A jury ruling this week that the Jehovah's Witnesses must pay $35 million to a woman who says the church covered up her childhood sexual abuse puts a rare public spotlight on the normally insular religious organization, experts say.
The penalty, handed down by a Montana jury on Wednesday, will go to a 21-year-old woman who accused the Jehovah's Witnesses' national organization of telling local clergy members not to report her abuser, a relative who she and another woman say molested them and a third family member. The church plans to appeal.
The case was just one of dozens filed nationwide over the past decade alleging Jehovah's Witness officials have mishandled sexual abuse of children, including a $13.5 million award by a San Diego judge in 2014 to a man who was abused by a church leader when he was seven years old.
Many of the allegations have surfaced as other religious groups, such as the Catholic church, have wrestled with similar abuse claims. But bringing up such accusations in the Jehovah's Witness community comes with an extra set of challenges, religious scholars say.
"In terms of reporting complaints or misbehavior or abuse, there's what they call the 'two-witness rule,' which means that, for example, if I were abused, I would need another witness to come forward to corroborate that," said Mathew Schmalz, an associate professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "Because of this, it's very difficult to get corroborating evidence of any kind of abuse complaint."
The two-witness rule is only for internal modes of discipline and does not prevent a victim from going to the police, Schmalz added.
But the fear of being ostracized from the tight-knit community also prevents members from speaking out.
"There are very strict internal modes of discipline within Jehovah's Witnesses and I know Jehovah's Witnesses who have been shunned or what they call disfellowshipped, and that’s an incredibly painful experience," he said.
Experts say Jehovah's Witnesses are a misunderstood and very self-enclosed group, despite counting some celebrities among its ranks — including Venus and Serena Williams.
Perhaps best known for going door-to-door to preach their beliefs, the New York-based religion has nearly 8.5 members worldwide — far fewer than the more than 1.2 billion Catholics in the world — and unlike in Catholicism, where bishops are often well-known, prominent figures, Jehovah's Witness leaders are not typically known to the public.
"They are an eccentric group in the sense that they separate themselves from public life," said Mark Silk, a professor and the director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. "They don't vote. They don't celebrate birthdays and holidays. They don't say the pledge [of allegiance]. They are not just another Christian denomination."
All of these tenets, plus their other beliefs, stem from a strict, often literal interpretation of the Bible and the belief that the Jehovah's Witnesses organization is "God's organization on Earth," according to Schmalz.
"Whatever belief they have or mode of internal discipline they have, they have a biblical justification for it," he said.
In keeping with their penchant for privacy, the church issued only a brief, unsigned statement after Wednesday's verdict, according to the Associated Press.
"Jehovah's Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts. Watchtower is pursuing appellate review," the Office of Public Information at the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses said in a statement.