Molested Throughout High School: how Jehovah’s Witnesses deal with Sexual Predators
I met Dale when I was 14. He was 51, married, and retired early from a high-paying engineering job. His career had been cut short when he’d had a massive heart attack, so he and his wife moved to our small town for a low-stress retirement. What I didn’t know (at the time) was that Dale’s heart attack coincided with his previous affair (with a woman his own age).
I was 15 the first time he kissed me. My mom and I were helping him and his wife move into the house they were buying (up the street from the place they rented when they first moved to town). We ordered ham and pineapple pizza and toasted with champagne to their new home (yes, champagne! I was 15!!!).
While his wife and my mom retrieved more boxes from the car I took something to the walk-in closet he was filling with unpacked items. I handed him a hat that he placed on the shelf above my head and then he suddenly leaned in to kiss me. Our teeth bumped (as I was not expecting it, I don’t know what his excuse was) and I pulled back, stunned.
I could hear “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” as I stumbled out to the front porch. I sat in silence on their porch swing, trying to understand what had happened.
I was a self-conscious, awkward teenage girl with few close friends (4 boys I had grown up with). I had just began writing short stories and poems but had no one I felt comfortable sharing them with. Dale took an interest in me through he and his wife’s friendship with my mother. I began to share things with him that no one had ever seen, and we developed a close ‘friendship’.
My budding self-image and fragile self-esteem were (falsely) bolstered by this educated, intelligent adult taking interest in me. I felt special. I felt noticed. I felt seen.
After the kiss I was confused about what everything meant. He suggested I read Lolita and watch American Beauty.
I went into chatrooms (it was the late 90’s) to find someone who might be able to give me advice without the risk of revealing ‘our secret’. The person I found was a Jehovah’s Witness from another state. She claimed she had been through the same thing and drew out details of my life through our conversations. Eventually she contacted my congregation and told the Elders (like pastors or congregation leaders) everything I’d confided in her.
The response from the Elders was to publicly reprove me (I don’t recall what kind of reproval Dale received). This meant that during one of our three weekly meetings a respected senior member of our congregation got up to make an announcement regarding my “spiritual” standing. After the announcement was made, other members of the congregation were to take special caution with me. New or ‘susceptible’ members of the congregation were instructed to avoid me (with latent threats of their own reprovals and more).
I was labeled as a possible divergent and my isolation began. During this time Dale and I grew closer. We emailed each other every day and volunteered more with congregation activities. He convinced my mother that he had made a (tipsy off champagne!) mistake, and his only intent was to mentor me.
Needless to say our relationship escalated and I felt immense guilt. I began self-harming and starving myself by my Sophomore year. Despite being in all honors and college level courses I floundered in school. I made mostly A’s and B’s with an occasional C, but slept through classes and did the minimum to avoid punishment.
Mom took me to a psychiatrist (against the Elder’s/Governing Body’s advice) when she discovered I had been cutting myself. I was put on different anti-depressants and eventually anti-psychotics.
As my relationship with Dale escalated, so did our email correspondence. A lawyer friend of his recommended he print out each of the emails in case he ever had to prove in court that I was fully willing and complaisant in our affair. Eventually one of the emails was discovered by his wife (even though they were separated at this point) and turned in to the Elders.
After just turning 17 I was forced to sit in front of three Elders, men who had known me from infancy, with my mother present while they grilled me about losing my virginity. The hearing took weeks, spread over many late-night, hours long sessions. They asked me questions like “did you put his penis in your mouth? How many times? For how long?”.
Eventually it was determined that, for the safety of the congregation, I should be disfellowshipped. This meant (at the time, they have gotten a little more lax in recent years) that no one was allowed to talk to me. They weren’t even supposed to glance up at me as I attended the three weekly meetings in hope of getting “reinstated”. The only exception was family members living at home. I was allowed to talk to my mother. I was furious at my mother.
My brother came to say goodbye to me just before the Elders made the announcement. He didn’t speak to me again until I was in my 20’s (after I pretended to be repentant long enough for them to reinstate me). Today, he serves as an Elder in Northwest Arkansas.
Mom tried to take my case to the local police, but when they questioned me alone I told them everything was consensual- because molestation victims know so much about consent! and they said it would be impossible to press charges.
Desperate for change, my mom decided we should move in the middle of my Senior year of high school. I went from a class of 60 or so graduating students to 600+. I was lost in a sea of transition and failed to make healthy relationships. I was not allowed to associate with “worldly” people, but Jehovah’s Witnesses couldn’t speak to me unless they wanted to be disfellowshipped too.
Two weeks before graduation Dale died suddenly. I had been waiting for him to call me after school when he collapsed. I ditched school and tried to see him in the hospital. My mother came and practically drug me out when my school called to let her know I wasn’t there.
Memories from this time are blurry, but I can still recall coming home from school a few days later to an orchid with a little card from my mother. I immediately knew what “I’m so sorry” meant and as I read the words the floor rushed toward me. Dale was dead, and I was heartbroken.
I slipped into a deep depression fueled by isolation and guilt. I confided this to one of the Elders in our new congregation that was assigned to counsel me. He said “study (religious material for Jehovah’s Witnesses) and read your Bible”.
I attempted suicide on two occasions in the following months. One attempt got me banned from the college campus I was attending. No, they didn’t try to help me. Instead they worried about their own reputation, just like the elders, and decided I might be a bad influence on other students.
After withdrawal/failing my first semester, my oldest brother (not the Elder, I have 2 brothers) offered me a ‘vacation’ with him for a few weeks in Utah. I stayed off and on for several years and explored the United States, wandering from entry-level job to entry-level job, and began to heal from my wounds and unravel my abuse.
It wasn’t until the #MeToo movement that I realized abuse had robbed me of my high school experiences and memories. It wasn’t until then that I realized reclaiming what my abuser stole also means reclaiming my education.
It took more than 14 years, but I am back in college. Last semester I made the Dean’s list, and I couldn’t be more excited about the semester that’s about to begin.