Four years ago, Fremont resident Candace Conti won a multi-million dollar suit against the Jehovah’s Witness church for allowing congregant Jonathan Kendrick to molest her as a child in the 1990s.
That case opened up a series of questions about church practices and its treatment of not only children, but women too.
As part KQED's #UsToo series, another Fremont woman and ex-Jehovah’s Witness, Georgia Browne, shares, in her own words, how she was ex-communicated from the church after she reported being raped by a congregant.
We want to warn you, this story shares details of that rape and may be disturbing to some readers.
You're Always Aware That You're Seen as a Lesser Being
"My mother was a Jehovah's Witness. She became one when I was two years old, and I remember being very involved in the church. I was in 110 percent. I did the door knocking -- you probably heard about the Witnesses knocking on the door. I did all the preaching.
Growing up in a congregation you're always aware that you are seen as a lesser being, that you have a position underneath men. Women have no position of authority in the congregation.
When I was 23 years old, I started dating a (Jehovah's) Witness boy and we’d go out to some dance clubs. There was a night in particular where I had too much to drink. Then the next thing I remember was waking up when I felt my hymen break. I just screamed because in that second I knew everything was over; it was done. I had had sex outside of marriage even though it wasn't my fault and I was a woman, so any claim I made against him, it was going to be my fault. I was drunk.
[Afterward] I remember I pulled my dress down, I actually ran out of the house. He grabbed me and he starts crying and screaming, "I'm sorry!" He eventually convinced me to go inside, and he told me was going to get help. He said he had a problem. I ended up forgiving him and holding him while he was crying that night. If you can believe it. I knew in my head no one was going to take my side in this. I've got to figure this out.
The Story of Dinah
It's a common lesson taught, the story of Dinah. They teach about it in the Bible. [It's] about a young girl who was raped by a fella and the whole thing they teach about that is, well, if she hadn't been doing that, if she hadn't been there it wouldn't have happened to her. That puts women in the position where if they are victimized, they blame themselves.
[My boyfriend and I] ended up making the decision to get married. I look back now and I’m like, "Bloody hell! Nobody in their right mind would do that!" But I know for a fact that I was not in my right mind, You’re a brainwashed individual; you will make decisions like that, and I know that I'm not the only woman who's been in that position and made that decision. It happens and it's still happening.
I stayed with him for a year and the rapes continued. In this time I'm thinking, "I want to get out of this. I need to go talk to the elders in our congregation."
I went to Kingdom Hall and I met with a group of four men in their mid-60s. I’m 24 years old and I’m terrified. So I’m trying to explain what has happened, and they want me to write out a letter, so I write down what I can, to the best of my ability. They said, "Well if you're saying that your ex did these things we need to bring him in so we can ask him to his face." I said, "No don't. Don't do that. Forget it." And they said, "We need to deliberate." So I stepped outside, and I went back in the room and they let me know that they were going to disfellowship me or excommunicate me for fornication.
My Story Isn't Singular
I don't really remember walking out of the room at that moment. I remember understanding that everything I knew, everybody I had known and loved who was in that congregation -- which was basically all of my relatives -- everyone I'd grown up with was now cut off from me. I was in their eyes, dead. There was a truck coming down the road and I'd just stepped out into the road and I was ready to just be done. But I'll tell you, honest to God what saved me was those friends that they had warned against, those people in my life that they'd said I couldn't be around, [who] were bad people because they weren't JWs. I [later] filed for divorce.
My story isn't singular. There are so many women who have gone through the process of being Jehovah's Witnesses, whether they're still in or out. I’m in recovery groups with women telling stories and I'm just like, "Oh gosh, yeah, me too."
When you are a victim you make a choice, and it's either you're going to stay a victim, or you're going to take what happened to you and you're going to learn from it, and you're going to become strong by it because you survived it. And that's what I chose. It was escape from that that gave me my life."
Georgia Browne's story was lightly edited for print.
How Common Is This?
There’s been little research on the inner workings of the Jehovah’s Witness religion, in part because of its insular nature. But Jane Fredrickson of the Faith Trust Institute, an educational resource addressing sexual and domestic violence, says all religious denominations deal with cases of sexual abuse and violence. And many of them, she says, have a hard time handling accusations properly.
Sometimes the focus is on protecting the churches' reputation or in rare cases, citing scripture. But most often church leaders, she says, don’t have a deep understanding the harm.
"It is still a very private issue in a lot of ways, particularly in a faith community where it was a high profile donor, [a] member of the faith community," says Fredrickson. "It's difficult for the faith leader to then manage that. That’s not necessarily a skill that is taught in seminary."
In 2016, the Pew Research Institute produced demographic data, showing that Jehovah’s Witnesses make up less than one percent of the U.S. population. In California, two-thirds of them are women. The religious organization has a low retention rate relative to other U.S. religious groups, according to Pew. Sixty-six percent of adults raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses no longer identify with the group.
The Jehovah’s Witness church has not responded to our repeated attempts for comment.
However, according to the JW website, while the church condemns sexual assault, it also puts the onus on the victim to ward off sexual advances. For instance, the church instructs women who are in the midst of a rape to scream or put up a fight. Only then is it considered rape in the eyes of the church.
Paul Grundy, a former JW member and creator of JWfacts.com, says it's important to note that overall JWs are not abiding by these rules out of malice.
"Jehovah Witnesses are generally exceptionally nice people that stick by a strict moral code," says Grundy. "However, when situations of abuse occur, the way the religion handles it has been very poor. They stick to some arcane rules based on naive interpretation of the Bible, and concentrate on protecting the reputation of the organization."
Grundy says court cases have shown that this is often to the detriment of victims like Browne.