'I was dead to them': How Lara escaped the Jehovah's Witnesses 'cult'

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Three decades ago Jodi*'s family were searching for a better life for themselves and their four children, well away from the gritty inner-city high rise apartment they called home.

The family packed up their belongings and moved to rural Victoria where they planned to start anew.

Then one morning a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses knocked on the door to spread the word of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. That was when Jodi's nightmare began.

"These nice people were promising a community with no drugs, no alcohol and no crime - it sounded very appealing," said Jodi, who asked that her name be withheld.

"They love bomb you. They sell you this vision of a perfect community. It is anything but. It's indoctrination. It's a cult, it really is. But they convince you it's a religion."

The Jehovah's Witness church and its overarching body, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, came to the attention of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse with a 2015 case study hearing more than 1000 allegations of paedophilia had been made against the organisation over 60 years yet not one complaint was reported to police.

This echoes Jodi's experience. Now 35, she says she was abused by a church elder and his daughter when she was eight years old. When she was 13 she mustered up the courage to report the abuse to church authorities but was not believed and branded a liar. She left the church shortly after.

"They preach love but they don't show love," she said.

Another former member, Lara Kaput, describes the Jehovah's Witnesses as "cruel".

Ms Kaput, 44, was raised in a Jehovah's Witness family in Victoria where close contact with people outside the church was discouraged, women were taught to obey men and the teachings of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society were unquestioned.

She left the Jehovah's Witnesses when she was 19 and was shunned by the community. Over the past 25 years she's had only sporadic contact with family members who are still involved in the church.

"You are ostracised from your entire family and friend network," she said. "Prior to (leaving) they incorporated me as a regular family member. After that I was dead to them."

Ms Kaput has launched a campaign on change.org to have charity regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission, investigate the organisation.

"This is not an organisation which should have charitable status," she said.

Nor is it a safe organisation for children, the royal commission determined when it handed down its findings into the institution last year.

Shine Lawyers principal Lisa Flynn specialises in institutional sexual abuse and describes the culture of Jehovah's Witness church as deeply problematic.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses have many practices and policies which create a perfect storm for child abuse," she said.

Ms Flynn describes the organisation as "controlling, insular and isolating".

"Anyone who complains faces the risk of being shunned and isolated from their families and friends and the way of life they have known," she said. "That makes people very reluctant to report abuse."

And those who do report face hurdles such as the "two witness rule" which requires two eye witnesses to an allegation, having to confront the alleged abuser and giving evidence to a panel of male elders.

"It's often the case that no action is taken," she said. "That leads to a climate where a perpetrator is free to go off and continue perpetrating."

Following the royal commission's hearing, Jehovah's Witnesses leaders promised to reform the organisation's child protection policies and procedures.

But on Friday the commission heard the Jehovah's Witnesses have failed to address many recommendations which would make the organisation safer for children.

The commission was told the organisation, which has 67,000 Australian followers, has "reviewed, clarified, refined and consolidated" its policies on child sexual abuse to ensure "as far as possible" the safety of children.

Counsel assisting the commission Angus Stewart SC said, despite this: "The Jehovah's Witnesses have failed to address many of the recommendations (from the commission)."

The commission has referred information about 514 alleged perpetrators within the Jehovah's Witnesses to the police since the initial hearing.

Terrence O'Brien, a director of Watchtower Australia, told the hearing allegations of child sexual abuse are reported to the police. The commission heard the Jehovah's Witnesses have referred a further 15 allegations to police since 2015.

Senior minister with Watchtower Australia Rodney Spinks??? said: "We've taken the recommendations of the royal commission seriously."

Jodi, who now lives in Queensland, still bears the scars from her experience with the Jehovah's Witnesses.

"I still sleep with the light on and my dog on the bed," she said. "My little fox terrier is ancient and missing half her teeth but I feel safer with her on the bed beside me. I still have nightmares."

The hearing into the Jehovah's Witnesses, before Justice Peter McClellan, has adjourned.

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This story 'I was dead to them': How Lara escaped the Jehovah's Witnesses 'cult' first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.