope with:
Prison and court matters.
Phone TAIHS on (07) 4759 4022 to book a counselling session or join a group.
HUSSAIN WALA: “I don’t regret speaking out, but since then, people have looked at me with strange eyes,” laments a 16-year-old Ahmed*.
He was one of 20 children sexually abused by a gang who sold videos of the acts and used them for blackmail purposes.
The police, who had conspicuously failed to act despite pleas from some parents, eventually arrested 37men after clashes between relatives and authorities brought the issue into the media spotlight last summer, years after the abuse began.
Six months after one of the country’s biggest paedophilia abuse case broke, police now confirm 17 of the accused remain in prison awaiting trial, while three more are out on bail.
Though the case finally made it to the national news media in July, the local police were found to have turned a blind eye to the crimes for several months “which amounts not only to criminal negligence, rather it was connivance”, according to a report by the National Commission for Human Rights.
Several of the accused belong to locally influential families.
It took a series of clashes between the victims’ families and police, in which dozens were injured, for politicians to act and demand arrests.
The families and victims were then served up to the media, with some local leaders placing the number of abused children at 280 — though that figure is believed to have been inflated as a result of attempts to leverage the tragedy for business and political gain.
Authorities established that 20 youths were raped and sodomised, the only two sex crimes recognised under Pakistani law.
The country’s penal code does not prohibit sexual abuse that does not involve penetration, nor child pornography.
“This case shows there are no institutional structures to tackle sexual abuse or to protect children,” says Valerie Khan, the director of Group Development Pakistan, a local NGO which advocates legal reforms.
These reforms are all the more urgent given the growing number of cases being reported, according to child rights’ group Sahil, which records statistics based on press reports in the absence of official data.
The group recorded fewer than 2,000 cases in 2008, but more than 3,500 in 2014, a rise it said “reflects an increase in social awareness of the problem”.
Veteran human rights activist Hina Jilani said that while increased reporting was welcome, cases must be handled sensitively — noting that activists, judges and police were not trained in how to question child victims.
Another obstacle to greater reporting of crimes are the families themselves, who are often reluctant to intervene when they feel their “honour” is at stake, according to Jilani.
‘They should be sent away’
Eighteen-year-old Sara* says it was unreported childhood abuse, and the subsequent loss of her honour that drove her toward prostitution.
Forced to abandon her studies to work following the death of her father at the age of 16, she found herself at the mercy of an employer who she says raped her.
“If I would tell my family, they would not go to the police station,” says the frail young woman, because of the shame it would bring.
A former Jehovah’s Witness is using stolen documents to expose allegations that the religion has kept hidden for decades.
In March 1997, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses, sent a letter to each of its 10,883 U.S. congregations, and to many more congregations worldwide. The organization was concerned about the legal risk posed by possible child molesters within its ranks. The letter laid out instructions on how to deal with a known predator: Write a detailed report answering 12 questions—Was this a onetime occurrence, or did the accused have a history of child molestation? How is the accused viewed within the community? Does anyone else know about the abuse?—and mail it to Watchtower’s headquarters in a special blue envelope. Keep a copy of the report in your congregation’s confidential file, the instructions continued, and do not share it with anyone.
Thus did the Jehovah’s Witnesses build what might be the world’s largest database of undocumented child molesters: at least two decades’ worth of names and addresses—likely numbering in the tens of thousands—and detailed acts of alleged abuse, most of which have never been shared with law enforcement, all scanned and searchable in a Microsoft SharePoint file. In recent decades, much of the world’s attention to allegations of abuse has focused on the Catholic Church and other religious groups. Less notice has been paid to the abuse among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian sect with more than 8.5 million members. Yet all this time, Watchtower has refused to comply with multiple court orders to release the information contained in its database and has paid millions of dollars over the years to keep it secret, even from the survivors whose stories are contained within.
That effort has been remarkably successful—until recently.
A white Priority Mail box filled with manila envelopes sits on the floor of Mark O’Donnell’s wood-paneled home office, on the outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland. Mark, 51, is the owner of an exercise-equipment repair business and a longtime Jehovah’s Witness who quietly left the religion in late 2013. Soon after, he became known to ex–Jehovah’s Witnesses as John Redwood, an activist and a blogger who reports on the various controversies, including cases of child abuse, surrounding Watchtower. (Recently, he has begun using his own name.)
When I first met Mark, in May of last year, he appeared at the front door of his modest home in the same outfit he nearly always wears: khaki cargo shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, white sneakers, and sweat socks pulled up over his calves. He invited me into his densely furnished office, where a fan barely dispelled the wafting smell of cat food. He pulled an envelope from the Priority Mail box and passed me its contents, a mixture of typed and handwritten letters discussing various sins allegedly committed by members of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Massachusetts. All the letters in the box had been stolen by an anonymous source inside the religion and shared with Mark. The sins described in the letters ranged from the mundane—smoking pot, marital infidelity, drunkenness—to the horrifying. Slowly, over the past couple of years, Mark has been leaking the most damning contents of the box, much of which is still secret.
Mark’s eyebrows are permanently arched, and when he makes an important point, he peers out above his rimless glasses, eyes widened, which lends him a conspiratorial air.
“Start with these,” he said.
Among the papers Mark showed me that day was a series of letters about a man from Springfield, Massachusetts, who had been disfellowshipped—a form of excommunication—three times. When the man was once again reinstated, in 2008, someone working in a division of Watchtower wrote to his congregation, noting that in 1989 he was said to have “allowed his 11-year-old stepdaughter to touch his penis … on at least two occasions.”
I was struck by the oddness of the language. It insinuated that the man had agreed to, rather than initiated, the sexual contact with his stepdaughter.
After I left Mark’s house, I tracked down the stepdaughter, now 40. In fact, she told me, she had been only 8 when her stepfather had molested her. “He was the adult and I was the kid, so I thought I didn’t have any choice,” she said. She was terrified, she told me. “It took me two years to go to my mom about it.”
Her mother immediately went to the congregation’s elders, who later called the girl and her stepfather in to pray with them. She remembers it as a humiliating experience.
Her stepfather was eventually disfellowshipped for instances that involved “fornication,” “drunkenness,” and “lying,” according to the letters. But according to the stepdaughter, his alleged molestation of her resulted only in his being “privately reproved,” a closed-door reprimand that is usually accompanied by a temporary loss of privileges, such as not being allowed to offer comments during Bible study or lead a prayer. The letters make no reference to police being notified; the stepdaughter said her mother was encouraged to keep the matter private, and no attempt was made to keep the stepfather away from other children. (Calls to the congregation’s Kingdom Hall—the Witness version of a church—for comment went unanswered.)
By the time the letters were written, the man was attending a different congregation and had married another woman with children; he is still part of that family today. Near the end of the final letter in Mark’s possession is a question: “Is there any responsibility on the part of either body of elders … to inform his current wife of his past history of child molestation?”
Mark O’Donnell’s childhood was an isolated one. His parents, Jerry and Susan, had started attending Jehovah’s Witness meetings in the mid-1960s. Another couple from Baltimore had told them of Watchtower’s prediction that the world would end in 1975, bringing death to all non-Witnesses and transforming Earth into a paradise for the faithful. In 1968, just after Mark was born, Jerry and Susan were group-baptized in a swimming pool in Washington, D.C. Mark was an only child, and he inherited his father’s peculiar love of record-keeping. Mark would show up to meetings at the Kingdom Hall with a briefcase full of religious texts.
As in any religion, there’s some variation among Jehovah’s Witnesses in how strictly they interpret the teachings that govern their faith; Mark’s upbringing seems to have been especially stringent. As a child, he attended at least five meetings a week, plus several hours of private Bible study. On Saturday mornings, he joined his parents in “field service,” knocking on doors in search of converts. He was taught that most people outside the organization were corrupted by Satan and, given the chance, would try to steal from him, drug him, or rape him.Mainstream books and magazines were considered the work of Satan. If he broke any of the religion’s main rules, he could be disfellowshipped, meaning even his own family would have to shun him.
Throughout Mark’s childhood, he heard elders cite Proverbs 13:24: “Whoever holds back his rod hates his son.” Mark’s parents took the lesson to heart and beat him frequently. The religion forbids celebrating birthdays, voting, serving in the military, and accepting blood transfusions, even in life-and-death situations. Witnesses were encouraged to devote themselves to bringing more converts into the religion before the end of the world arrived. “Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property” to spend their last days proselytizing, said a Watchtower publication in 1974. “Certainly this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end.” Some Witnesses stopped going to the doctor, quit their jobs, or ran up debt.
But piety, Mark noticed, did not always translate to morality. When he was 12, Mark became suspicious of a local Witness named Louis Ongsingco, a flight attendant who would bring home Toblerone bars for the local Witness kids and invite them to his apartment to act out religious plays. Mark noticed Ongsingco touching young girls in a way that made him uncomfortable. He told an elder about his concerns. But rather than take action against Ongsingco, the elder told him what Mark had said. Days later, Ongsingco pulled Mark aside and scolded him.
Mark’s instincts seem to have been right. In 2001, one of Mark’s childhood friends, Erin Michelle Shifflett, along with four other women, sued Ongsingco for sexual assault. The cases were settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Ongsingco died in 2016.
To Mark, the lesson was that for all the emphasis the elders placed on moral purity, there was no greater sin than speaking out against other Witnesses.
By the time Mark was in high school, in the early 1980s, 1975 had come and gone, but Watchtower had a new prediction for the apocalypse. It said that the world would end before the passing of the generation that was alive in 1914. At the time, the youngest members of that generation were 70, so the new prediction created a sense of urgency.
“My parents basically told me, ‘You’re not even going to live to graduate from college,’” Mark said. At 17, despite having a year of college credit and a guidance counselor imploring him to apply, he decided to settle for a high-school diploma. He was baptized and later started his exercise-equipment repair company. The business provided enough flexibility for him to perform 50 hours of field service for the Witnesses a month, which qualified him for the rank of auxiliary pioneer.
Though manyWitnesses left the religion after 1975, membership was on the upswing by the 1990s, and the organization was building new Kingdom Halls. Mark was installing a sound system in a new hall in Baltimore in the fall of 1997 when a young woman named Kimmy Weber asked to borrow his ladder.
At 20, Kimmy was putting in more than 90 hours of field service a month, making her a full-fledged pioneer. She had completed a two-year program at a community college on a scholarship, and would later get permission from the local elders to get her bachelor’s degree. Mark was drawn to her drive and intensity. He tracked down her email address; they flirted over AOL Instant Messenger and were married within eight months. They wanted to start a family, but decided to wait until after the arrival of paradise on Earth, when they, and their children, would be perfect. In the meantime, Kimmy began opening their home to abused and abandoned cats.
As Mark’s business grew, he brought on employees, mostly other Witnesses. When he and Kimmy had saved enough money to buy the house across the street as a rental property, they filled its three units with other Witnesses. There were ski vacations, softball games, dinner parties, and game nights—always with friends who shared their faith.
But as much as Mark enjoyed his friends’ company, he started to chafe at the insularity of their social life. It felt less like intimacy and more like a self-imposed bubble. These frustrations eventually grew into suspicions about Watchtower itself. He’d heard rumors that the organization was covering up cases of pedophilia and child abuse. But Watchtower always dismissed such criticism as “apostate-driven lies.”
A few years after he and Kimmy married, he saw a protester outside a Witness convention holding a sign that reada jw elder molested me. “I looked at that sign,” Mark told me, “and I locked it in my brain. I’ll never forget it. I said to myself,There’s no way he’s lying. Nobody would stand out there and hold a sign that saysan elder molested meunless it really happened. No way. He’s telling the truth.”
Watchtower adjusted its estimates for the apocalypse several more times. In 2010, it introduced the Overlapping Generations theory, which claims that the end will come before the death of everyone who was alive at the same time as anyone who was alive in 1914. Mark found these revised predictions difficult to accept.
In late 2013, Mark had an extreme reaction to an antibiotic and was confined to his couch for several weeks, away from the meetings and Bible studies. Left alone with his thoughts, he began to admit to himself that he no longer believed Armageddon was imminent. The Jehovah’s Witnesses he knew were no more deserving of God’s mercy than the nonbelievers he’d met. And here he was, 45 years old and facing a health crisis. How much more of his life was he willing to waste inside the bubble?
That November, as he and Kimmy were preparing to spend the weekend at a friend’s house, Mark suddenly stopped packing and told Kimmy he couldn’t maintain the facade anymore. He never attended another meeting.