Two lawsuits being filed this week are targeting the leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for what the plaintiffs claim is a history of child sexual abuse.
Heather Steele, 48, and John Michael Ewing, 48, were abused as children, but they’re filing suits this Wednesday, when New York’s new Child Victims Act goes into effect. Signed earlier this year, the measure removes the statute of limitations on abuse suits, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred.
Steele was still a toddler when, she says, a Jehovah’s Witness elder started molesting her in the mid-1970s, when her family lived in New York.”My first memory would be of him fondling me when I was just about 2 or 3 years old while he held me in the back seat of my dad’s car,” Steele told The New York Post.
When she was 10, Steele finally told her mother. But rather than tell police, her mom went to the elders. “It was basically them trying to convince us it was in our minds, that none of this stuff actually happened or that we had bad dreams,” Steele said. The elders “told us that we should pray for [Nicholson].”
After Steele’s parents finally went to secular authorities, Nicholson was arrested and served three-and-a-half-years in prison. But when he got out, he was quietly placed in a New Jersey congregation where few knew of his past.
Ewing was 14 when he was paired with a Ministerial Servant at Florida’s Coral Springs East Congregation. The two worked as “pioneers,” going door-to-door to proselytize. According to Ewing, the older man raped him repeatedly, everywhere from Virginia to New York, where his case is being filed. (The World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses recently moved upstate from Brooklyn to Tuxedo Park.)
“He groomed Michael, made him think sexually abusing him was part of the religion,” attorney Irwin Zalkin, who is representing both Steele and Ewing, tells Newsweek. “Like, ‘I’m going to teach you what you need to know to be a man.'”
At 21, Ewing reported the abuse to his father—who, like Steele’s mother—brought the allegations to church elders. A religious tribunal was convened but because Jehovah’s Witnesses have a “two-witness rule”—any act of wrongdoing must be corroborated by two witnesses—Ewing wasn’t believed. Accused of engaging in homosexual activity, both he and his abuser were disfellowshiped, a severe form of excommunication where family and community cut all ties.
“Michael still considers himself a Jehovah’s Witness,” says Zalkin. “His parents are vehemently opposed to what he’s doing. But he feels the silence needs to stop. He wants to be a voice for change.”
Zalkin has represented 24 former or current Witnesses in abuse lawsuits, plus about 10 more than settled out of court. In most, accusation were brought to congregation elders, who either dismissed them or disciplined the perpetrator privately.
“They don’t tell anyone else why the person is being disciplined,” says Zalkin. “And if someone confesses and demonstrates—in their mind—that they’re repentant, they’ll get a ‘private reproof,’ which is like a slap on the wrist.”
Over the past two decades there have been dozens of cases alleging the church 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. 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.