She was 14, and at first, the attention felt innocent — like any other friendly interaction Moriah Smith had with fellow Jehovah's Witnesses during worship meetings.
Smith didn't think anything of the casual conversations she was having with Elihu Rodriguez, a 25-year-old man in her Seattle-area congregation. When he started giving her gifts, like new clothing and a cell phone, Smith — who was taught through her religion that sex is only between a husband and wife — did not think she was being groomed for sexual abuse.
Smith says it was in October 2012, five days before her 15th birthday, that Rodriguez had sex with her in the bedroom of the house she lived in with her father, a respected Jehovah's Witness elder. More sexual abuse followed for the next three months, she said. Ridden by panic attacks but ashamed and confused by what was happening, Smith didn't tell anyone, including her family, what was going on.
"I didn't understand anything really about sex," Smith, now 20, said. "I also had the fear of disappointing God. Not only that, but I could potentially be shunned."
The following year, Smith moved to Fairfield, Washington. Although she still did not feel comfortable disclosing to her parents — who she says did ultimately cut off contact with her when they found out years later what she endured in her prior congregation — she worked up the courage to report it to three elders at the Fairfield Kingdom Hall.
The elders "basically told me that it was my fault. They told me that I wasn't sorry enough to God for what I had done," said Smith, who has since left the religion and works in the Spokane, Washington, area as an administrative assistant at a private medical company. "They talked about putting Jehovah first, putting God first in your life, and I wasn't, apparently, doing that to their standards."
How the Jehovah's Witnesses handle sex abuse claims
In the tight-knit Jehovah's Witness community, outsiders, including authorities, are often viewed suspiciously, according to religious scholars. As a result, accusations of any sort between members of the congregation are typically first dealt with through an internal judicial process — one that requires two witnesses to a crime to prove guilt, a tenet that's in keeping with the Witnesses' strict, often literal interpretation of the Bible.
The religion's handling of abuse claims has recently come under fire. In the past decade, there have been at least 30 lawsuits nationwide against the organization arising from its responses to childhood sex abuse, and a jury award of $35 million on Sept. 26 to a Montana woman who claimed the congregation covered up the abuse she suffered at the hands of a congregation member as a child put a rare spotlight on the insular religion.
In Smith's case, she said the elders she reported to privately reproved her, Jehovah's Witnesses' quiet way of denying wrongdoers in the congregation of certain privileges. Rodriguez was not punished, she said.
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"They had used the Bible to victim-shame me for what I had done, and they never did anything to him."
"They had used the Bible to victim-shame me for what I had done, and they never did anything to him," Smith said. "He got married, and he remained within the congregation — a child molester living among them."
Smith's allegations led to charges against Rodriguez. NBC News verified the details of her claims through charging documents filed in King County Superior Court in Washington in July; in addition to rape of a child in the third degree for what allegedly happened with Smith, Rodriguez was also charged with rape of a child in the second degree involving a 12- or 13-year-old Jehovah's Witness girl he allegedly had a relationship with around the same time.
When reached by phone, Rodriguez repeatedly told NBC News that he had no comment. He has not entered a plea in the case.
The Office of Public Information at the World Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses responded to last month's Montana jury verdict with a brief statement that said Jehovah's Witnesses "abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts," while adding it planned to appeal the $35 million fine.