When Rita Parkinson joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, she was at the lowest point in her life. Her marriage had broken down and she was surviving off welfare payments with two small children and another on the way. A friend told her about a Christian group whose core belief was paradise on Earth — a place where believers could live forever, without hunger or war or sorrow.
“That all appealed to me,” she told INQ. “It gave me a sense of stability and hope and future and safety.”
Rita, who was raised a Catholic, took naturally to witnessing. Her bright, bubbly demeanour made her the perfect door-to-door salesperson. She was welcomed into the congregation with open arms and found the support she needed as a single mum. Her dedication to the faith was eventually sealed with a baptism.
“I just thought, if the end comes while we’re all alive, at least we’ll live in the paradise Earth.”
But the paradise that she was promised turned out to be a living hell. After remarrying and building a whole life around her new faith, her child was abused by an older child inside the congregation, and when she reported the abuse to an elder, she was ignored.
“The first thing he said was, ‘don’t discuss this with anybody’,” she recalled. “He was more worried about the gossip than anything else. ‘Keep it under wraps and we’ll deal with it’.”
Rita is just one of a growing number of whistleblowers who has learnt the true cost of speaking out against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a global organisation so secret that documents are regularly purged and critics are dismissed as “mentally diseased”. Its strict policy of shunning ensures people questioning the faith are swiftly excommunicated — cut off from their close friends and even their immediate family.
After finding out that Rita had reported the abuse to police, her community quickly turned on her. She was hauled before a panel of elders and made to defend her actions.
“I just started to see this was a sick, sick cult, that had full control of its people,” she said.
“They ‘love bomb’ newcomers and shower them with kindness and support. But it’s a facade and it’s very enticing, especially for those, like myself, who came in broken, frightened, sad, and looking for a community to be a part of.”
The elders accused her of “lying, slandering and loose conduct”, saying that by speaking out against the organisation, she had doubted Jehovah and rebelled against God — a far greater sin than even murder. “They said, ‘we told you not to talk about it and you disobeyed … goodbye’.”
While attention has been locked on the Catholic Church and its response to institutional child sexual abuse, far less notice has been paid to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a sect with more than 68,000 active Australian members. But victims say their alleged crimes are just as serious — and that their response to abuse may be far worse.
The royal commission found that more than 1000 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia had been identified by the organisation as perpetrators of child sexual abuse since 1950, but not one had been reported to police. The commission singled out several practices that it believed left “perpetrators of child sexual abuse at large in the organisation and the community.” One practice was the ‘two-witness rule’, which requires victims to have a second “credible” witness to their abuse or a confession from their abuser — something the commission said was “unacceptable and wrong”. Another was shunning, where Witnesses are warned against associating with a person who has left the organisation. The commission found both practices put victims in the impossible position of either staying with an organisation that is protective of their abuser or leaving the organisation and losing their family and social network.
But despite recommendations to revise both practices, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have refused, with spokesperson Terrence O’Brien saying they were required by scripture. “That’s our stand,” he told the commission.
A spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses declined to answer questions about its policies or practices in relation to child safety. He directed INQ to recent articles in the Watchtower magazine, denouncing child sexual abuse as a “repugnant, wicked deed”.
Last month a body representing the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia wrote to elders ordering them to destroy confidential records, including notes taken by elders investigating child sexual abuse. The move has enraged survivors and alarmed lawyers representing victims who say the destruction of documents could have huge ramifications for compensation claims. It comes at a pivotal moment for the group, where ex-members like Rita are finding a voice. “They are not a loving organisation, they are a brutal organisation,” she said.