JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES LEADERS TO BE SUED FOR SEXUAL ABUSE UNDER NEW CHILD VICTIMS ACT
August 12, 2019
Catherina Gioino, Leonard Greene
New York Daily News
A man and woman who accused Jehovah’s Witnesses elders of child sexual abuse will launch lawsuits against the organization’s governing body under a landmark state law that goes into effect this week, the former church members said Monday.
John Michael Ewing and Heather Steele, in separate lawsuits that will be filed Wednesday in Brooklyn Supreme Court, said they endured years of rape and molestation at the hands of the group’s elders.
Steele, a New York native now living in Florida, said she was just a toddler when an elder, Donald Nicholson, who was a family friend, began molesting her in the mid-1970s.
She said the now 82-year-old elder would even molest her in front of others while she sat on his lap in the middle of meetings with other congregation members.
“He started abusing me when I was still in diapers,” Steele said at a Times Square news conference Monday. “It gradually started as performing oral sex and then rape followed after many years, when I was 10. I accidentally told my mom. I was scared to tell, thinking it was a secret between me and Don.”
Steele said leaders pressured her family not to cooperate with a criminal investigation of the elder, but she worked with authorities to see that Nicholson was prosecuted and imprisoned.
But Nicholson was released after serving nearly four years in New York prisons, and moved to a town in New Jersey where Steele alleges that congregations did not know about his seedy and criminal past. He was reinstated in the organization in 1992, according to Steele’s forthcoming complaint.
Ewing, 48, said he was abused when he was about 14 years old by a high-level member who started by fondling him and showing him pornography. The alleged abuse escalated to instances of oral and anal sex between 1986 and 1989, Ewing says in the lawsuit.
“I was with him 80 hours a month so he had open access to me,” Ewing said. “My parents loved him. I was ashamed. So I just let it continue to go on because I didn’t know how to tell them.”
Ewing eventually told his parents, and a tribunal was convened. Ewing and his alleged abuser were excommunicated for practicing homosexuality, Ewing said.
The elders never contacted police, according to the lawsuit.
“These lawsuits clearly show how the Jehovah’s Witnesses are more concerned about protecting their brand than they are about the welfare and safety of children,” said Irwin Zalkin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “This is an organization cloaked in secrecy and believes that it lives in a parallel universe where it is immune from what it refers to as `Caesar’s laws,’ that is, the law the citizens of this country are required to obey.”
Zalkin’s firm has filed more than 20 lawsuits across the country on behalf of childhood sexual abuse survivors against the Jehovah’s Witness organization.
In a statement, Jehovah’s Witnesses said it doesn’t comment pending litigation, but its “stand on the subject of child abuse is very clear: we abhor child abuse in any form ... In addition, (our) practice is to always follow the law, and we support the efforts of elders in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses to do the same.”
New York’s landmark Child Victims Act goes into effect Wednesday. The new law adjusts statute-of-limitations timelines so that victims of long-ago sexual abuse can sue for damages.
Message from Executive Director Laura A. Ahearn: Please visit our website at www.crimevictimscenter.org for news, information and resources in your community.