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Ex-Jehovah's Witnesses speak out about alleged sexual abuse within denomination

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(February 11, 2024 Sunday). Ex-Jehovah's Witnesses speak out about alleged sexual abuse within denomination - KentWired. The Daily Kent Stater: Kent State University. https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:6B9M-JX01-JBSN-3012-00000-00&context=1516831.

A Kent woman is making it her mission to warn university students and others about a religious organization she says covered up sexual abuse she suffered by one of its leaders.

Anna Ciano-Hendricks, a former Jehovah's Witness, helped organize a protest in the fall in downtown Kent against the denomination's practice of trying to convert students downtown, within view of her workplace.

Ciano-Hendricks said she was a member of the organization her whole life and was sexually abused as a child by a current leader in an Ohio chapter. 

She said after taking concerns about this individual to the elders of the denomination, they "swept it under the rug."

Ciano-Hendricks said her case is not unique but rather indicative of a larger problem in the Jehovah's Witnesses on a global scale. 

"When I came out about the abuse in my 20s, the elders told me to never speak of it again," she said. "I wasn't even to talk to other women in the hall because they didn't want me to form a support group against them." 

Ciano-Hendricks said the denomination promised the individual who abused her would never hold a position of authority. A few years ago, he was promoted to a leadership role.

Ciano-Hendricks said she never brought her case forward due to personal reasons, as well as the statute of limitations for sexual abuse and assault cases in Ohio.  

In an email dated Oct. 21, 2021 to Derek Merkel, a Jehovah's Witnesses leader in Ohio, Ciano-Hendricks detailed the abuse she said she experienced as a child at the hands of her alleged perpetrator.

In a screenshot from a group chat between Ciano-Hendricks, her husband and Merkel, Merkel confirms he received the email from Ciano-Hendricks in October 2021. (The screenshot was taken from the phone of Ciano-Hendricks' husband.)

Ciano-Hendricks provided KentWired with emails and text message exchanges she had with Merkel. In a text group chat with Ciano-Hendricks and her husband, Merkel is quoted saying, "I wanted to make you aware that I asked [the alleged offender] to sit on the right side of the hall to avoid as much contact as possible."

KentWired tried to reach Merkel twice by phone and once via email over a span of two months. He could not be reached for comment.

In a screenshot from a group chat conversation, Merkel said he told the man Ciano-Hendricks alleges abused her to sit on the opposite side of the hall from her during services. The names of Ciano-Hendricks' husband (above) and her alleged abuser (below) have been blocked out for privacy reasons. (The screenshot was taken from the phone of Ciano-Hendricks' husband. )

When she spoke out about the abuse to other members, Ciano-Hendricks said members of the denomination began using intimidation tactics to try to silence her. More recently, she said, they have been recruiting just outside her workplace - that is what pushed her to protest. 

In early September, the national branch of Jehovah's Witnesses responded to the allegations in a statement released to KentWired: 

"Jehovah's Witnesses condemn the grossly evil and unconscionably selfish actions of someone who victimizes children. Elders in our congregations believe their obedience to God is linked to obeying the laws of the land. Thus, elders faithfully comply with reporting laws and do not discourage victims or their families from reporting abuse to the police. In addition, a person who has engaged in child sexual abuse does not qualify to receive any congregation privileges or to serve in a position of responsibility in the congregation for decades, if ever."

The protest organized by Ciano-Hendricks came just months after extensive child sexual abuse investigations into the organization in Pennsylvania.

The new cases being investigated stem from a 2019 case in which a grand jury in Pennsylvania investigated claims of child sex-abuse within multiple chapters in the state. In July 2023, it was revealed that five more cases would be investigated. As of July 2023, the grand jury had charged 14 people with sex crimes against children. 

Ciano-Hendricks said the reaction of the denomination to her abuse claims and the treatment of her daughter, after her daughter left the organization herself, caused her to finally leave too in 2022. She has since co-written a book titled "Epiphany: Awaken to Your Truth," where she writes about leaving the Jehovah's Witnesses

"When I approached the church, they told me I have the right to just not be there when he gives parts, or they'll tell me to sit on the other side of the room," she said. "So the minute I got verbal with the book and everything, I'm labeled an apostate."

Ciano-Hendricks said an "apostate" is someone the denomination labels an "enemy" of Jehovah, or God. The Jehovah's Witnesses organization defines apostasy as "abandoning or deserting the worship and service of God, actually a rebellion against Jehovah God."

She said because she and her daughter were labeled "apostates" for leaving, many of their friends and family did not attend her daughter's wedding this September. 

Skyler Mtrey, Ciano-Hendricks' daughter, said many people she grew up with would no longer associate with her after she left the organization, likening disfellowship to shunning practices. 

She said a member's disfellowship is something shared before the whole denomination, and after, members are encouraged not to associate with them. 

"They go up on stage, and they will announce the person's name and say they are no longer one of Jehovah's Witnesses, and that is the effective rule as of that moment, they say a prayer over the congregation and then, snap, everything is done," Mtrey said. "Even if that person is sitting there, they pretend like they don't exist from that moment on."

The Jehovah's Witnesses official website said that "two factors - which must coincide - result in the disfellowshipping of one of Jehovah's Witnesses. First, a baptized Witness commits a serious sin. Second, he does not repent of his sin."

The Jehovah's Witnesses website also affirms that after being disfellowshipped, a member can regain membership in the denomination, saying: "A disfellowshipped person is not automatically accepted back into the congregation after a certain amount of time has passed. Before he can be reinstated, his heart condition must undergo a great change. He must come to realize the gravity of his sin and the reproach he brought upon Jehovah and the congregation."

Ciano-Hendricks said this is part of what motivated her to leave.

The denomination and its doctrine

The Christian denomination of Jehovah's Witnesses began in the 1870s and quickly separated from mainstream Christian ideology by rejecting ideas like the triune God, hell and the belief that Christ died on a cross. 

Rather than believing that Christ is God in human-form, like traditional Christianity, Jehovah's Witnesses doctrine teaches that Christ is God's son and inferior to him. Instead of adhering to the belief in hell, Jehovah's Witnesses doctrine teaches that the human soul ceases to exist at death, except 144,000 people who will rule heaven with Christ.

The denomination has over eight million members worldwide today. 

Ciano-Hendricks said part of what made her rethink the organization's ideals was how they choose to handle rape and sexual assault accusations. 

"If a child or someone reports rape or child molestation, it says right in their manual: you're to automatically call the corporate headquarters in New York. Not the police, not the authorities," she said. 

The basis for this, Ciano-Hendricks said, comes from a scripture from Deuteronomy in the Bible that says: "One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses." 

The Jehovah's Witnesses denomination denied it discouraged survivors to speak to police, saying "elders faithfully comply with reporting laws and do not discourage victims or their families from reporting abuse to the police," in a statement released to KentWired in August.

Regarding rape, an article from 1968 that is still available on the organization's online library said: "As a Christian woman, you are under obligation to resist ... Resistance is imperative, because the rapist is after, not just money, but your virtue. An issue of integrity to Jehovah's laws is involved here. So by no means would it be proper to submit quietly to rape, as that would be consenting to fornication."

Jehovah's Witnesses are also forbidden from receiving blood transfusions, even as children, Mtrey said. She was reminded about the restriction when she experienced a seizure after being at her then-fiancé's house. 

Robby Cuenot, Mtrey's husband, said he took her to the emergency room after the seizure. 

Mtrey was disfellowshipped at the time, but she still had a medical card that said she could not accept blood transfusions for religious reasons. Immediately after this event, Cuenot said, they contacted a lawyer to change this. 

"There's this tension in the room because obviously she's not bleeding out right now, but there's this ideology here, there's Skyler with this card in her purse that says, 'Let me die,'" Cuenot said. "Knowing that if this were any other situation, that that would've been the end, is terrifying."

Other stories 

Ciano-Hendricks said the tactics used by the Jehovah's Witnesses are indicative of the institution as a whole, not just local chapters. Other ex-Jehovah's Witnesses, or ex-JWs, echoed her thoughts.

An anonymous source from Washington, known as Ron POMO on social media, said after he "woke up," he began collecting internal documents from the Public Relations branch of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Public Information Department, and made them public. These documents describe what Ron said he believes is language encouraging dishonesty on part of the denomination when interacting with the media through PR representatives on the news. 

Ron said even when he was a practicing Jehovah's Witness, he believed that some spokespeople for the church were being dishonest about doctrine in interviews. 

"I didn't like how [they were], in my opinion, lying to the media about the real beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses," Ron said. "And so I started really paying attention to all the media interviews. And it kind of just captured my attention that this is like a whole media push that they're doing that is very different from anything I've experienced in my whole life as a Jehovah's Witness."

Ron said after he shared the documents from the Public Information Department, members of the denomination discovered his identity, even though he was anonymous online. He still fears further retaliation from members of the denomination, which is why he requested to remain anonymous. 

"They called the local elders and told them to disfellowship me," he said. "That triggered me having to say goodbye to my family."

Ron, who is active on the online ex-JW community, said he's encountered ex-JWs who are survivors of child sexual abuse.

"There's been a lot," Ron said. "I don't think it's normal to have so many people experience it. It's hard to say, because I grew up in this cult. But the opinion I've heard from other people is, this level of knowing this many people who are abused doesn't seem typical."

Another source, who requested to be kept anonymous due to fear of retaliation from the organization, said she was shunned after choosing to divorce her ex-husband. The woman, who writes under the pseudonym Miss Usato for the website Assisting Victims of Ostracism, Injustice & Deceit in Jehovah's Witnesses, said she was a member of the denomination for 23 years before she left in 2015. 

Miss Usato said she helps run a motto called "the Brave JW," which she said helps victims of child sexual abuse within the organization. 

"It's an email that's open for victims who are unaware of how criminal and civil cases work." she said. "And, it's kind of like a breakdown and an emotional soundboard for victims if they need help and need help finding therapy, stuff like that. It's a little bit of everything."

Miss Usato said she also was a victim of childhood sexual abuse within the denomination and wants to help others who had similar experiences.  

She said when she "woke up," it was around the same time a scandal broke in Pennsylvania, her home state, which exposed multiple cases of sexual abuse in the denomination there. She said she knows some of the perpetrators and victims personally, which motivated her to get involved. 

"My focus is to keep writing for 'AvoidJW,' and try to help as many not just inactive, but active Jehovah's Witnesses," Miss Usato said. "Because that's kind of our point. We want to help cause transparency in a peaceful way. We basically want to help and show them what's going on and also that they're not alone." 

She referenced cases from both 2018 and 2023 in which the Jehovah's Witnesses organization was ordered by a jury to pay millions to victims of child sexual violence. 

The national headquarters for Jehovah's Witnesses declined to comment on these settlements, but said in a statement released to KentWired: "Jehovah's Witnesses abhor the abuse of anyone. For this reason, we have endeavored to prevent abuse from happening by providing parents, congregants, and religious ministers (elders), with practical, Bible-based guidance and ongoing education about child sexual abuse."

Ciano-Hendricks said that the goal of her August protest, as well as her presence on social media, is not only to demand change, but to let others wanting to get out know they are not alone. 

"The end goal is to let them know that they have us, they have a support system," Ciano-Hendricks said. "There are a lot of Skylers and Annas in this world that will help them regroup."

She also said one of her long-term goals is to pursue advocacy and raise national awareness of the reality of the Jehovah's Witnesses denomination. 

"I feel rules also need to change on minors," Ciano-Hendricks said. "Just as Norway changed their ruling on stripping the religious category from the Jehovah's Witnesses due to it violating children's rights, we really need to take a hard look at the same thing in the U.S."

Leah Shepard is a reporter. Contact her at [email protected].

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