For the past two years, Reveal reporter Trey Bundy has been uncovering how the Jehovah’s Witnesses hide child sexual abuse in their congregations – in fact, it’s official policy. The religion’s leaders have been going to extreme lengths to keep the details from public view.

On this episode of Reveal, we track down people who know the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ secrets and expose stories behind a religion with 8 million followers across the globe.

We begin in San Diego, where Trey meets an attorney trying to get access to a Jehovah’s Witnesses database containing the names and whereabouts of likely thousands of accused child abusers within the organization – living freely in communities across the U.S.

Later in the hour, we hear from a victim who tells us how the threat of being banished from their communities keeps members from reporting abuse.

Trey’s investigation also takes him to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, the Watchtower, where the culture of secrecy goes far beyond child abuse – it’s a core part of life. Watchtower leaders have refused to talk to Trey, but a former insider told him some of their secrets.

Finally, host Al Letson sits down with Trey to talk about why the FBI or police haven’t just stormed the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters and taken their child abuse files by force.

Note: This episode deals with sexual abuse and might be disturbing for some listeners.



Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

  • Camerado, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Boards of Canada, “Peacock Tail” from “The Campfire Headphase” (Warp Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “cue 001”
  • Jim Briggs, “new sessions 002”
  • Jim Briggs, “watchtower prelude”
  • Jim Briggs, “new sessions 004b”
  • Jim Briggs, “new sessions 002”
  • Jim Briggs, “new sessions 005”
  • Jim Briggs, “new sessions 006”
  • Jim Briggs, “new sessions 007”
  • Jim Briggs, “more pussyfooting_stripped”
  • Jim Briggs, “cue 001”
  • Squarepusher, “My Sound” from “Music Is Rotted One Note” (Warp Records)
  • dustmotes, “Gather” from “What We Left Behind” (Dusted Wax Kingdom)
  • Gold Panda, “S950” from “Half Of Where You Live” (Ghostly International)
  • Ezekiel Honig, “Between Bridges” from “Folding In On Itself” (Type Records)
  • KILN, “Inthmus” from “Idol Tryouts Two Ghostly International Vol. 2” (Ghostly International)
  • Chris Zabriskie, “I Should Have Been More Human” from “Music from Neptune Flux”
  • Chris Zabriskie, “Your Mother’s Daughter” from “Music from Neptune Flux”
  • Marceau, “Newlong” from “Marceau Live at Kanal 103”
  • Blue Dot Sessions, “Galaxy Shard” from “Marble Run”
  • Lobo Loco, “Isle of the little branches” from “Nice Nowhere”
  • The Alps, “A Manhã No Praia” from “III” (Type Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “new sessions 004”
  • Jim Briggs, “new sessions 002”
  • Jim Briggs, “new sessions 001b”


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Reveal reporter Trey Bundy has been after a batch of secret documents for more than two years, and now he’s closer to them than ever before. He’s in a law office in San Diego and standing just a few feet from some of those documents.
Trey Bundy: Are they in this office?
Irwin Zalkin: Yes.
Trey Bundy: Can you show them to me?
Irwin Zalkin: No.
Al Letson: That’s attorney Irwin Zalkin. He represents victims of childhood sexual abuse by members of a global religion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Irwin Zalkin: All I can really say is we have the documents. I can’t say what’s in them. I can’t even reference how many of the documents, how much, numbers, or anything like that.
Al Letson: Irwin got the files as part of a lawsuit against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While he can look at them, he can’t show them to anyone else, not even the police.
Irwin Zalkin: We literally have to keep those under lock and key.
Al Letson: The Jehovah’s Witnesses only turned them over on the condition that they remain secret. A judge agreed and ordered Irwin not to share them with anyone else. Here’s why that’s dangerous. You see, these files could contain information about thousands of child abusers within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, predators living freely in communities across the country. How has this religious group managed to keep these documents and the secrets they contain under wraps for almost 20 years? That’s what Trey set out to learn. He picks up the story back in Irwin Zalkin’s San Diego office.
Before I get going, I should tell you that this episode deals with sexual abuse and might be disturbing for some listeners.
Irwin Zalkin: Come on in. Jose, why don’t you have a seat? Let’s talk about your case a little bit and see where we’re at.
Trey Bundy: Irwin’s talking to one of his clients, Jose Lopez. As a kid, Jose was sexually abused by a Jehovah’s Witness.
Irwin Zalkin: We have the-
Trey Bundy: They’re combing through documents in a small, generic conference room at Irwin’s office. They’re discussing what could happen with Jose’s case. Jose’s in his 30s, and you can hear from his voice, he sounds anxious.
Jose Lopez: Yeah. Mr. Zalkin, I had a question. What do you think’s going to happen after the judge comes forward with her decision?
Irwin Zalkin: Yeah. Well, I think that there’s a good chance that The Watchtower’s going to file an appeal.
Trey Bundy: The Watchtower. You’re going to hear us use that term a lot. That’s the name the Jehovah’s Witnesses have for their global headquarters in Brooklyn. Jose says a man named Gonzalo Campos abused him. Gonzalo was a Jehovah’s Witness in San Diego. Jose says Gonzalo groomed him for abuse during Bible study sessions.
Jose Lopez: One time, he sat me in his lap and showed me the book and was talking to me, socializing, being friendly. That’s how I really saw it, as him just trying to be more close and friendly with me.
Trey Bundy: But it went much further. Gonzalo sexually abused Jose, who was seven years old at the time. By the time this happened, Jehovah’s Witness leaders already knew Gonzalo had been abusing kids. We know that because local elders admitted to it.
Jose Lopez: The Watchtower or the organization, I think they should have contacted the authorities and had this guy behind bars.
Trey Bundy: But they didn’t. Here’s Irwin at a news conference about the case.
Irwin Zalkin: The Watchtower and its agents, elders of the congregation, its local congregation, Linda Vista, Spanish congregation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses knew that they had a dangerous child sexual predator within their organization.
Trey Bundy: Not only did they fail to call the police, they actually promoted Gonzalo to the position of elder after they learned about the abuse.
Irwin Zalkin: At that time, that entire time frame, he was abusing at least eight children that we know of, that we know of.
Trey Bundy: Irwin knows the abuse happened because Gonzalo admitted to it during a court deposition back in 2011. We have a tape from that deposition. In it, the Jehovah’s Witness lawyer is interviewing Gonzalo through an interpreter.
Gonzalo Campos: [foreign language 00:04:50].
Speaker 6: I had problems with … for having tried to touch him inappropriately.
Speaker 7: When you say, “Tried to touch him inappropriately,” you mean in a sexual manner?
Gonzalo Campos: Si.
Speaker 6: Yes.
Speaker 7: Okay. Did the elders talk to you after this incident had taken place?
Gonzalo Campos: [foreign language 00:05:10].
Speaker 6: I remember that they did.
Trey Bundy: Local leaders knew Gonzalo had abused kids. They reported that to Jehovah’s Witness headquarters in Brooklyn, but not to the police. Years later though, many of Gonzalo’s victims did turn to Irwin Zalkin. He’d made news for taking on another religion over child sex abuse, the Catholic church.
Back in 2007, Irwin negotiated a $200 million settlement for more than 100 people abused by clergy. He started getting calls from people saying they had been abused in all sorts of institutions, like universities and the Boy Scouts. About a dozen of them came from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. Irwin prepared to fight a new opponent in court.
Irwin Zalkin: When you, as a human being, see the amount of harm that abuse, in particular sexual abuse, does to a child, it derails them for the rest of their life. It is an intrinsic, insidious injury that they will not get over. It will be with them forever, and it impacts them at every stage of their life, and it’s horrible.
Trey Bundy: When he’s not in court, Irwin looks more like a college professor than a lawyer, slim with glasses, wears jeans to work. He’s soft-spoken when he’s describing the intricacies of a case, but get him going on child abuse, and his voice drops like a sledgehammer, a perfect tool for cross-examining witnesses. Listen to him explain the way Jehovah’s Witnesses handle child abuse.
Irwin Zalkin: Keep your mouth shut. Do not go to law enforcement. You come to us first. Don’t you tell anybody. You never tell another congregant. You don’t warn parents in the congregation. We’ll decide what happens here.
Trey Bundy: Because the abuse isn’t reported to police when it happens, most of the abusers are never prosecuted and never go to jail. That’s because the statute of limitations has run out. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ secrecy around child abuse is part of their religion. They say the Bible tells them to keep authorities in the dark about child abuse.
This is probably a good time to explain more about this religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses consider themselves Christian. Part of their faith is spreading the word of God to others, knocking on doors, warning people about Armageddon.
Speaker 8: Sickness and death. Poverty and disaster. How could a loving God be responsible for all of this? What the Bible says may surprise you. It says, “The evil one controls the whole world.”
Trey Bundy: That’s from one of their preachings. When they say, “Evil one,” they mean Satan.
Speaker 8: The good news is the Bible says things will not always be like this.
Trey Bundy: Armageddon is coming. To earn their place in the afterlife, Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught to avoid the outside world. They don’t vote or serve in the military, and they usually don’t go to college.
Speaker 8: Where can we find answers? What if the answers have been lit up all along in the Bible?
Trey Bundy: They say the Bible teaches them that child abuse, child abuse, is a confidential matter. We know this because we have their memos. They read like a mashup of corporate policy and Bible verse, and they tell elders to hide child sexual abuse from police. Here’s what they tell them to do. First, when elders learn about abuse, they have to immediately call The Watchtower’s legal department, no one else, not law enforcement, not other members of their congregations.
Irwin Zalkin: Written, demanded, commanded policy, very different. The Catholic church, it was this unwritten. They called it “viva voce,” by voice only. They didn’t have it written down anywhere. It was just understood. Here, it’s in writing. There’s no question.
Trey Bundy: Second, when an elder learns of a child abuser in his congregation, he has to send a report to headquarters in writing.
Irwin Zalkin: These reports were to be prepared and sent to Watchtower in a sealed, specially marked, confidential, blue envelope.
Trey Bundy: That’s what I’m after. These are the documents I’ve been stalking for two years, almost two decades worth of records that show the names and whereabouts of what are likely thousands of child abusers across the U.S.
Irwin Zalkin: I think the fact that there are known molesters that are-
Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 – 00:10:04]
Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Irwin: Known molesters that are participating in congregation activities where there are children involved and parents who aren’t aware of that is a high risk situation.
Trey Bundy: I actually got ahold of one of these documents a couple of years ago. It’s a simple one-page form with nine questions exactly like the documents Irwin has now.
Irwin: For example they wanted to know how long ago did he commit the sin? What was his age at that time? What was the age of the victim? Was it a one-time occurrence or a practice? If it was a practice to what extent? How is he viewed in the community and by the authorities?
Trey Bundy: While Irwin was working on the Jose Lopez case he got an idea. If he could get his hands on what’s inside all of those blue envelopes he might be able to show that his cases pointed to a massive cover-up, so he went to court to get the entire data base of child abuse documents. This is where the Jehovah’s Witnesses really dug in. First they said the job of compiling the documents was too big for their offices to handle.
Richard Ash: Honestly Mr. Zalkin the efforts that we’ve made up to this point is just trying to figure how on earth we could ever do that in our filing system.
Trey Bundy: That’s Richard Ash, a senior Watchtower official. He wouldn’t talk to me, but he had to talk to Irwin as part of a lawsuit. This is taped from that deposition.
Richard Ash: You’re talking about 14,400 congregations and over 3 million documents that have been scanned in that would have to be searched. It would take years to do that.
Trey Bundy: Irwin believed Richard was just making excuses to withhold the documents so he brought in a software expert. That expert testified that the Watchtower should be able to search their files in as little as two days. The judge ordered them to produce the documents.
Irwin: They refused. They simply refused to do it.
Trey Bundy: The Jehovah’s Witnesses fought the order all the way to the California Supreme Court.
Irwin: The Supreme Court, I mean in a matter of days, just turned around and said, “No. Produce.” They didn’t. They defied the trial court, they defied the court of appeals, and they defied the California Supreme Court. They willfully refused to produce the documents.
Trey Bundy: This is not normal. A defendant in a law suit just flat out refusing an order that’s been upheld by the state supreme court. Irwin had a choice. He could ask the judge to hold the Watchtower in contempt of court or he could go big and ask the judge for something called terminating sanctions. That’s where the judge throws one side out of court and decides the case solely on the evidence of the other side.
Irwin: In other words, we win. Period.
Trey Bundy: Irwin’s plan worked, and the judge awarded Jose Lopez 13.5 million dollars. Irwin talked to reporters about the decision.
Irwin: Documents that go back decades that shows the depth and the breadth of their knowledge of child predators within their organizations. Child molesters within their organization. They refused to produce those documents and for that reason, for that reason, they were sanctioned by this court and their defense was terminated.
Trey Bundy: Obviously they’re appealing that.
Irwin: They did appeal it.
Trey Bundy: But still that’s a lot of risk. They’re risking 13.5 million dollars not to produce these documents.
Irwin: Right, they did they took that risk.
Trey Bundy: And it’s a risk they took again in Irwin’s next case. This time it cost them 4 million dollars.
Irwin: They made a business decision not to produce these documents and that case got terminated too and it’s on appeal.
Trey Bundy: It looked like this was their game plan. Hide the child abuse files at any cost. If necessary pay millions of dollars in judgments`, but don’t let anyone see the documents. Then something kind of unbelievable happened. The Jehovah’s Witnesses gave in and Irwin’s next case they agreed to hand over the documents. They’d finally cracked and Irwin would get the files. When they started rolling in, something was wrong. The names of all the alleged abusers were blacked out and Irwin only got four years of documents. There were another fifteen years he was supposed to get. He went back to the judge who demanded that the Jehovah’s Witnesses turn over all the documents with the names. They refused and the court ordered them to pay a fine of $4,000 a day until they complied.
It’s crazy to think that an organization hiding crimes against children could just thumb its nose at courts like this. But so far the Jehovah’s Witnesses have gotten away with it. They’re are multi billion dollar corporation, so maybe millions in damages doesn’t scare them.
Irwin: I think that on some level they’re aiding and abetting these perpetrators. It’s a public safety issue. At this point this needs to be investigated.
Trey Bundy: Irwin isn’t giving up but he has hit a wall. This is a guy who for years has wanted nothing more than to expose the Jehovah’s Witnesses child abuse files and now that he’s finally got some of them, he’s legally bound to hide them from the public, from me. A while back he called me after work to tell me how his cases were going. He said it was getting to him, that he was sitting on so much horrible information. So many documents describing the abuse of children. He sounded tired.
Irwin: It’s frustrating, it’s very frustrating to have seen what I’ve seen and to know what is going on in this institution and this organization, it’s very frustrating when I’ve got a gag in my mouth. It’s pretty hard. We’re trying our best to expose this truth and they’re doing everything they can to interfere with that effort. Block that effort.
Al Letson: Right now Irwin has 18 lawsuits pending against Jehovah’s Witnesses and he’s back in court on the Jose Lopez case. An appeals court ruled that the judge should not have kicked the Jehovah’s Witnesses out of court without trying a less extreme method for getting the child abuse documents. Irwin still wants those files and so do we. We’ll get back to that later in the show, but first, how can a religion with eight million members keep everyone quiet about child abuse?
Female: I had been told throughout the proceedings don’t speak of this, it’s a confidential matter, the congregation doesn’t need to know this, and if you talk about it, that’s grounds for dis-fellowshipping.
Al Letson: What dis-fellowshipping means and how the Jehovah’s Witnesses use it, when we come back on Reveal from the Center for Investigating Reporting and PRX.
Julia: Hey there, Julia B. Chan here, Reveal’s digital editor. It’s that time again, when we start looking back at the year behind us and start making lists. Right now I’m working on collecting people’s favorite stories and moments from Reveal and that includes you. We want to hear from you the person listening to us right now. Which of our stories really affected or outraged you this year? Was there a scene that you just can’t shake, a moment that stuck with you? We want to hear it. Go to, that’s F-A-V to tell us about the time Reveal made you stop and listen. Again that’s F-A-V.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. For the past two years, Reveal reporter Trey Bundy has been trying to break through the wall of secrecy built up by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The group collects and maintains a database that could contain the names of thousands of child abusers. We haven’t found one single case where the leaders of the religion have reported even one of those allegations to the police, so what happens to those children when they do come forward? Often years later when they’re adults. Trey went to McAlester, Oklahoma, to meet 47 year old Debbie McDaniel. She says a Jehovah’s Witness elder abused her from age 8 to 13, and when she was older, he kicked her out of the congregation. It’s called dis-fellowshipping. When that happens you’re dead to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Everyone shuns you, even your closest family members. It’s that threat of shunning that keeps people from reporting child abuse; but not Debbie. She came forward with her story. Here’s Trey.
Trey Bundy: Debbie grew up in Houston. Her dad, Wendell Marley worked for NASA and by all accounts was a brilliant engineer.
Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 – 00:20:04]
Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Trey Bundy: NASA, and by all accounts was a brilliant engineer.
Neil Armstrong: Tranquility base here. The eagle has landed.
Trey Bundy: He helped design and build the spacecraft that put Neil Armstrong on the moon.
Neil Armstrong: That’s one small step for man.
Trey Bundy: But then one day, he gave it all up.
Debbie: When he met Jehovah’s Witnesses and thought that he had found the true religion, and the world was ending any time, he just walked away from his career.
Trey Bundy: Wendell moved Debbie and the rest of the family to McAlester, Oklahoma, where he quickly rose through the ranks at the local kingdom hall. That’s the place of worship for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Wendell became the number two guy, and the number one guy was an elder name Ronnie Lawrence.
Debbie: I was introduced to Ronnie as somebody quite Christ-like. People revered him.
Trey Bundy: But Debbie told me, when she was eight years old, Ronnie started abusing her. The abuse went on for five years, she didn’t tell anyone about it, but she did get angry. She told me how when she was a teenager, she started drinking and having sex. When Ronnie found out about it, he decided to dis-fellowship her for sexual immorality. At that point, Debbie told her mom for the first time that Ronnie had abused her.
Debbie: I said, “Well, I find it funny that the man who messed with me my whole life, my whole childhood, is now in a position to dis-fellowship me from the organization.” And my mom was furious, livid, she said, “You’re going to lie about this man of God, now.” She said, “You’re just trying to get him back for dis-fellowshipping you for your wrongdoing.” I thought, “They’re never going to believe me.”
Trey Bundy: Being thrown out of the congregation was terrifying for Debbie, like it is for many Witnesses. She was completely isolated from her friends and family. She thought her eternal soul was on the line.
Debbie: Just trying to adjust to life outside of the organization was too much for me, and I just wanted back in.
Trey Bundy: To get back in, she had to write a letter of apology to the elders, including Ronnie. She was also dealing with something else, she knew she was a lesbian, but she had to bury that part of herself. She married a Witness and had a kid. She threw everything she had into the organization.
Debbie: Door to door, study for the meetings, make every meeting. I was going to be the best Jehovah’s Witness I could be.
Trey Bundy: A decade passes, and other people in Debbie’s congregation have started to come forward, saying Ronnie abused them too. I’ve looked at letters from elders to The Watchtower, and they show that Ronnie was dis-fellowshipped, but he repented and was welcomed back on the condition that he name all of his victims and write them letters of apology.
Debbie: So he says, “Debbie, I humbly want to apologize for the hurt and pain I have caused you, and for denying it. I have truly sinned against you, Jehovah, and the congregation. I’ve betrayed the trust.”
Trey Bundy: It was hard for Debbie to be around him, and she worried about other kids in the congregation. She says the elders told her to drop it and keep quiet.
Debbie: Because I have been told through the whole proceedings with Ronnie, don’t speak of this it’s a confidential matter. The congregation doesn’t need to know this, and if you talk about it, that’s grounds for dis-fellowshipping.
Trey Bundy: Eventually Debbie couldn’t take it anymore. She left her marriage, and was dis-fellowshipped again, this time for coming out as gay. That’s when the shunning got really bad. Her daughter Marley was twelve years old and got caught in a nasty custody battle between her parents. Marley says her dad, and Debbie’s family coached her on what to say in text messages to her mom.
Marley: Yeah, they used to sit me down and actually tell me what to say, or text me something, and say just to copy and paste it and send it to her.
Debbie: This text message come from Marley, and she said, “You want to know why I’m devastated I lost my mother, my best friend, you turned to Satan and you’re going to die.”
Marley: I thought that there would come a point when God would judge us all and then mom would be basically destroyed, because that’s what I’ve heard my whole life.
Trey Bundy: But shunning and harassment got so intense, that Debbie finally went to the police about it. Her whole story came pouring out. The police had never been informed about Ronnie’s abuse of children. They started an investigation, and there was a hearing. At that hearing, Debbie says, the shunning continued. She remembers going into the courtroom, and her parents were sitting behind Ronnie, on his side.
Debbie: They wouldn’t look in my direction, even when I was speaking on the stand, I looked out and my mother and my dad wouldn’t look at me in the face.
Trey Bundy: The charges against Ronnie Lawrence were dismissed, because of the statute of limitations. But court records, and letters from McAlester elders to the Watchtower back up Debbie’s story. Ronnie is still a Jehovah’s Witness.
Hello Mr. Lawrence?
Ronnie Lawrence: Yes sir.
Trey Bundy: Hi, my name is Trey Bundy.
I went to his house to see him.
But there are a lot of people in this town that believe that you did commit these crimes.
Ronnie Lawrence: What do you want me to say?
Trey Bundy: I want you tell me whether you committed these crimes.
Ronnie Lawrence: No, I didn’t, but that’s [inaudible 00:25:06]. You’re not going to believe and neither will anyone else, so.
Trey Bundy: Well, there’s a lot of documentation. Why did you write letters of apology if you didn’t commit these crimes?
Ronnie Lawrence: It had to do with several things, but I-
Trey Bundy: Was a part of it getting back into the organization? What that part of the condition of coming back to the organization?
Ronnie Lawrence: I don’t think so.
Trey Bundy: Debbie has built a new life, but she keeps a permanent record of the past.
Debbie: My daughter Marley was so attached to the organization, and so I did a tattoo of her, with holding a maze behind her. It felt like she was trying to come out of the organization, but the maze was the organization and she was hanging on to it, so I added that.
Trey Bundy: But Marley has come out of the organization, she and Debbie have reunited and they live together now. Since they’ve become close again, the Witnesses have started to shun Marley too.
Marley: Well, obviously, all my friends were, a couple years ago, were all Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so I’ve lost pretty much all of them. Then, the rest of my family has pretty much blocked me on social media, things like that. You can’t leave and not be deemed mentally diseased, I guess. Something has to be wrong with you, they have to make up something.
Al Letson: Debbie and Marley have experienced what it’s like to be shunned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but the religion also shuts out the world at large. Which makes it tough to find out how they operate, but Trey’s been trying to figure that out. He went to their headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, what they call ‘The Watchtower’.
Trey Bundy: Hello, this is Trey. Hi, who am I speaking with? Hey Bryce, how you doing?
Al Letson: Trey’s in the lobby of The Watchtower, talking to Bryce, a public relations guy there. He wouldn’t even come down to talk to him.
Trey Bundy: This is my third trip out here, you know, I’ve been sending you guys emails and phone calls for a long time.
Al Letson: He’s asking to interview someone from the governing body, they’re the seven men who run the religion. Together, they’re the equivalent of the Pope in the Catholic church.
Trey Bundy: You know, this has been more than a year, that I’ve been trying to contact somebody from the governing body, get some type of interview, get any type of Watchtower official to say anything on the record on this issue. To be frank, it kind of amazes me that Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t willing to express their own outrage, that The Watchtower is shielding child sexual abusers from exposure or prosecution. Am I wasting my time by trying to get your side of the story?
Al Letson: Even after decades of child abuse allegations around the world, these guys won’t acknowledge the problem. This is one of the most insular religions in the world. They don’t want their members to go to college, or even watch mainstream media. We wanted to know more about who they are, and how they operate, so we asked a former insider to be our guide.
Howie Tran: In my family, it was the only religion that was viewed as the right religion. It was the truth, we called it ‘The Truth’.
Al Letson: Howie Tran is 40 years old now. He lived and worked at The Watchtower headquarters in Brooklyn for seven years, starting when he was a teen. Trey tells us how he got there, and why he eventually left.
Trey Bundy: Howie grew up in rural Arkansas, in a poor family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He was always a small kid, and he would get bullied a lot. Things got worse when he turned 14, his parents split, and that’s also when his mom discovered something he was hiding.
Howie Tran: I come home from school, and my mom is visibly upset, and I find out that she discovered my porno magazine under my bed.
Trey Bundy: And it wasn’t just that his mom found porn, it was the kind of porn that she found, of naked men.
Howie Tran: This could be nothing worse that can happen to a 14 year old closeted gay kid, from the Ozark mountains, than your mother to discover that you have homosexual tendencies. I’m just, I’m mortified, I’m so ashamed, and I just immediately break down in tears.
Trey Bundy: Howie’s mom was mortified too. She drove him to his grandmother’s house, his uncle, who was an elder in the local Jehovah’s Witness congregation was also there.
Howie Tran: And my shame is laid bare, the magazine is there, and yes, I took it, I took it. Yes, I hid it, I tried to hide it.
Trey Bundy: The family told Howie that his homosexuality was a sickness, a spiritual disease.
Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 – 00:30:04]
Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Trey Bundy: Homosexuality was a sickness, a spiritual disease.
Howie: That’s the idea, that if I applied myself, I could overcome this. I could cure myself of this problem.
Trey Bundy: Howie’s uncle suggested that he could stop fantasizing about men by using a calendar to track how often he masturbated.
Howie: On that calendar you would mark when you relapsed and then hopefully the amount of days between that relapse and the next relapse would be greater. It always had to be greater, and of course you always hope that the last time is the last time. Of course it never was.
Trey Bundy: Howie believed being gay was an unforgivable sin.
Howie: I felt that I was corrupted. I felt that there was something terribly wrong with me. I was ashamed. I wished I was dead. I wished I was dead. You don’t know how much I wished I could have killed myself. I did. I sat once on the floor on my bathroom with a bottle of bleach and I tried my best to get myself to drink that damn bottle of bleach. That’s the truth, but I couldn’t. I was a coward. I couldn’t kill myself, because if you kill yourself, that’s an unforgivable sin, too.
Trey Bundy: Instead, how he immersed himself in the religion. He was ready to do anything that would put him in God’s good graces.
Howie: I wanted to be a pioneer, because pioneers were the spiritual people in the congregation. They were the ones that were devoting themselves to the preaching work. The preaching work was what Jehovah God wanted you to do.
Trey Bundy: In 1995, with his family’s encouragement, he applied to live and work at headquarters, what Jehovah’s Witnesses call Bethel, the house of God. If he got accepted, he would devote all of his time and labor to Jehovah, maybe for the rest of his life.
Howie: I remember being so happy when I got my letter. We warmly welcome you to the regular pioneer ranks. I was in the ranks.
Trey Bundy: There was no greater honor for a Jehovah’s witness. Howie was just 19 when he said goodbye to his mother and headed for New York City. When he got to Bethel, he realized that spiritual cleansing was going to take a lot of work.
Howie: There it is. Hillside Park is on that side, too.
Trey Bundy: I meet up with Howie in Brooklyn, so he can show me around Bethel. As we walk around the street, he tells me what it’s like for people who live and work here.
Howie: It’s cleaning, it’s construction. It’s the printing. It’s working on the presses. It’s working cleaning the presses, it’s working in the kitchen to prepare the food. It’s working in the laundries and during the heat and the large loads of laundry and doing the work.
Trey Bundy: Bethel’s not a closed off compound. It’s a collection of buildings spread throughout Brooklyn Heights, prime real estate right along the East River.
Howie: You see the statue of liberty, we see the beautiful skyline. That picturesque skyline with the new freedom tower. We see all the beautiful brown stones that are now worth millions and millions of dollars. This was my neighborhood, this was my home. This is where I lived. I felt so fortunate.
Trey Bundy: This is the nerve center of a multi billion dollar non profit corporation, a global real estate venture, a massive publishing operation, and a religion with 8 million members around the world. To keep the machine running, the Jehovah’s Witnesses depend on the unpaid labor of young followers. They’re called Bethelites.
Howie: This is not a place for children, never has been. Bethel is intended to get the work don and there’s no facility for children. That has been a big cause for couples to have to leave and it is a risk you take. Obviously the Bethel doctor prescribes contraceptives for all the sisters, because nobody wants to have to go home because of having a child.
Trey Bundy: The Bethelites live in dormitory style housing and they sign a vow of poverty. The religion takes care of their basic needs. For a neighborhood with 3,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, we rely haven’t seen many of them on the street. That’s when Howie tells me that this is intentional.
Howie: That building is connects by tunnel to the 107 Columbia Heights building. It’s connected by tunnel to the 124 Columbia Heights building. All these are connected by underground tunnels.
Trey Bundy: Howie says they built the underground tunnels in part to hide their numbers and the fact that they’ve bought up so much of the neighborhood. I’m looking at all of these huge building and empty sidewalks and imagining a kind of subterranean ant farm below us. Howie had been at Bethel for a year and a half working menial jobs, still marking that calendar and hiding his sexuality from everyone. That’s when the governing body approached him to ask for his help. Most of the leaders there were in their 80’s and 90’s and needed help with basic things like walking and reading their mail. For Howie, it was an enormous, almost unbelievable honor. He slips into character as he tells me about handing out Bible literature with one of the men, Carl Klein.
Howie: He said to me, “I can walk, but people if you’re in a wheelchair, they listen.” He said, “So we’ll take the wheelchair and we’ll have better success.”
Trey Bundy: On weekends, Howie would wheel Klein around a neighborhood promenade.
Howie: We would approach someone, and he would just push a magazine in their face and then they would accept it or not. Sometimes he would put a little more effort into it and if they said, “I don’t want none of this.” “Why not? Why don’t you want it? It means everlasting life? Don’t you want to live?” They were like, “Get out of my face.” You believe. You can see it sounds awful now. Looking back of course … You believe. You believe in the work. I believed that the work we were doing was important, that it was life saving. Armageddon, the end of the world, the tribulation is immanent. It’s going to happen any moment now and the only people to survive are going to be Jehovah’s witnesses, period. Nobody else.
Trey Bundy: Howie and I are about 2 blocks from the main watchtower building, we spot someone. A member of the governing body.
Howie: That’s Tony Morris. Go get him.
Trey Bundy: I’ve sat in Morris’ lobby and called him at home, trying to ask him why his organization covers up child abuse.
Mr. Morris?
This guy’s word is law to 8 million Jehovah’s witnesses. It’s weird to see him just walking down the street. He sees me coming and crosses the street to get away. When I catch up to him I’m out of breath.
Mr. Morris? Excuse me, Mr. Morris?
Tony Morris: I don’t know you.
Trey Bundy: I know you don’t. My name’s Trey Bundy. I’m a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Tony Morris: Yeah.
Trey Bundy: I’ve been writing stories and producing radio stories this year about Jehovah’s Witnesses and child sex abuse.
Tony Morris: Uh huh.
Trey Bundy: Do you have a second to talk to me?
Tony Morris: Not really, I’m going out to preach the good news of the kingdom.
Trey Bundy: Okay. I saw that you … He had just released a video where he blames child abuse on homosexuals. I asked him about that.
Can you talk to me about that at all?
Tony Morris: It’s all in the broadcast.
Trey Bundy: With that, someone opens a door to a building a few feet away and Morris rushes inside. After calling and emailing the governing body for months with no response, after reading through stacks of their documents, after flying from California to New York, I finally find one of these guys, and seconds later, he’s gone.
Jehovah’s witnesses believe that the governing body are anointed, that they’re God’s channel to followers on earth. Howie knew these guys as people, like Carl Klein, the governing body member in the wheelchair, Howie was with him the day his faith began to unravel he was reading a letter to Klein from a Jehovah’s witness disputing the religions’ key tenants.
Howie: I thought for sure he would want me to shred it in the shredder, it was right there next to his desk, because this is apostate stuff for sure.
Trey Bundy: Apostates are enemies of the religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they’re controlled by Satan. Howie says he and Klein took the letter straight to Bethel’s librarian.
Howie: Not for destruction, but for archiving.
Trey Bundy: The librarian took the letter to a small locked room.
Howie: In this room were partially filled bookshelves and it was a small apostate library. Here, they kept for references the various publications of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses that they viewed as apostates.
Trey Bundy: Howie freaked out. There was almost nothing worse a Jehovah’s Witness could do than read the writing of an apostate.
Howie: What if our belief system isn’t iron clad as I’ve always believed? What if for example, what if we’re wrong about the new world? What if I am waiting for a cure that does not exist? Wouldn’t that be sad, because I’ve wasted my life. Leaving Bethel meant losing my job and losing my home. It was a struggle at first. Then of course, when I disassociated myself a few months later, it meant losing my family and all of my friends. I was alone and I had to prepare myself and it took time.
Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 – 00:40:04]
Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:52:58] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Howie: Was alone and I had to prepare myself, and it took time.
Trey Bundy: The next time I meet Howie, we’re in his backyard. He lives in New Jersey now, with his husband and their two kids. A fall breeze hits the wind chimes and Howie pushes the kids in their little plastic cars. (kids laughing and playing) They run around the garden and stomp on brown leaves in the driveway. He says he feels for people who never left the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Howie: My concern is that there is a lot of people wrapped up in this religion and they’re doing what I did, they’re wasting their lives, and as the years go by and the hope for promises are not realized, they may eventually get discouraged and leave or they may just hang with it because they feel or are afraid they have nowhere else to go. (music)
Al Letson: Over the last few years the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been selling off their Brooklyn properties and building a massive compound in Warwick, a small town in upstate New York. They plan to move their headquarters completely out of Brooklyn sometime before 2018.
Up next, Trey heads to England, home to more than 100,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, and he finds a familiar pattern.
Kathleen H: I think true to form the Watchtowers … Putting obstructions at every possible turn to refuse to turn over documents.
Al Letson: Next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. (music)
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. All this episode, we followed reporter Trey Bundy as he tried to track down this database that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are keeping under wraps, information that could reveal thousands of child sex abusers around the country. Jehovah’s Witness leaders at the Watchtower won’t talk to Trey, and they refuse to comply with court orders to hand over their child abuse files. But if authorities know the Watchtower has these files, why can’t the FBI or police just storm the headquarters and take them? Trey joins us now to talk about that, hey Trey.
Trey Bundy: Hello Al.
Al Letson: So, before we get into the role of the authorities in uncovering this information, tell me a little bit about how the Jehovah’s Witnesses justify keeping this information secret?
Trey Bundy: So the Jehovah’s Witnesses base all of their child abuse policies on scripture. They say all of this comes from the Bible, so, for example, the so-called two witness rule. They say that nobody’s reputation should be ruined, nobody should go to prison at the testimony of just a single witness. So, when they hear an allegation of child abuse, if there’s not two witnesses to that crime, they don’t do anything about it.
Al Letson: That’s so problematic, I mean usually if someone’s being abused there is no two witnesses, there’s just one person.
Trey Bundy: Right, this is a crime that almost always happens behind closed doors, almost always happens in secret and the people don’t talk about it until they’re much, much older. So that means that most of these cases, the vast majority of these cases, don’t even reach the level where an elder is gonna punish the abuser in the organization, much less call the police.
Al Letson: So, even though the Jehovah’s Witness won’t report these abusers, they do keep track of them, which just seems odd that they have all this information but they won’t turn it over. So how can this information just be sitting there? We know it’s there and no one is doing anything about it.
Trey Bundy: The real question is: Where’s law enforcement? It’d seem like the FBI or the police would be able to get a search warrant go in. But I’ve talked to a lot of lawyers about this and they all say basically the same thing. All the cases that we’ve talked about and most of the cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses in court are civil cases. If there were a criminal prosecution, then maybe a prosecutor could ask for these documents and if they didn’t give them up then law enforcement could jump in with a search warrant. But there’s almost no prosecution of these abusers because the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t report them.
Al Letson: Now, we heard earlier in the show how frustrating this has been for Irwin Zalkin, the lawyer who’s been bringing a bunch of civil cases against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But I’m curious, how frustrating is this for you as a reporter?
Trey Bundy: This case has … I’ve been looking at this for two years, and that’s a long time to know what’s out there and to not be able to actually get my hands on it and see it for myself. We’re talking about the names of possibly thousands of child abusers. Knowing that kids are out there, they could be in danger from these people. It definitely gives us a sense of urgency and that’s why we’re still reporting the story.
Al Letson: So the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a worldwide organization. But other countries have been pretty aggressive, namely Australia and the UK. They’ve really tried to hold them accountable. Recently, you went to England to report on this, so why don’t you pick up the story from there?
Trey Bundy: So what’s different in the England from the US is that there’s an actual government agency there that’s investigating their policies, and the issue has gotten national news coverage. (music)
Speaker 5: A knock on our doors, but what’s happening behind theirs? Britain’s Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the end times are coming. But could their financial doomsday come first as child abuse victims hold them to account?
Speaker 6: I now feel the only way to get the Jehovah’s Witnesses to look at their policies and to change it for the better is by taking them to court. And hopefully that way they may then have to think maybe it’s time for us to change our policies.
Trey Bundy: The agency I mentioned is called the Charity Commission for England and Wales. It opened an investigation in 2014 and requested documents from the Watchtower’s London branch, but they refused to hand them over. I talked to Chris Willis-Pickup, an attorney for the Charity Commission.
How many motions has the Watchtower filed to stop the investigation and dispute the production of documents?
Chris W-P: We’ve been in five different courts so far to defend our decision.
Trey Bundy: The Charity Commission investigations organizations to make sure they’re in compliance with charity laws, but they have limited power. They can’t kick down doors and take documents like law enforcement can.
Kathleen H: I think true to form the Watchtowers … Putting obstructions at every possible turn to refuse to turn over documents.
Trey Bundy: That’s Kathleen Hallisey. She’s an American lawyer, living in London, who’s handled more Jehovah’s Witness cases than anyone in England. She won a high profile law suit last year in part because Jehovah’s Witness gave up documents proving the accused had abused before.
Kathleen H: However, in my more recent cases they’re refusing to turn over any documents whatsoever.
Trey Bundy: It’s the same strategy that we see here in the US. The Jehovah’s Witnesses will sometimes hand over documents in court related to a single victim, but the vast majority of documents are still locked away, and they could lead authorities directly to predators, people who could still be abusing kids. Kathleen says that lack of transparency and the Jehovah’s Witnesses separatist attitude towards society make the religion a perfect environment for child abusers.
Kathleen H: Limited interaction with the outside world. There’s a real emphasis on not engaging with secular authorities, so the conditions are ripe for abuse and predators are purposeful, and I think that they choose those types of environments very carefully, where they know they can operate with impunity. Unfortunately, the policies of the Watchtower allow them to continue to do that again and again and again.
Trey Bundy: While the commission in England hasn’t released it’s findings, a government commission in Australia has had some success. After the Catholic Church scandal, they started looking at abuse within other religious organizations. Last year, the commission held public hearings on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Here’s a Jehovah’s Witness Elder answering questions about their policies.
Elder: What ability have we got to protect every child in Australia? What you can do is you can report to the child protection authorities, and that is done in some cases, but generally it’s not done, is it? No, not done unless there’s a legal requirement for it to be done, is there? That is true.
Trey Bundy: Investigators in Australia turned up more than 1000 alleged abusers. None of those cases had been reported to authorities, but the commission has referred 700 of them to police. The kind of government investigations happening in the UK and Australia … We haven’t seen anything like that here in the US, and that drives Irwin Zalkin crazy. He’s the San Diego lawyer we met at the beginning of the show who represents child abuse victims. He thinks law enforcement has a moral obligation to force the Jehovah’s Witnesses to hand over their documents that identify alleged child abusers. As we said earlier, Irwin did get some of those documents, four years worth of Jehovah’s Witness child abuse files, but judges ordered him to keep them secret.
Irwin Zalkin: We keep the materials locked up in that cabinet.
Trey Bundy: And you can’t show them to me?
Irwin Zalkin: No, I can’t show them to you.
Trey Bundy: Why not?
Irwin Zalkin: Because it would violate the terms of that protective order I think.
Trey Bundy: If the cops came in here and they didn’t have a warrant you couldn’t show them either.
Irwin Zalkin: Yeah I probably would not show them that. Right, they would not be able to unless they break into those cabinets. They wouldn’t get them.
Trey Bundy: Right. These are gonna stay locked up, they’re gonna stay secret, they’re gonna stay redacted?
Irwin Zalkin: For the time being, yes. (music)
Al Letson: The Jehovah’s Witnesses have refused to do an interview with us. The only thing they gave us was a written statement last year saying that they abhor child abuse and comply with all child abuse reporting laws. Meanwhile, they’re just sitting on a database that likely contains the names of thousands of predators who could still be abusing kids to this day. (music)
Trey Bundy produced and reported today’s show. He’s been on this story for about two years. Now, if you wanna see what it’s like to be in a reporter’s shoes, you can check out a virtual reality project he put together as he was reporting on this show. You can find this at, you can also check out what we’re covering by liking us on Facebook or following us on Twitter, we’re @reveal and I’m al_letson. (music)
Her Money with Jean Chatzky is a weekly podcast created to empower women to live better by focusing on their finances, whether you’re a woman yourself, which I’m not, or you have a woman in your life who you care about, which I do, you should check this one out. Her Money features great interviews with inspiring women from Gretchen Rubin to Arianna Huffington. It’s a place to learn about earning more, saving more, investing wisely, and building the financial life you want. You can find Her Money on iTunes, Stitcher, or
Our show today was edited by Andrew Donohue. Our staff includes Stan Alcorn, Fernanda Camarena, Julia B. Chan, Rachel de Leon, Mwende Hahesy, Emily Harris, Katharine Mieszkowski, Michael Montgomery, David Ritsher, Neena Satija, Michael Schiller, Ike Sriskandarajah, Laura Starecheski, and Amy Walters. Our sound design team is the Wonder Twins, my man J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire C-note Mullen, with extra help from Peter [Conheim 00:52:01]. Our head of studio is Christa Scharfenberg, Amy Pyle is our editor in chief, Susanne Reber is our executive editor, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camerado Lightning 00:52:12]. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story. (music)
Section 5 of 5          [00:40:00 – 00:52:58]

Trey Bundy is a former reporter for Reveal, covering youth. After beginning his career at the San Francisco Chronicle, he joined The Bay Citizen, where he covered child welfare, juvenile justice, education and crime. His work also has appeared in The New York Times, SF Weekly, The Huffington Post, the PBS NewsHour, Planet magazine and other news outlets. He has won three awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2009, he won the national Hearst Journalism Award for article of the year. Bundy has a bachelor's degree in journalism from San Francisco State University. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Julia B. Chan worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until June, 2017. Julia B. Chan is a producer and the digital editor for Reveal's national public radio program. She’s the voice of Reveal online and manages the production and curation of digital story assets that are sent to more than 200 stations across the country. Previously, Chan helped The Center for Investigative Reporting launch YouTube’s first investigative news channel, The I Files, and led engagement strategies – online and off – for multimedia projects. She oversaw communications, worked to better connect CIR’s work with a bigger audience and developed creative content and collaborations to garner conversation and impact.

Before joining CIR, Chan worked as a Web editor and reporter at the San Francisco Examiner. She managed the newspaper’s digital strategy and orchestrated its first foray into social media and online engagement. A rare San Francisco native, she studied broadcasting at San Francisco State University, focusing on audio production and recording. Chan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.