Since the live transmission of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2015, the subject of abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness religion has been discussed the whole world over.
As Watchtower desperately tries to mount defenses to new abuse cases every day, media scrutiny has never been greater. With the help of the Internet and tireless advocacy from determined activists, more and more people are asking questions all deserve answers to.
It’s no secret that the organisation’s handling of child abuse leaves much to be desired, but it’s becoming clear that abuse in many different forms is just as rife. One example is spousal violence.
“I think religious organisations attract abusive males,” says Dorcas. “Cult-like religions see the legal system as not being for them. It gives abusers more anonymity in the wider world.”
It’s certainly true that acts of sexual and physical abuse of children are seen as sins first, rather than crimes. The same also applies when wives are abused by their husbands. As a victim of domestic violence and rape, Dorcas knows first hand of the frustrations of attempting to get help from the congregation.
“All sins are forgiven,” she says. “So the onus is on the victim to forgive, rather than on the abuser to stop their behavior.” Married at sixteen and a mother of two by the time she was eighteen, Dorcas was continually raped, emotionally manipulated and beaten so badly she suffered two miscarriages, one of them as a result of being thrown down the stairs.
She suffered crippling emotional abuse, mind games and gaslighting that led Dorcas to question her own state of mind. “Dave would come home, throw the meal I’d made him into the bin, and ask why I hadn’t cooked him anything. He’d be away for three nights at a time, then would show up on the fourth night and want to know where his dinner was.”
Upon approaching the elders, they simply told her to try harder. As a wife who cooked, cleaned the house, and had sex whenever her husband demanded it, she wasn’t sure what more she could do. Fearing for her life, she escaped to a refuge. There, the elders visited her, informing her that unless there was proof of infidelity, there were no grounds for divorce.
Ironically, the only reason she was married at sixteen was because she and her husband had had sex before marriage. “I came out as a lesbian to my mum when I was thirteen. I was forced to speak to a roomful of elders who, along with my mum, encouraged me to get a boyfriend.”
It was hoped that a boyfriend could ‘cure’ her of her homosexuality. When she had sex with him, the elders were very keen to know all the details, such as the positions they’d used and how long the sex lasted. She was publicly reproved, and felt she had no other option but to marry her first boyfriend, a brother from a nearby congregation. The abuse began immediately after the wedding.
“I stayed for as long as I did because I had deep depression. Dave told me I was thick, and that nobody would believe me. He even told me to imagine the two of us in court, and that the judge would take one look at me and know I couldn’t look after our children.”
Threatening to kill her, Dave continually made her doubt herself. “I could slit your throat and everyone would believe it was suicide,” he told her.
When she finally fled in the middle of the night with nothing more than her children and a bag of nappies, she went to a local police station. The officer behind the desk seemed indifferent to her plight. In fact, he dismissed Dave’s death threats entirely. “He told me that if he had a pound for every time he’d threatened to kill his own wife, he’d be a very rich man,” Dorcas relates.
And herein lies the problem. When it comes to domestic violence, women are treated appallingly not only by the perpetrators themselves, but by the institutions that should protect them. If it weren’t for a lady in a car who stopped to see if Dorcas and her two children needed help the night she left, she may never have made it to the refuge. Her own mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, refused to let her come home.
Throughout her recovery, Dorcas has come to recognize the clear link between the organisation’s view of women, and her own abuse. “”Women as architects of their own misery is a central tenet of the faith,” she says firmly. “When we’re sexually assaulted, we’re told to be more modest. When our husbands beat us, we’re encouraged to be better wives.”
Does she think that if Jehovah’s Witnesses changed their policies, there’d be less abuse of women in the congregation? “No,” she replies. “Even with a zero-tolerance approach to violence, women are told to forgive their husbands rather than report them. No elder ever spoke to Dave about the way he abused me. Nobody told him he needed to be a better husband.”
She believes that to give credence to allegations of abuse would give women too much of a voice. The organisation functions on the physical labor of women, and in order to keep them as silent as the Apostle Paul wished them to be (1 Corinthians 14:34,35), they are kept under control. They must wear head coverings to pray if there is no man present, and their dress code is strictly monitored, to the point of forbidding them to wear trousers in a formal setting, such as at meetings, or on the door-to-door work.
Dorcas lived at the refuge for over a year, before being offered a council house. She received no help of any kind from the elders in the hall, with nobody offering to help her get to meetings or out on the field ministry. When her baby son sadly passed away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at just a few months of age, she clung to a resurrection hope that offered little comfort. “An elder told me that my child wouldn’t be resurrected as a baby, but as a young man at peak age,” she says. “It made no sense to me.”
On attending a circuit assembly and hearing from the platform that the organisation had once again changed its teachings after another failed prophecy, she realized she was
truly in a cult. She disassociated herself, and left without looking back.
She met her wife several years ago, and they were married in 2010. Now the CEO of a domestic violence charity in the north of England, Dorcas dedicates her life to helping women leave abusive relationships. She reveals that over the years, three different Jehovah’s Witness women have sought shelter at one of the refuges she manages. “Two of them returned to their husbands on the advice of the elders,” she confides. “The one who left her husband only did so because she left the religion entirely.”
It seems, therefore, that women who suffer violence at the hands of their Jehovah’s Witness husbands are left with an almost impossible choice. Thanks to its cruel shunning policy, the organisation seems to guarantee that by preserving her safety, a woman runs the risk of losing any family or friends in the organisation, too. For as long as they are convinced they are ‘no part of the world,’ Jehovah’s Witnesses will continue to see themselves as untouchable by law.