Editor's note: The following article, on a support group for people trying to leave the Jehovah's Witnesses, uses pseudonyms for two ex-Witnesses who fear retribution to themselves or family members. The story was supposed to have run March 19 with a larger story about the Jehovah's Witnesses, but was cut due to space limitations.
A simple Internet search on "Jehovah's Witnesses" yields 102,000 hits in just a few seconds. Of the first 20 sites listed, nearly half lead to links offering support to ex-Jehovah's Witnesses or instructions on how to leave the Witness religion.
John Brown, 33, Jennifer, 42, and Mike, 32, have each visited many of the sites, culling information from them to aid their slow disassociation with a faith they now call a cult. One site helped them connect with each other to form a support group for people who are leaving the Witness religion.
"Most authorities I read consider (Jehovah's Witnesses) a cult," said Brown, who moderates the group. "It uses extreme forms of social influence - you do what you're told or you get kicked out. What I experienced was that they are very loving and friendly in the beginning, but every thought, word and deed is conditional upon staying in the organization. It is like slow mind control."
Barry Mishkind, news service coordinator for the Tucson area Jehovah's Witnesses, disagreed. A cult, he said, encourages people to follow blindly an individual living person.
"We are not (a cult) because we follow Jesus and the Bible. Our religion stems from God and his Son - no one is forced to do anything, but as they study, they come to see how God wants them to act," Mishkind said.
Brown, Mike and Jennifer meet - along with five or six other non-practicing or former Jehovah's Witnesses - once a month in central Tucson for mutual care and support. They are reluctant to talk with a reporter about their Witness experiences because "teaching anything Witnesses do not consider true teaching is a disfellowshipping" (or excommunicating) offense, Brown said.
"Right now, we're all apostates," said Mike, "just for talking about getting out and what we disagree with."
Mike is the only member of the ex-Witness support group who was raised from birth in the Witness tradition; Jennifer was brought into the faith in her early teens when her Catholic mother married a Jehovah Witness and Brown - who had a non-practicing Jehovah's Witness mother - was baptized into the religion in his late teens after being brought into the faith by a friend.
All three said the Witness religion served them well in terms of keeping them away from the dangers of drugs, alcohol and premarital sex. Yet they all agree that at some point - earlier for Mike than for Brown or Jennifer - the basic tenets of the faith started sounding hollow. At that juncture, when they began questioning the Witness beliefs and practices, they said they became undesirable to their individual communities.
None of the three has officially been disfellowshipped by the Witnesses, although Jennifer has felt the sting of being informally shunned by her local congregation, one of 11 jehovah Witnesses' Northwest congregations. None of the three are currently attending Witness meetings or worship services.
While the stories of ex-Jehovah's Witnesses are always as individual as each person is, the majority of them share one thing in common, Brown said.
"The person starts questioning and pretty soon they realize you can't question and be a Jehovah's Witness," he said. "To be a good Jehovah's Witness, you obey all their rules, do field service and reach out for other forms of (leadership) in the church. The religion is emotionally and mentally abusive, because if you think for yourself, they tell you that you are spiritually sick."
That is what Mike was told when he expressed doubts about a loving God following the death of his father at a young age, he said.
"Like all kids, I suppose, I had some doubts of my religion. But you tend to dismiss those thoughts in your mind, you become conditioned to believing that you shouldn't have doubts because the church is supposed to be furnishing all of your spiritual needs," said Mike, who was once a Ministerial Servant in the Witnesses, a rank akin to a deacon in other Christian denominations. "They believe if you have emotional problems, somehow you must be failing God in some way - you must be spiritually weak."
When he began suffering from clinical depression so overwhelming that he attempted suicide, Mike discovered rejection from the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"By and large, the Witness community has not been there to support me. I don't know why, but (it seems) when it comes to the deeper issues of life, they are basically incompetent - they don't have any provisions to support people (in) emotional distress," he said. "The Witness environment, by and large, tends to denigrate the individual. You are repeatedly reminded what a sinner you are, how merciful God is for even allowing you on this planet - the bottom line is, they believe that if you are spiritually strong, you won't have problems."
Jennifer said she was not sure why congregation members began shunning her last year.
"I would have sisters actually turn and walk away from me at the meetings," Jennifer said. "No one can tell me what I did or why they are doing this."
She said she's sent letters to elders asking for explanations and has thus far only been told it is her problem. She said it might be because she reported to elders many years ago that she had been sexually abused by her Witness step-father only to be told "to go home and pray to Jehovah to take care of it."
The problem of sexual abuse in the Jehovah's Witnesses has received frequent media attention in the past year, Mike said, adding that it is a major concern among people who come to the support group.
William Bowen, a Witness for 43 years, an elder for 19 and a full-time missionary for six years, said he discovered in 2000 that an elder from his congregation had allegations of molestation against him.
In a phone interview from his Benton, Ky., home, Bowen said when he reported the abuser to his fellow elders, he was told "essentially to mind my own business."
Further research led Bowen to discover that there were numerous complaints lodged with the Jehovah's Witnesses Governing Body in New York alleging child sexual abuse by Witnesses.
In August 2002, the New York Times reported on Bowen's case, writing that "victims who have stepped forward are mostly girls and young women, and many accusations involve incest," differentiating the abuse in Jehovah's Witnesses from a similar child-abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church last year in which clergy are accused of the abuse.
Bowen said the way the religion deals with accusations of sinful behavior actually "keeps molesters in the religion."
"By their own decree, every case has to be investigated," Bowen said. "But what that means is three elders take underage girls into a back room and try to determine the level of sin. They ask them things like if they were wearing sexy clothes, if they had an orgasm, if they wanted it. The investigation can be more traumatizing than the rape itself."
Once the level of sin is determined, the victim "has to face her accuser and tell him what she told the elders and often this man - a father or an older relative - is laughing at the girl and saying she made it up," Bowen said. "If the man denies it, and if there are not two eyewitnesses to the crime, he is considered innocent. And how many times are there two eyewitnesses to molestation?"
Jehovah's Witness-es say this two-eyewitness policy is based on a Biblical command in Deuteronomy 19:15 that requires two or three witnesses to prove a man has sinned.
Bowen was disfellowshipped for "causing dissention" after he wrote a letter of resignation in 2000 to his congregation de-tailing his concerns over child sexual abuse.
Mishkind said child abuse in the Witness religion is an important issue but emphasized that it is a challenge to "find the common ground or the safe ground to protect everybody."
"If someone were to come forward and say they had been molested, they would be interviewed by several, very often three, of the elders so the story is understood by more than one person," he said. "It is kept confidential and parents are not prohibited from being there. Is it inappropriate to ask the girls how they were dressed? If a particular person were known to dress provocatively, is that not a factor to consider? The issue is not to grill (the victim), but there are cases where false accusations are made because perhaps a couple broke up their engagement and someone got very angry or a marriage fell apart and there are allegations of child abuse to adjust the custody issues."
He said he was aware of "very few cases" in the Tucson area where it was proven that a Witness molested a child or teen-ager, but referred questions about abuse cases in the Northwest to Dan Ellis, an elder of the Pusch Ridge Jehovah's Witness congregation that meets at the Ina Road Kingdom Hall. Ellis said "no cases have come before me or the body of elders" concerning sexual abuse. "This Bowen is misrepresenting numbers," Ellis said. "I honestly do not see how he could come up with the claims he has."
Mishkind said congregations try to remain "clean and safe" and if someone were judged to be an abuser, "the elders would constantly monitor that individual."
"If they found a person getting uncomfortably close to a potential victim, the elders would find themselves in a position where they would counsel that individual as well as counsel families to be careful. We do all we can to support victims and protect potential victims," he said.
Brown, Mike and Jennifer now view their support group work with as much seriousness as they once did the door-to-door field service Jehovah's Witnesses encourage members to engage in.
"You go to five meetings a week, your whole life is there - you are encouraged to only do business with other Witnesses and to only have Witness friends. When you leave, you realize you have no one. You need socialization. Your whole life has been the church and it is very isolating once you leave," said Jennifer, explaining the need for a support group.
Although they had negative experiences in Jehovah's Witnesses, Brown, Mike and Jennifer said they believed that those in the religion honestly think they are doing the right thing and none of the three have completely given up on the idea of God.
"My problem was not with God himself as it was with the God I was taught about," said Mike. "I still maintain a Christian viewpoint, I do believe in a Higher Power, but now - well, I was taught God was judgmental and wrathful and isn't always there when you need him. That isn't the God I believe in now."
Brown, now a Buddhist, said he's found peace in the religion of his choice.
"Jehovah Witnesses put God in a box and I think He is a spirit being and spirit is hard to confine to a box. Perhaps it was just time for me to grow beyond what Jehovah's Witnesses believe."