March 26, 2019

A former Jehovah’s Witness is using stolen documents to expose allegations that the religion has kept hidden for decades.

In March 1997, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses, sent a letter to each of its 10,883 U.S. congregations, and to many more congregations worldwide. The organization was concerned about the legal risk posed by possible child molesters within its ranks. The letter laid out instructions on how to deal with a known predator: Write a detailed report answering 12 questions—Was this a onetime occurrence, or did the accused have a history of child molestation? How is the accused viewed within the community? Does anyone else know about the abuse?—and mail it to Watchtower’s headquarters in a special blue envelope. Keep a copy of the report in your congregation’s confidential file, the instructions continued, and do not share it with anyone.

Thus did the Jehovah’s Witnesses build what might be the world’s largest database of undocumented child molesters: at least two decades’ worth of names and addresses—likely numbering in the tens of thousands—and detailed acts of alleged abuse, most of which have never been shared with law enforcement, all scanned and searchable in a Microsoft SharePoint file. In recent decades, much of the world’s attention to allegations of abuse has focused on the Catholic Church and other religious groups. Less notice has been paid to the abuse among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian sect with more than 8.5 million members. Yet all this time, Watchtower has refused to comply with multiple court orders to release the information contained in its database and has paid millions of dollars over the years to keep it secret, even from the survivors whose stories are contained within.

That effort has been remarkably successful—until recently.

A white Priority Mail box filled with manila envelopes sits on the floor of Mark O’Donnell’s wood-paneled home office, on the outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland. Mark, 51, is the owner of an exercise-equipment repair business and a longtime Jehovah’s Witness who quietly left the religion in late 2013. Soon after, he became known to ex–Jehovah’s Witnesses as John Redwood, an activist and a blogger who reports on the various controversies, including cases of child abuse, surrounding Watchtower. (Recently, he has begun using his own name.)

When I first met Mark, in May of last year, he appeared at the front door of his modest home in the same outfit he nearly always wears: khaki cargo shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, white sneakers, and sweat socks pulled up over his calves. He invited me into his densely furnished office, where a fan barely dispelled the wafting smell of cat food. He pulled an envelope from the Priority Mail box and passed me its contents, a mixture of typed and handwritten letters discussing various sins allegedly committed by members of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Massachusetts. All the letters in the box had been stolen by an anonymous source inside the religion and shared with Mark. The sins described in the letters ranged from the mundane—smoking pot, marital infidelity, drunkenness—to the horrifying. Slowly, over the past couple of years, Mark has been leaking the most damning contents of the box, much of which is still secret.

Mark’s eyebrows are permanently arched, and when he makes an important point, he peers out above his rimless glasses, eyes widened, which lends him a conspiratorial air.

“Start with these,” he said.

Among the papers Mark showed me that day was a series of letters about a man from Springfield, Massachusetts, who had been disfellowshipped—a form of excommunication—three times. When the man was once again reinstated, in 2008, someone working in a division of Watchtower wrote to his congregation, noting that in 1989 he was said to have “allowed his 11-year-old stepdaughter to touch his penis … on at least two occasions.”

I was struck by the oddness of the language. It insinuated that the man had agreed to, rather than initiated, the sexual contact with his stepdaughter.

After I left Mark’s house, I tracked down the stepdaughter, now 40. In fact, she told me, she had been only 8 when her stepfather had molested her. “He was the adult and I was the kid, so I thought I didn’t have any choice,” she said. She was terrified, she told me. “It took me two years to go to my mom about it.”

Her mother immediately went to the congregation’s elders, who later called the girl and her stepfather in to pray with them. She remembers it as a humiliating experience.

Her stepfather was eventually disfellowshipped for instances that involved “fornication,” “drunkenness,” and “lying,” according to the letters. But according to the stepdaughter, his alleged molestation of her resulted only in his being “privately reproved,” a closed-door reprimand that is usually accompanied by a temporary loss of privileges, such as not being allowed to offer comments during Bible study or lead a prayer. The letters make no reference to police being notified; the stepdaughter said her mother was encouraged to keep the matter private, and no attempt was made to keep the stepfather away from other children. (Calls to the congregation’s Kingdom Hall—the Witness version of a church—for comment went unanswered.)

By the time the letters were written, the man was attending a different congregation and had married another woman with children; he is still part of that family today. Near the end of the final letter in Mark’s possession is a question: “Is there any responsibility on the part of either body of elders … to inform his current wife of his past history of child molestation?”

Mark O’Donnell’s childhood was an isolated one. His parents, Jerry and Susan, had started attending Jehovah’s Witness meetings in the mid-1960s. Another couple from Baltimore had told them of Watchtower’s prediction that the world would end in 1975, bringing death to all non-Witnesses and transforming Earth into a paradise for the faithful. In 1968, just after Mark was born, Jerry and Susan were group-baptized in a swimming pool in Washington, D.C. Mark was an only child, and he inherited his father’s peculiar love of record-keeping. Mark would show up to meetings at the Kingdom Hall with a briefcase full of religious texts.

As in any religion, there’s some variation among Jehovah’s Witnesses in how strictly they interpret the teachings that govern their faith; Mark’s upbringing seems to have been especially stringent. As a child, he attended at least five meetings a week, plus several hours of private Bible study. On Saturday mornings, he joined his parents in “field service,” knocking on doors in search of converts. He was taught that most people outside the organization were corrupted by Satan and, given the chance, would try to steal from him, drug him, or rape him. Mainstream books and magazines were considered the work of Satan. If he broke any of the religion’s main rules, he could be disfellowshipped, meaning even his own family would have to shun him.

Throughout Mark’s childhood, he heard elders cite Proverbs 13:24: “Whoever holds back his rod hates his son.” Mark’s parents took the lesson to heart and beat him frequently. The religion forbids celebrating birthdays, voting, serving in the military, and accepting blood transfusions, even in life-and-death situations. Witnesses were encouraged to devote themselves to bringing more converts into the religion before the end of the world arrived. “Reports are heard of brothers selling their homes and property” to spend their last days proselytizing, said a Watchtower publication in 1974. “Certainly this is a fine way to spend the short time remaining before the wicked world’s end.” Some Witnesses stopped going to the doctor, quit their jobs, or ran up debt.

But piety, Mark noticed, did not always translate to morality. When he was 12, Mark became suspicious of a local Witness named Louis Ongsingco, a flight attendant who would bring home Toblerone bars for the local Witness kids and invite them to his apartment to act out religious plays. Mark noticed Ongsingco touching young girls in a way that made him uncomfortable. He told an elder about his concerns. But rather than take action against Ongsingco, the elder told him what Mark had said. Days later, Ongsingco pulled Mark aside and scolded him.

Mark’s instincts seem to have been right. In 2001, one of Mark’s childhood friends, Erin Michelle Shifflett, along with four other women, sued Ongsingco for sexual assault. The cases were settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Ongsingco died in 2016.

To Mark, the lesson was that for all the emphasis the elders placed on moral purity, there was no greater sin than speaking out against other Witnesses.