In March 1997, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit company that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses, despatched a letter to every of its 10,883 U.S. Congregations, and to many extra congregations worldwide. The corporation turned into worried about the legal threat posed by possible baby molesters within its ranks. The letter laid out instructions on the way to cope with a recognized predator: Write a detailed file answering 12 questions—Was this a onetime incidence, or did the accused have a record of baby molestation? How is the accused regarded inside the community? Do all people else know approximately the abuse?—and mail it to Watchtower’s headquarters in a special blue envelope. Keep a copy of the file for your congregation’s confidential record, the instructions continued, and do now not percentage it with all of us. Thus did the Jehovah’s Witnesses construct what is probably the arena’s biggest database of undocumented child molesters: at least two a long time’ really worth of names and addresses—probable numbering inside the tens of thousands—and exact acts of alleged abuse, most of which have by no means been shared with law enforcement, all scanned and searchable in a Microsoft SharePoint report. In current a long time, lots of the world’s interest to allegations of abuse has focused on the Catholic Church and different spiritual agencies. Less be aware has been paid to the abuse some of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian sect with more than eight.5 million participants. Yet all this time, instead of following multiple court docket orders to release the statistics contained in its database, Watchtower has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it secret, even from the survivors whose testimonies are contained inside. That attempt has been remarkably successful—till recently.
A white Priority Mail field packed with manila envelopes sits at the floor of Mark O’Donnell’s wood-paneled domestic office, on the outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland. Mark, fifty-one, is the owner of an exercise-device restore commercial enterprise and a longtime Jehovah’s Witness who quietly left the faith in overdue 2013. Soon after, he has become regarded to ex–Jehovah’s Witnesses as John Redwood, an activist and a blogger who reviews on the diverse controversies, together with instances of infant abuse, surrounding Watchtower. (Recently, he has started the use of his personal call.) When I first met Mark, in May of final 12 months, he seemed at the front door of his modest home in the same outfit he almost always wears: khaki cargo shorts, a quick-sleeved blouse, white footwear, and sweat socks pulled up over his calves. He invited me into his densely furnished office, wherein a fan barely dispelled the wafting odor of cat food. He pulled an envelope from the Priority Mail box and exceeded me its contents, an aggregate of typed and handwritten letters discussing numerous sins allegedly devoted by using members of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Massachusetts. All the letters in the box were stolen by an nameless supply in the faith and shared with Mark. The sins described inside the letters ranged from the mundane—smoking pot, marital infidelity, drunkenness—to the frightening. Slowly, over the past couple of years, Mark has been leaking the most damning contents of the field, lots of which is still secret. Mark’s eyebrows are permanently arched, and whilst he makes an essential factor, he peers out above his rimless glasses, eyes widened, which lends him a conspiratorial air. “Start with these,” he said.
Over the beyond a couple of years, Mark O’Donnell has been leaking stolen letters and other papers documenting instances of baby abuse. (Lexey Swall) Among the papers, Mark confirmed me that day become a sequence of letters about a man from Springfield, Massachusetts, who have been disfellowshipped—a shape of excommunication—three instances. When the man turned into another time reinstated, in 2008, a person operating in a department of Watchtower wrote to his congregation, noting that during 1989 he become stated to have “allowed his eleven-12 months-antique stepdaughter to touch his penis … on as a minimum two activities.” I was struck by the oddness of the language. It insinuated that the man had agreed to, in place of initiated, the sexual touch together with his stepdaughter. After I left Mark’s house, I tracked down the stepdaughter, now forty. In reality, she told me, she had been best 8 when her stepfather had molested her. “He changed into the adult and I turned into the kid, so I notion I didn’t have any choice,” she said. She became terrified, she instructed me. “It took me two years to go to my mother approximately it.” Her mom right away went to the congregation’s elders, who later called the female and her stepfather in to pray with them. She recalls it as a humiliating experience. Her stepfather turned into finally disfellowshipped for instances that worried “fornication,” “drunkenness,” and “mendacity,” in step with the letters. But in keeping with the stepdaughter, his alleged molestation of her resulted simplest in his being “privately reproved,” a closed-door reprimand that is generally followed through a temporary loss of privileges, which include now not being allowed to provide comments for the duration of Bible examine or lead a prayer. The letters make no connection with police being notified; the stepdaughter stated her mother become recommended to hold the matter private, and no attempt changed into made to hold the stepfather far from different youngsters. (Calls to the congregation’s Kingdom Hall—the Witness model of a church—for remark went unanswered.) By the time the letters have been written, the person becomes attending an exceptional congregation and had married every other woman with youngsters; he is still part of that family nowadays. Near the quiet of the final letter in Mark’s possession is a question: “Is there any duty at the part of either body of elders … to inform his modern wife of his past records of toddler molestation?”