The sky was pitch black as I got up and drove the 2 dreary hours from Berkeley to Sacramento Wednesday morning. It had turned light blue as I arrived.
The Sisters were waiting in a quaint café down K-street (in Sacramento the streets run like the alphabet), munching away on coffee and scones. I opened the door — I could see them through the door glass, veils and jeans skirts — and was welcomed by a hug from Sister Star. I looked around, seizing up the ambience. Charged. A curious mix of tense and happy (you know - the happy-to-see-you kind of happy).
The issues we’d deal with that morning— child abuse and a corrupt clergy — were dark and heavy. In a court room at 5035 State Capitol, on the 2d of April, 2019, we would be accompanied not only by advocates and legal experts but also by the adult versions of children who had suffered from ingrained patriarchal institutions with dark secrets and nasty habits.
And we’d have to dig up those wounds, to show the Senator’s why a legislative change was long overdue. Resurrect them to the light of the hearing room, that very morning.
Sister Star grew up a Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she had asked us to be there that morning in support. She summoned us there to drive through SB360 — a bill holding religious clergy accountable for reporting abuse of children to authorities — as she could not bear imagine that one more child would go through the same hell she had once been put through. Despite a stroke and impaired bodily sensitivity — with accompanying numbness and fatigue — she’d driven the 6 hours from Humboldt County to be at the Capitol and demand change. And the rest of us Sisters? We came in strong support.
On our way to the hearing room I found out that we were accompanied by a wonderful cast of people dedicated to changing the laws around abuse and child neglect. Many of those who guided us through due process were part of the SCAARS (Stop Child Abuse, Advocates for Reform and Safety) network. The particular man who showed me the way to the hearing room was named Roger, and he had himself been an elder in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, until he tired of the hypocrisy underpinning a system which is under next-to-no scrutiny and is, on top of that, based largely on fear-mongering tactics. He was thrown out of the order and instead became a political advocate for those abused by its systems. Bravo!
We were early, and seated ourselves as near the senatorial podium that we could. Our presence in there calmed me. Our entourage — Me, Sister Star, Sister Kate, the Sisters of the Valley Gaia, friends & photographers John & Adam, Roger, David the Elder, and many others — took up almost half of the seats at the front of the room. And behind us were even more people.
The hearings began. For those who have never been at a senator hearing (and I had not) they are a very special blend of interactions between senators and advocates — political to informal, professional to personal, oftentimes both sharp and witty. The first three to four bills dealt with guns. One person would hold a speech in support, another one in opposition. At the end of each round the senators stated ‘I’, ‘No’ or nothing in rapid succession. Most of the bills were kept open, which meant that senators who had missed the first roll could still cast their vote later.
Then came our bill. SB360. They must have moved it up, because it was actually much further down the agenda in the morning. Senator Gerald Hill began presenting the details of the bill, and its legal implications.
“It’s time for California to put children first”, Mr. Hill finished.
“Thank you senator Hill. We have witnesses in support.” said Nancy Skinner, presiding over the senator’s table. A young man in black hair and a black coat came up to the table in front of the senators and sat down. He sighed, and grabbed the microphone.
“Hey. My name is Kameron Torres, and I’m an abuse survivor.” He said, steady in his voice “It uh… it all started with my mother. She was born and raised in San Francisco into an abusive family background. And — in her early twenties she was recruited into the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was around the same time that she became pregnant with me.”
Kameron paused for a minute.
“They — they convinced her that Satan the devil controlled the whole world. Including her family. So she ran away. With me. And I was born and raised in a small town with nothing but Jehovah’s Witnesses…” a pause again.
“At a really early age — around six — I was taken advantage of by a man in the congregation. He was really close to the family, so they trusted him. My mother suspected something was up. So she asked me and then went to the Elders. They told her it’s in God’s hands now. Don’t speak about it.”
“They told her it’s in God’s hands now. Don’t speak about it.”
The young man continued to recount how he had been abused on multiple occasions, by different men, and how — despite the blatant knowledge of religious leaders — these very men were kept safe within the JW community. How he had to see them every day in his upbringing, the same men who violated him as a little kid. The same men that, he lamented, are still surrounded by children in the Jehovah’s Witnesses every day.
The young man told the story with such ease, with such grace. He didn’t cry. He didn’t waver. And his voice never shook. That impressed me. You could hear a needle drop at this point, and I saw Kate sob quietly in the seat in front of me. The senators eyes were transfixed on this young man, telling his story, despite the pain. And then, a pause.
“Does anyone else want to show their support for SB360?” Nancy Skinner urged again. I looked around, and began to make my way up to a line accumulating behind a standing microphone. One after another, people were getting up. I saw them simultaneously in the queue and on a TV-screen above me. Men, women, old, young. David the Elder with his indigenous braids and vest. Sister Kate with her habit. People with ordinary clothes and make up, but dark stories to reveal. People with hope and grief cohabiting in their hearts.
“My name is Jolene, I grew up a Jehovah’s Witnesses and I’m a survivor of child sex abuse”, one woman said, as she choked on her tears. “I — I strongly support this bill.”
“My name is Mary, I was sexually harassed by an elder. This is my first time speaking in public, and it’s… scary.” said one brave girl, small in person but big in spirit. “I support the SB360 bill.”
“It’s been far too long” said David the Elder, stating the support from the California Yaqui Association. “with these laws that protect abusers. The native American people are no strangers to abuse.”
The line went on and on. It was cinematic. Many of the supporters sobbed gently as they got closer to the microphone, like an enemy that was finally to be met and conquered, head-on and without fear. I myself enclosed it quickly, It seemed ominous, the closer I got.
“Hey. My name is Sister Rosa, I’m in the Sisters of the Valley. I strongly support this bill” I wobbled away from the microphone and out of the security-camera’s frame, dizzy from the impact of the emotions that filled the room.
As everyone had come forth to give their support, it was time for the opposition to give their opinions. I actually didn’t think anyone would be opposed to this bill. It was too good. It was too positive. To me, saying you didn’t support the bill — which, as we shall recall, only obligates clergy to disclose penitential communications when it comes specifically to child abuse — was akin to saying you supported pedophilia. And it was beyond me how anyone — if, for no other reason, then at least for social impression — would want to be associated with such a thing.
To my big surprise, forth came two dreary-looking men with square suits and balding heads and sat down in front of the Senate. After that moment we had just had, with the tears and the revelations and the bareness of it all — I was surprised.
I was shocked they even dared.
A balding man (I think his name was Kevin Schneider) came up and presented himself as a legislative advisor ‘for religious institutions’. Kevin made a long and vacant speech on the sanctitude of the religious confession, and reminded the senators of the First Amendment. He argued that his clergy would be choosing between criminality and spiritual peril as they were pushed to such atrocious acts as reporting child abuse to police. In his mind, working against the abuse of little kids was — apparently — paramount to ‘spiritual peril’.
They must really live in an upside- down world, I thought. So contrary to everything that the rest of society believes and holds dear.
But mr Schneider was not the only one. In fact, there were others where he came from. Seemingly out of nowhere another champion of the ‘don’t report abuse’-camp appeared at the scene — Andrew Rivas, executive director of the California Catholic conference, representing the Bishop. He went straight up to the speakers table and stated his opposition to the bill because, in his words, “It is a self-defeating bill.”
He didn’t offer anything more in the line of comments of explanations. Needless to say, the puzzled looks of the crowd assured me that it was not only I who felt this argument was nonsensical.
Senator Hanna Beth Jackson asked to speak.
“To the attorney — as I’ve mentioned earlier with respect to the second amendment — we have no amendments that are unrestricted. And certainly, the first amendment, in terms of freedom of religion — we do have laws prohibiting bigamy. And those are contrary to certain religious groups, so — there is no amendment that is without some restriction.”
A hushed cheer went through the crowd.
“The fact of the matter is”, Jackson continued, unabated. “That… we have had a plague, an epidemic, of excuses and claims of religion, which have allowed pedophiles and abusers to live in this world unfettered for far too long.”
“We have a plague of excuses that have allowed pedophiles to live in this world unfettered for far too long.”
The cheer went through the crowd again. Louder, this time. They were on our side!
“At the service of the State, I would submit”, Jackson said with an iron voice, “that it is immoral and against God’s will to abuse children. And I think it is the responsibility of the State, to do everything it can, to make sure that does not continue. I think we would be remiss in the claim that any man-made religion could supersedes the protections that we owe children in particular, in our society.”
Damn! This woman spoke the truth. And she didn’t stop, either. She punctuated each and every of the opposition’s arguments until they were nothing more than punched out balloons. And the crowd — the crowd was cheering, clapping out hands in secret, whispering, at the end of our seats. It was like watching a venetian drama, only it concerned us, it concerned life.
The two men in suits tried to retort but their arguments were tired and dreary and I don’t think they even believed them themselves. You know how you can see on someone, when they’re just arguing for something for the argument’s sake? That’s the type of sleepy wordplay these men engaged in, and it was very obvious.
“No one would go to the confession if it wasn’t completely protected”, the lawyer put forth. I scoffed in my seat. How could they not see the audacity in saying such a thing?! The audacity in saying that no one would go to the confession if they couldn’t confess to child abuse. Doesn’t that mean that everyone who goes to confession, goes there — then — to confess to child abuse? If that’s the case, I say, let’s ban the whole church. I don’t think we have room in the world no longer, for churches based on pain and abuse.
“Doesn’t that mean that everyone who goes to confession, goes there — then — to confess to child abuse?”
In the end, the bill passed. The tired men with their tired excuses were, fortunately, living so far in the past that their ideas failed to catch on with the majority of the senate. The survivors were all cheers and smiles as we left the hearing room.
However, this is only the first instance. The bill needs to go through a whole range of motions before it is finally passed into law. The next meeting takes place on the 22d of April, 2019, at 10 am. At that time the funding for the bill will be decided. And — needless to say — the more money we get, the better. Last time, this very bill did not get past the second instance.
If you can’t be there, then another great idea is to call, e-mail or visit a California representative and explain why you’re in support of SB360.
An especially important senator is Anthony Portantino, and you can contact him either through his phone number 916–651–4025 or at his e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org. We need all the people we can get to take action!