Originally published on Spanish Media, EL ESPAÑOL
Accusations of pedophilia, rejection of homosexuals, “social death”, theft of personal data, suicides … EL ESPAÑOL interviews 15 former members of this “cult” in Spain who criticize all kinds of situations
It is advised that a woman be supported by her husband, but the man can attend without his wife. These two consecutive pieces of text reflect, in part, the procedure that must be followed within Jehovah’s Witnesses when the elders of a congregation have to “judge” someone. It also alerts one to the way they view women. The two paragraphs belong to a book whose full content has given to EL ESPAÑOL and which is entitled “Shepherd the Flock of God”. It details the procedures to follow when “a sin” has been discovered.
Other things are also described within the book. “Gross Uncleanness,” for example, is grounds for expulsion within Jehovah’s Witnesses. And expulsion, say dozens of former members of this organization, means social death. An example of what they see as “Gross Uncleanness” are sexual or emotional relationships between people of the same sex. They consider it a “degrading” and “disgusting” perversion.
The book for the elders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses says many things. Not many Jehovah’s Witnesses speak about the things that happen inside, partly because they are forbidden to talk to anyone on the outside. Little by little though, some like Rocío Alcalde, a 24 years old from Granada, are no longer afraid: they do not want to continue in silence.
Rocío is 24 years old. Things became difficult for this Jehovah’s Witness after being abused by her partner. “I told on him. On the first day of the trial he was at home waiting for me. The neighbours informed me. The police came, arrested him and they took him away again. The next day they got another restraining order.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses distinguish between biblical divorce and ordinary divorce. For them, “divorce does not free him to remarry unless adultery occurs.” But Rocío says that, once she divorced from her abuser and wanted to rebuild her life, the elders (those who rule the congregations) evidently wouldn’t allow her to rebuild her life with another man. “They told me that I did not have a biblical divorce until they had proof of my ex’s adultery. That is, until they had proof that he was with another person. The judge’s serving of a restraining order, proving that I had been mistreated, did not mean a thing. “
Rocío was born a Jehovah’s witness. Her parents and the rest of her family were members before she came along. Despite the warning, she made a new life for herself with another man because she began to see that the teachings promulgated were not for her. Maybe they were not for anyone.
Divorce is considered a sin within the organization. A member of the congregation can only divorce if his or her partner has committed adultery. “They even said I hadn’t grounds to be with my partner. They said I was not free to be with anyone”. When she chose to leave permanently, and after she was expelled for being with another man who was not her husband, most of her family stopped talking to her.
The guidelines of the “cult”
When Enrique was 36 years old, he received an internal memo saying that he had to stop talking to his father. His father had been expelled from the organization, so the Jehovah’s Witnesses demanded that his family break all contact with him. For the first two months, Enrique went along with it. “My daughters were without a grandfather. But I did not understand why it had to be that way. He had not done anything against us. I began to realize that it was a form of blackmail to try to get him back into the organization”, he tells EL ESPAÑOL. While his wife aligned with the Witnesses, he remained in his position for the following years. Divorce, in the end, was inevitable: his marriage went to hell and he also ended up leaving the congregation.
Enrique lives in Granada and is an electronics technician. A year and a half after leaving, he found love again with another woman. Something innocent, apparently. This meant “social death”. When the elders found out, they did the same with him as they did with their father. And his daughter did what he wouldn’t do to his father: “She is a stalwart Witness, like her mother. When she found out, she stopped talking to me. In November 2007 she sent me a letter saying that I had become like a dead person to her. That coercion and pressure on families is what differentiates a religion from a cult”. It’s been 12 years since he has spoken to her.
In Spain there are 110,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the past they have been taken less seriously. However in recent times all kinds of complaints have been made against them: about their internal procedures, about their particular parallel justice system, about their position on sexual diversity, about how they treat those who are within the congregation and those who leave; undoubtedly the most serious complaints have to do with cases of sexual abuse taking place within the group. There are also many complaints because they are choosing not to cooperate with the justice system.
In recent years courts around the world have taken legal action to uncover cases of paedophilia within this organization. An investigation by the government of Australia announced in July 2015 that they were investigating more than 1,000 cases that Jehovah’s Witnesses had hidden under the carpet for over 60 years.
In January 2018, FaithLeaks published 33 letters and internal documents that exposed accusations of sexual abuse against members of this religious cult in New York. The heads of the congregation determined at the time that several of the allegations had been genuine. Among the revealed cases was the dramatic story of a woman tied to the bed by her father while he was examining her genitals. He was attempting to find signs of masturbation. She was only 5 years old. The story was covered up.
Aníbal Matos is the spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Spain: “The ‘judicial committee’, which is exclusively ecclesiastical in nature, keeps the facts confidential in order to safeguard the dignity of the parties, which in no way means that they hide or protect sins of such gravity; a pedophile must answer before the law and face the consequences.”
The latest example of this procedure takes place in Toledo this week. A judge has summoned four elders for a case of sexual abuse. It is the first time that Jehovah’s Witnesses are mentioned in Spain for a case of this nature. Not a single word came out of their mouths. It is a similar situation to those they have faced in other countries in recent years: remaining silent in the face of multiple complaints accusing them of not acting appropriately when dealing with such serious internal cases.
Within this group, which many call a cult, few know what things are happening: but we are beginning to find out what is happening on the inside. The opening of Pandora’s box continues incessantly: theft of personal data, aversion towards homosexuals, parallel trials, oversight and absolute control of sex among its members, cases of sexual abuse, suicides, silence against certain crimes …
EL ESPAÑOL interviewed about fifteen former witnesses in their news report. Most of them provided their name and face. Others preferred not to. They spoke out in criticism of the situations in which they lived, so that they are not repeated and so that the truth is known. Two of them, one of whom prefers not to reveal his identity, talk about suicide cases. Many are forming an association for victims of Jehovah’s Witnesses that will be released early next March. They say that their stories are just some solid examples, and they are convinced that there may be “thousands” of people in Spain who have experienced the same or similar situations. Some, they say, are silent because of fear. Others because they blindly believe the guidelines of the “cult”.
The only thing Alejandro did was light an innocent cigarette. When they found out they accused him of having committed a serious offense and expelled him. It happened when he was 16 years old. Since then his family have not spoken to him. He had to leave the organization where his whole family remained. They all left him for such a trifle of a misdemeanour. “They see me on the street, they do not greet me, they do not talk to me. Many, including my family, do not want to look me in the face. I do not care anymore but imagine when you were young?”
He is 38 years old, but being only a child of four, Mikel Nájera entered the Jehovah’s Witnesses where he still lives, in Pamplona. His life was restricted by the rigid internal laws of the group. “I got married when I was 25 years old, but I was not sure I made the right decision. I wanted to have a girlfriend, but you cannot be with anyone who is not a Jehovah’s Witness”, he tells EL ESPAÑOL. He made an error sometime later. He was unfaithful to his partner, which is reason enough for one to be judged within the group. They called him to a judicial committee meeting. “They put you in front of three elders who are the ones who determine whether they should expel you. They asked me what sexual positions I had done, everything. I thought, ‘you are treating me like a monster’”.
When he was expelled, his family turned his back on him also. “In a way, it’s as if you had to deprogram. When they throw you out of a cult, it’s as if they left you in the middle of the desert. They have educated you in a bubble and then, naked, you do not know where to go. It’s social death”.
It was the same thing that happened to Laia Santander, who is 27 years old and works in an organic products store. She now leads a completely normal life. She too suffered one of those abrasive internal judicial meetings. At 15, in full adolescence, she realized that she was bisexual. But she tried to keep that secret to herself. In January 2018 she had to answer to the Jehovah’s Witness leaders of her congregation regarding “sexual immorality”.
“It is an uncomfortable, shameful, humiliation. At the time, you do not see it in an objective way: you are indoctrinated to think that what they are telling you is the best thing for you”. They dug into her intimate private life, undressing her with all kinds of questions. She was expelled several weeks later. It is an exhaustive inquiry into the sex life of the faithful. They act, somehow as prosecutors of the members’ bedroom behaviour.
The same magnifying glass was used to expel Andrés Abalo from his congregation. “For Uncleanness. You have committed uncleanness, they told me. I was with a girl who was not my wife. We were about to commit what they call adultery, but Before committing the act, we stopped. And she goes and tells everything to the elders! They were not acts worth explaining”, he tells El Espanol.
Prohibited from reporting abuses
Israel Flórez was five years old in 1979. He lived with his parents, also Jehovah’s Witnesses, in the centre of Madrid. One day, his mother left him with the son of some friends. While at the house, the friend’s son undressed him and made him play a kind of touching game. Then, in front of a mirror, he masturbated in front of the child.
He says he did not extract that poison from within until 20 years later. In the year 2000 he decided to reveal it to an elder in his congregation. This reassured him. The elder told him that he would immediately contact those at the headquarters in Spain. He insisted that measures would be taken. A few days later the elder changed his mind. He argued that it was better to “do nothing”, that it was a matter to leave “in Jehovah’s hands.” A few years later he filed a complaint in order to investigate the facts.
In 2008, Israel and his wife left the religious organization permanently. In 2010, his sister also decided to leave. Naomi was subjected to one of those parallel legal trials (judicial committee meetings) in which the heads of the Jehovah’s Witnesses decide on matters that must be of great importance in the evolution of the universe (who knows if others also), such as the sexual condition of a person, smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, watching pornography, relationships between people of the same sex, etc. In her case, the questions revolved around divorce.
Suicide, last exit
Such over-reaching control could be considered a nonsensical joke, but nothing is further from the truth. The sister of Israel could not deal with the pressure of such intimate and invasive interrogations. She decided to leave, but then all those in her family who were still inside turned their backs on her.
She was left alone after the divorce with her three children and with 500 euros per month in different jobs she had obtained. “She returned to the Witnesses in gratitude to my parents, who had helped her take care of the children.” explains Israel to EL ESPAÑOL. “With that salary she couldn’t do it alone”.
Naomi committed suicide in 2015, when the internal judicial process against her was under way. “I’m not saying she killed herself because of this, but what I am clear about is that everything that happened to her inside proved fatal”.
Theft of personal data in hospitals
A complaint by Juan Bourgon, also a former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, EL ESPAÑOL has learned, is the motivator behind a fine to the organization whose amount was known this week. The Data Protection Agency has fined the religious cult 10,000 euros for collecting data from doctors and patients without prior authorization. The scheme was cunning and crafty.
According to the documents to which EL ESPAÑOL has access (download Spanish Report & Appeal), it took place at the University Hospital Marqués de Valdecilla (Cantabria). Through some Hospital Liaison Committees, the Jehovah’s Witnesses went to all the hospitals, talking with doctors to see if they were willing to operate without blood, as established by their religion, which prohibits all kinds of transfusions. By collecting this data, they obtained privileged information about patients. They did not ask for permission to do so.
Juan lives in Santander and is an agronomist. He was expelled from his congregation in 2016 when he learned of the cases of sexual abuse that were unveiled in Australia. Juan went to the leaders of his congregation to enquire whether everything that was told and that had happened in such a distant country was true. They told him not to talk about it again, that they were stories orchestrated “by the devil”. They expelled him for “apostasy”. But the turning point in terms of his doubts about the Witnesses came shortly before he was thrown out. “I had a bad experience with one of the elders. I discovered that he was a healer, a homeopathic consultant practicing only on Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
“The dissemination of alternative medicinal techniques did not seem right to me. They began to consider me as an awkward person”, he says. Juan was also in charge of updating the illegal database that the organization was populating with confidential information regarding patients, stolen from Cantabria. When he was expelled, he decided to blow the whistle.
All his friends and relatives erased themselves from his life just because of that question about the sexual abuse that was being investigated in Australia. “Because you prefer to disobey Jehovah and the body of elders for nothing. Until forever or never. Imagine, friends of 12 years and older telling you that?”
No two witnesses no violation
It happened in 1994, when she was just a child. One day that year, Noelia Piris went to her neighbour’s house to show off her new skates to the granddaughters, with whom she spent many afternoons together. Her friends were not there, but the mother was there taking a nap, and the father was in the living room. They, like Noelia’s family, were members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. When she was inside the house, the father grabbed her by the leg so she could not leave. He stood behind her and pulled down her pants. Then he put his fingers in her vagina. She closed her legs and tried to resist, but he opened them again, with force. To this day she does not remember how long that lasted, but she remembers the sordid image of the pedophile licking his face while he forced himself on her.
She told her mother, who went looking for the pedophile. Soon, the religious organization’s judicial committee got involved. The internal regulations only confirm the abuse of a minor when there are two different testimonies that can corroborate the facts. Noelia faced four interrogations. In the fifth interrogation, the elders locked themselves in a room with her, her parents, her maternal grandmother, the alleged abuser and his wife.
They wanted everything to be straightened out right there, says Noelia, with everyone in that room. They did it to assess the version of events, and so that no one would ever discuss the matter. They urged her, she explains to EL ESPAÑOL, to recreate the facts in detail. The young woman could not articulate a word. “They told me that I needed to forgive him, that it was what Jehovah wanted, and I said ‘no’ while he was crying.”
Noelia told her story two years ago in El Periódico de Cataluña. Revealing the truth (and reporting the facts to the authorities) brought consequences. “I went to the funeral of the father of a friend of mine who was a Jehovah’s Witness,” she tells EL ESPAÑOL. There everyone turned away when I approached. Even my abuser was there, and everyone was greeting him, talking to him as if nothing had happened. Many berated me openly for being brave and telling my story. Through social networks some told me that they did not believe me. They criticized me, asking why I was hurting them, why I was only telling my story now … “