How My Family Survived Sexual Abuse Within the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Growing up, a man was sexually abused by an older church member. Then his daughter suffered the same fate.
screenshot of vice informer jehovah's witness documentary

You might have encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses before as the conservatively dressed religious types knocking on your front door, offering copies of The Watchtower, a free magazine promoting their faith.

But there’s a darker side to this religious group, whose estimated 8 million members worldwide believe we are living in the “last days.”

For the latest episode of VICE’s Informer series, we spoke to an anonymous former Jehovah’s Witness “elder”—or senior male religious leader—about the prevalence of sexual abuse within the church and what he says is the organization’s reluctance to tackle the problem for fear of bringing the church into disrepute.


“There is a cover-up of sexual abuse. I now know and can tell you with certainty that it is very, very prevalent,” said the man, who is based in the UK and was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness from the age of 5.

In response to a request for comment on the allegations, a representative for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK said that the organization “vigorously contest[ed] the baseless allegation” that sexual abuse was very prevalent in the church.

However, the organization was aware that “sadly, child sexual abuse is a reality in human society, and that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not immune."

In the episode, the former Jehovah’s Witness speaks from firsthand experience, having been sexually abused by an older member of the church when he was a child. He said the abuse began when he was too young to understand what was happening. By the time he was old enough to realize that what was happening was wrong, he was too ashamed to speak out.

But what was “seriously catastrophic,” he said, was to learn years later that his own daughter was a victim of abuse too.

“That caused a great consternation within the congregation because the elder that abused my daughter was very popular,” he said. “So you had people saying, ‘No, he wouldn’t do that, she must be lying.’ The youngster is seen as a troublemaker.”

“As a dad, I wanted to help them. But as a Jehovah’s Witness, I wasn’t to have anything to do with them.”


Shockingly, while his daughter and her sister were eventually excommunicated—or “disfellowshipped,” in Jehovah’s Witness parlance—from the church, the man’s loyalty to the organization meant that for years, he and his wife cut off their daughters, too.

“As a dad, I wanted to help them. But as a Jehovah’s Witness, I wasn’t to have anything to do with them,” he said. “So for about 10 years, my wife and I shunned our daughters.”

The daughter would eventually take her abuser to court, along with other survivors, and he was found guilty.

The former Jehovah’s Witness said he eventually came to his senses when another church elder advised him to sever his relationships with his daughters completely to maintain his good standing within the church—a comment that led to a moment of clarity, in which he decided to finally break away from the organization.

“My own demise in the faith, I suppose, came when one elder said: ‘Give up your daughters and stay an elder,’” he said. “I was being controlled. My thinking was being controlled.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been embroiled in scandals for their handling of sexual abuse cases in the UK, Australia, the US, and New Zealand. In a UK civil case launched in 2011, a judge ordered the church to pay substantial damages to a victim. In Australia, a national inquiry into child sexual abuse launched in 2013 heard that the church had failed to report to the police hundreds of alleged abusers of children.


Jehovah’s Witnesses disputed this, saying that “over the previous 65 years, of only 18 cases of abuse involving religious ministers … of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

“The remaining files concerned allegations that either arose in a familial setting or were made against individuals who at the time of the alleged abuse were congregants, had a passing connection with Jehovah’s Witnesses, or were not Jehovah’s Witnesses,” said a spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

The former Jehovah’s Witness said that several aspects of the way the church operated contributed to a culture of denial around sexual abuse within its ranks. Among these was an overriding desire to uphold the image of the church. 

“There’s a very common phrase within Jehovah’s Witnesses that we have to watch our behavior, that it doesn’t bring reproach on Jehovah’s name,” he said. “So they maintain this silence out of fear. And so the reputation has to come first.”

In response to questions from VICE, the UK Jehovah’s Witness organization disputed the claims made about how the church responded to allegations of child sexual abuse, and said it had a policy of reporting abuse claims to the authorities.

The man said he was grateful for the new life he had gained after leaving the church, especially for his daughters.

“I regret that for 50 years I was controlled, but we don’t blame mom and dad,” he said. “We were in a cult. My daughters were coming up in a cult. Thank goodness they got out.” 

Jehovah’s Witnesses dispute the characterization of their organization as a cult.

Update: This story has been updated to include further comment from Jehovah’s Witnesses.