NEW YORK—Alleged victims announced on Aug. 12 that they would file lawsuits against the leading organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses once the Child Victims Act is in effect.
Under the new law, which will come into effect on Aug. 14, people under the age of 55 will be able to file lawsuits if they were victims of sexual abuse as children. Before the act was passed, the age cap for filing cases was 23 years of age.
Michael Ewing and Heather Steele, both in their 40s, were joined by attorneys six floors above Manhattan.
“I’m here to make sure this doesn’t happen anymore,” Ewing said. “I’m here to make sure that if there’s any other voice out there that sees me at my age, recognizing that even if they’re older, there’s time for them to come forward.”
Ewing alleges he was sexually abused at the age of 14—for six consecutive months—after he was baptized. He said that Mike Rust, a ministerial servant appointed by the Jehovah’s Witness organization, was the perpetrator.
At 21, he reported the abuse to his parents. But Ewing said his father insisted on telling the religion’s elders rather than contacting law enforcement. Thereafter, the elders “disfellowshipped” (excommunicated) Ewing and Rust for practicing homosexuality, according to the lawsuit.
“The last few years, I’ve been in therapy, and it took that therapy to get me to this point where I can have legal representation,” Ewing said.
Ewing said he still considers himself a Jehovah’s Witness, but he added that it is “scary how much of this is going on in this organization.”
Not an Easy Story to Tell
Steele also came forward to report that she had been a victim of sexual abuse since she was a toddler. She said that religious elder Donald Nicholson allegedly abused her.
“He would use Jehovah when I would question things,” she said. “And it would be about obeying my elders and respecting parents.”
Steele eventually told her mother about the abuse—by accident—after which the elders allegedly tried very hard to keep it a secret. But after others intervened, law enforcement got involved, resulting in the imprisonment of Nicholson for three and a half years.
She now wants compensation for the “punitive damages and costs,” reads the press release.
“The reason I’m bringing the lawsuit is because I’ve had no justice in the situation,” Steele said. “Yes, he did go to prison, but it was for such a short time.”
Both plaintiffs were represented by the Zalkin Law Firm, which has “represented hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault,” according to the press release. Many of the cases taken on by the firm have involved the organizations of the Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Boy Scouts, among others.
The lawsuits are being filed against the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses—an organization headquartered in New York—which oversees all activity within the religion. It is made up of eight leaders.
“While public attention has focused on clergy abuse within the Catholic Church, a serious problem of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness has emerged over the last decade,” Zalkin said.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Investigated in Australia
The Commission found that at least 1,800 allegations related to child sexual abuse had been made to the organization. Among the over 68,000 Witnesses, about 1,000 members faced allegations of child sexual abuse, according to the report.
Of these, 108 members help elder or ministerial positions at the time of the alleged abuse. Following the allegations, 579 members confessed to committing child sexual abuse.