The Detroit News
'Disfellowshipped' Jehovah's Witnesses speak out against practice
By James Borchuk / St. Petersburg Times
In 1995, Jackson, a home health care worker and a nanny who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., was "disfellowshipped," or excommunicated, from Jehovah's Witnesses. Disfellowshipping is among the Witnesses' highest forms of discipline, reserved for those who disobey religious teachings and will not repent.
Witnesses are told to immediately shun the disfellowshipped, who are said to be certain to die at Armageddon. Witnesses must pass them on the street without so much as a hello. Sons, daughters, mothers and fathers are expected to cut off relatives, making exceptions only in cases of family business or emergency.
"No matter what they tell you, you will always be my daughter and I will always love you," Jackson recently wrote in a letter to her daughter, to no avail. Rather than strengthen families, Jackson says, the Witnesses tear them apart.
Disfellowshipping is little known to outsiders, who recognize Witnesses only as the people who pass out magazines on Saturday mornings. But scandal in the denomination has opened a door to its core beliefs and operations.
In recent months, at least three Witnesses were disfellowshipped after talking to "Dateline NBC" about church leaders' handling of child molestation allegations. The action made national headlines and spurred former Witnesses worldwide to step forward with their stories.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe disfellowshipping is an act of love, intended to inspire sinners to change their ways so they eventually can apply to be readmitted to the faith.
The sanction is based on I Corinthians 5, which directs Witnesses to "remove the wicked from among yourselves" and is necessary, says Witnesses national spokesman J.R. Brown, to preserve the religion's "moral integrity and cleanliness" in a corrupt world soon to be destroyed by God Jehovah.
Jehovah's Witness elders -- all are men -- are the equivalent of ministers in other religions. Though unpaid, they take on responsibilities such as teaching Bible lessons and passing on denomination policy. They also investigate Witnesses accused of committing crimes against other Witnesses. In some of these cases, the police are never called.
Among the elders' primary tasks is serving on small judicial committees that hear confessions and decide whether an offense calls for excommunication.
Excommunications are announced to the congregation, but elders never say why a person was expelled. Witnesses can only guess from a long list of offenses that range from smoking cigarettes to manslaughter. Homosexuality, fornication, drunkenness, slander, fraud, gambling, apostasy, fits of anger and violence, and adultery are others.
The excommunication announcement tells members to begin shunning that person. If they don't, they, too, risk being disfellowshipped.
Being disfellowshipped, then, means losing your circle of friends, not to mention family members who remain in the faith.
Elders disfellowship 50,000 to 60,000 Witnesses around the world each year, Brown says.
Jackson, 54, had been a Witness for nearly 20 years when she began having doubts.
In 1993, she says, her husband gathered his belongings and abandoned her as she and her children slept. She says he had been violent, and she decided to divorce him. But Witnesses told her the only biblical justification for divorce is adultery, which she could not prove he had committed.
Jackson was also on shaky ground with the Witnesses because she had close friends who were not in the faith, she says. In interviews, Jackson and several others say Witnesses are not allowed to socialize with non-Witnesses unless they are proselytizing.
Brown, the Witnesses' spokesman, says this is not true, although differing interests sometimes make such relationships difficult.
After her husband left her, Jackson continued going to the Kingdom Hall five times a week and performing 10 hours of door-to-door service each month, but she didn't feel very spiritual. One day while going door to door, Jackson mentioned to another Witness, "When I go into a Kingdom Hall, I don't feel God's presence is there."
She became even more disillusioned in the mid 1990s when, she says, elders dismissed her suspicions that a fellow Witness was sexually abusing his 8-year-old daughter. No one called the police.
But law enforcement authorities eventually got involved, and the girl was found in a trashed home, having eaten ketchup sandwiches to quell hunger, Jackson says. Some months later, Kenneth Donald Weaver was arrested and placed on community control in 1995 for sexual activity with a child. Weaver, who has a lengthy criminal history, is now in prison.
Wavering in her beliefs, Jackson decided not to attend an annual assembly for Witnesses.
Her daughter was upset and told elders. They went to her home for a visit. They had charges against her, Jackson says:
One charge was "speaking out against a brother" with regard to the child molestation, she says. She says they told her to stop associating with her non-Witness friends. And someone had told them what she had said about not feeling God's presence in the Kingdom Hall.
The elders told her she had 24 hours to change her ways, Jackson says. She refused to comply and was disfellowshipped, her name announced in front of the congregation. She was not present.
Her daughter was 17 at the time. She moved out to live with other Witnesses, has not held a conversation with Jackson since and is now married and living in Alabama.
Two of Jackson's three sons are also Witnesses and don't speak to her, she says.
As with the Catholic Church, child molestation cases have brought the inner workings of Jehovah's Witnesses to the forefront. One case in Kentucky prompted former elder William Bowen to start asking questions.
At the center of the cases is the two-witness rule. The Witnesses abide strictly by their Bible, the New World Translation. The translation is published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit organization in Brooklyn, N.Y., that acts as the Witnesses' headquarters and overseer.
Deuteronomy 19:15: "No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin, in the case of any sin that he may commit. At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good."
As far as the Watch Tower is concerned, that means Witnesses can't take action against someone unless at least two people can verify an offense happened.
That standard is difficult to meet in cases of child molestation, where often only the victim and perpetrator are present.
About two years ago, Bowen began to suspect that a fellow elder in his congregation near Paducah was abusing the elder's daughter. In a review of Witness files, Bowen found that the elder had previously been accused of molesting someone else. Bowen says he got further proof that the daughter might also have been molested.
In keeping with Witness policy, he called the Watch Tower's legal department in Brooklyn for guidance. The department is staffed with lawyers who are Jehovah's Witnesses.
When Bowen described the situation, he says, he was told there was nothing to be done -- the man had denied it, so there weren't enough witnesses. He would have to "leave it in Jehovah's hands."
Other former Witnesses who served as elders around the nation have since reported similar experiences.
Disgusted, Bowen resigned as an elder and started a nonprofit organization and a Web site for Witnesses who were victims of molestation.
Thousands logged onto his "silent lambs" site, he says. Many told stories of abuse that elders did not believe.
Bowen, 45, went public with his story. He and several other Witnesses were featured on "Dateline NBC." One woman, Barbara Anderson, had worked in the Watch Tower's research department and was concerned that the organization wasn't following up on abuse cases.
Bowen contends that tipsters told him the organization keeps a database with the names of 23,000 accused molesters.
Brown, the Witnesses' spokesman, would not discuss specific cases, but he scoffed at allegations that Witnesses protect child molesters. Yes, Witnesses believe in the two-witness rule, he says, but that's not the only way wrongdoers can be caught.
"It cannot be said that we will do nothing unless there are two witnesses," Brown says. He says Witnesses are not required to report crimes to elders before calling civil authorities. Victims and their families are free to call police at will, he says, although some don't choose to.
Elders' investigations work hand-in-hand with what Witnesses sometimes call "Caesar's law," Brown says. "We're not handling the criminality of this," he says. "We're handling the sin."