A man who pleaded guilty to raping two underage girls he met through the Jehovah's Witness congregation they all belonged to has been sentenced to five years in prison — a "relief" to his victims.
Elihu Rodriguez, 32, of Yakima, Washington, was given five years, the maximum sentence prosecutors had asked for, after Rodriguez pleaded guilty to three felony counts of child rape in the third degree in September. He was also ordered to register as a sex offender. Both of his victims attended the sentencing, which took place Friday at the King County Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, Washington.
NBC News does not typically identify survivors of sexual abuse, but one of Rodriguez's victims, Moriah Hughes, chose to share her story last year. She said she had been five days away from turning 15 when Rodriguez, then 25, first raped her in October 2012 at her home in Federal Way, Washington.
Hughes told NBC News after Rodriguez was sentenced that she "felt fantastic" knowing he was going to be behind bars.
"It’s finally over. This chapter is finally closed," she said. "I can continue my life knowing that the trauma was worth it. I didn’t go through this for nothing. I was justified."
At Rodriguez's sentencing, Hughes described to the court how her life was "completely derailed" by the abuse. Through tears, she said religious leaders put the blame on her, and said, “my life was hell.”
"I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat and when I did I was so on edge, the smallest upset would cause me to purge whatever I had consumed into the nearest toilet," Hughes, 22, said in a victim impact statement, adding that she was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and that something as benign-seeming as cologne that smelled like Rodriguez's would cause her to have a debilitating panic attack.
At one point, Hughes said at the sentencing, she was so crippled by depression, she contemplated ending her life. She told the court that she wrote a suicide note last year to her friends and family "apologizing for not being stronger, begging someone to 'please, love my cat, Goose.'"
Hughes had become friendly with Rodriguez at worship meetings associated with their congregation, which was based in Milton, Washington. She said when he started giving her gifts, such as new clothing and a cellphone, Hughes — who was taught through her religion that sex is only between a husband and wife — had no idea she was being groomed for sexual abuse. She says he raped her at least six times over the course of several months.
Hughes said she felt ashamed and confused by what was happening, and at first did not tell anyone.
But when she moved to Fairfield, Washington, about a year later, she worked up the courage to report it to three elders at her congregation there. In both her interview with NBC News and in the victim impact statement that she read in court, Hughes said that there were times when she doubted Rodriguez would be ever be disciplined.
The elders she reported the rape to "basically told me that it was my fault. They told me that I wasn't sorry enough to God … They had used the Bible to victim-shame me for what I had done, and they never did anything to him," Hughes told NBC News in October 2018, weeks after a jury in a separate case awarded $35 million to a Montana woman who claimed Jehovah's Witnesses covered up the abuse she suffered at the hands of a congregation member as a child. (Two months ago, an attorney for the Jehovah’s Witnesses asked the Montana Supreme Court to reverse the $35 million verdict; the court did not make an immediate ruling).
Hughes filed charges through the King County Superior Court in Washington in July 2018. The three felony charges Rodriguez pleaded guilty to a couple months ago encompassed the abuse against Hughes, as well as against a 12- or 13-year-old Jehovah's Witness girl he allegedly had a relationship with around the same time.
"They had used the Bible to victim-shame me for what I had done, and they never did anything to him."
Press officers for the Jehovah’s Witnesses have not commented on Rodriguez’s arrest or conviction. Last year, when Hughes disclosed the allegations of abuse to NBC News, the Office of Public Information at the World Headquarters said in an email that "it would be inappropriate for us to comment on specific cases."
Hughes has since left the religion and works in the Spokane, Washington, area as an administrative assistant at a private medical company. She originally spoke to NBC News under her married name, Smith, but has since got divorced and now uses her maiden name.
Gregory L. Scott, Rodriguez's Yakima-based attorney, told NBC News that Rodriguez is "extremely remorseful."
For Hughes, remorse is not enough. She is working with attorney Irwin Zalkin, whose San Diego law firm has been litigating against Jehovah's Witnesses across the country for nearly two decades, to file a civil suit against the Jehovah's Witnesses. Zalkin said he is likely to file the suit in the coming month.
"Do I feel that they have a practice of protecting predators? Absolutely."
"Do I feel that they have a practice of protecting predators? Absolutely. Not a question," Zalkin said. "They have no clue about grooming. They have no training or understanding of how sexual predators work."
Zalkin has brought more than 30 lawsuits against the Jehovah's Witnesses related to claims of childhood sexual abuse, about a third of which have successfully ended in settlements, he said. Zalkin said the upcoming civil suit will likely name the congregation where Hughes' abuse occurred, the congregation where she reported it, as well as the Governing Body of Jehovah's Witnesses, among other entities.
There was no response to calls from NBC News this week from the congregations.
The public information desk for the U.S. branch of Jehovah's Witnesses told NBC News in an email that "child protection is a priority for Jehovah’s Witnesses," calling child sexual abuse "a gross sin and a wicked deed."
"Governed by the law of the Christ, our congregations do not shield perpetrators of abuse from the consequences of their sins," it said.
"Elders endeavor to comply with secular laws about reporting allegations of abuse. Such laws do not conflict with God’s law. So when they learn of an allegation, elders immediately seek direction on how they can comply with laws about reporting it," the statement said.
Hughes said she hopes by taking legal action against the Jehovah's Witnesses, she can prevent what happened to her from happening to anyone else.
"That would be really awesome," she said. "It's a good thing coming from a bad thing."
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.