Jehovah’s Witnesses face sex abuse lawsuits via Child Victims Act

Attorney Irwin Zalkin, left, with plaintiffs John Michael Ewing and Heather Steele at a news conference in Times Square on Monday.
Attorney Irwin Zalkin, left, with plaintiffs John Michael Ewing and Heather Steele at a news conference in Times Square on Monday. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are facing at least two new lawsuits claiming the organization failed to protect children from sexual abuse.

Starting Wednesday, New York State law will allow those who say they were abused as children one year to file civil lawsuits against their alleged abusers — and the institutions that allegedly failed to take action — as part of the Child Victims Act, which passed in January.

At a news conference on Monday, John Michael Ewing, 47, and Heather Steele, 48, said they plan to file suits against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn Supreme Court on Wednesday for the sexual abuse they suffered as children growing up in the faith.

The organization “has allowed the sexual abuse of children to fester within its ranks for decades,” their attorney Irwin Zalkin claimed at the news conference. The church was headquartered in Brooklyn when the alleged abuse took place.

“Most of you have probably heard about priest abuse and clergy abuse within the Catholic Church. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been flying a little bit under the radar,” Zalkin said. “And we want to make sure that doesn’t continue.”

Ewing was 14 years old when a ministerial servant in his congregation in Florida started “grooming” him for sexual abuse, a draft of his lawsuit claims.

After a few months, the man started molesting Ewing, according to a draft of the lawsuit.

“I went through this for about three years,” Ewing recalled at Monday’s news conference. At around age 20 or 21, he told his parents, who reported it to congregation elders rather than alerting the police, he said.

Ewing and his abuser were ultimately both “disfellowshipped” — or shunned — ”for engaging in homosexual activity,” according to a draft of the lawsuit.

“I still have nightmares, [and] I’m going to be 48 this year,” Ewing said. “What I hope from all of this is that we start to hear more victims coming forward, whether they’re children, or grown adults, as I am.”

Steele, meanwhile, said her sexual abuse by an elder in her congregation in upstate Warrensburg began when she was just two or three years old, a draft of her lawsuit claims.

The abuse went on for nearly a decade, Steele said.

“I was scared to tell,” she recalled. “I did not realize there was this whole world out there that would say, ‘This isn’t right. This is not supposed to be happening.’”

Steele ended up telling her mother “accidentally,” she recalled. Her abuser was eventually temporarily disfellowshipped, and spent three-and-a-half years in prison, according to a draft of her lawsuit.

The congregation, however, unsuccessfully “pressured [her family] not to cooperate with law enforcement,” the draft of the suit claims.

“It’s not an easy situation to come out and tell this kind of story, but if it helps other girls or boys … in that congregation, or anywhere, actually, I want to do it for that purpose,” Steele said.

In a statement provided to amNewYork, the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ U.S. branch based in upstate Wallkill, declined to comment on the pending lawsuits “out of respect for the judicial process and the privacy of those involved.”

“Watchtower’s stand on the subject of child abuse is very clear: we abhor child abuse in any form,” the organization said. “Over the years, Watchtower’s publications have addressed this topic with a view to equipping parents to protect their children.”

“In addition, Watchtower’s practice is to always follow the law, and we support the efforts of elders in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses to do the same,” it added.

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