Barbara Anderson and Watchtower Documents
Today, when you check the news for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you’ll find story after story about Witness elders or the organization being charged with child sexual abuse. But thirty years ago, you rarely heard these accusations– and it’s not because the abuse wasn’t happening. Instead, the reason that childhood sex abuse within the JWs wasn’t spoken about was because of the organization’s dedication to ensuring that that information was buried. Evidence was destroyed, and what remained was kept under lock and key.
The organization is just as tight-lipped now as it ever was, with church leadership actively protecting sexual predators at the expense of an unknown number of children. They are actively repressing information, keeping it locked away– despite evidence coming to light, the governing body is trying their best to keep the truth of the past and the present locked away. But something has changed the culture of silence– there are some cracks in the impenetrable walls of Bethel.
Bethel is the world headquarters of the literature publishing company "Watchtower Bible and Tract Society." But as XJW know, it’s no mere publishing company. Bethel is the headquarters of the global cult known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion recognized by world governments as legitimate. Ultimately it's a publishing company that sells the idea of immortality if you become a subscribing member and obey their rules, and they want you to obey those rules by any means necessary. Part of those rules involve defending the cult’s leadership from the consequences of their own criminal actions.
So how have we found out anything about the abuses within the religion? An important part of this change was Barbara Anderson. If you’re an XJW, you might already know her name– but if you’re not, or if you don’t know who she is, you’re in for an amazing story. Barbara’s history isn’t just her personal story– it’s the story of how the truth about child abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses was first made public.
Who Is Barbara Anderson?
Barbara and her husband began working at Bethel in the early 1980s. By 1989, she had been transferred to the writing department to be the research assistant of a senior staff writer, who was working on a history of the organization. It was a highly coveted position, and it gave her access to communication and documents that few others had access to. As she said, “The Writing Department was the hub that all Bethel revolved around because it was Watchtower literature that was the backbone of the religion.”
And with that increased access to documents came increased access to secrets. She had first heard about child sexual abuse within the organization around 1984, and by the time she had left the Writing Department within Bethel, she had put together a package of information alerting and proving to the Governing Body– the 9 men who make up the church’s leadership– that they had a serious problem with child sexual abuse within the organization. This was given to the Governing Body members in early January 1993.
But while there were some small changes made, like the publication of new guidelines that recommended therapy in a 1994 edition of Awake!, there was an important point that she realized: the elders didn’t treat crimes like child sexual abuse any differently than they treated things like alcohol intoxication. They weren’t differentiating between “sins” and “crimes,” and in fact, they were protecting the child abusers within the faith. This was happening at all levels of the organization.
Barbara left the JWs in 1998, as she was having a very difficult time associating with the Witnesses. After all, she was encountering thousands of letters from victims and reading about the church’s abuses day after day. But as a woman, she had to remain silent about this evil or be disfellowshipped, and there would soon come a time when her anger and frustration knowing how helpless she was would come to a breaking point. In the face of such incessant evidence and remaining unable to do anything about it within the religion, her ethics and morals would not allow her to stay.
In 2000, Barbara and Bill Bowen, a former JW Elder, began their outreach. Originally, their plan was to create a website that would gather Witness stories about abuse. By the end of the year, over a thousand people had reached out. While Barbara didn’t come out about it at the same time as Bill, she did appear on the May 208, 2002 Dateline episode that exposed the pedophiles and sexual predators within the JWs on national news. In July of that same year, Silent Lambs also was mentioned in the BBC’s Panorama episode about abuse within the religion. The Panorama episode featured evidence of a database of members suspected of child abuse– many of whom have never been reported to the police. Together, these pieces of media were two of the first big exposés of crime within the organization, and showed the world how the religion was covering up crime and pressuring victims not to go to the authorities.
The church’s reaction was immediate, and Barbara was disfellowshipped within days of them finding out– in fact, she was disfellowshipped before the Dateline episode aired, which immediately created suspicion against her within the JW community.
Once she was disfellowshipped, Barbara’s fact-finding crusade wasn’t over. Today, she maintains WatchtowerDocuments.com, an enormous archive of JW-related documents dating from the 1880s to today. She makes these documents publicly available for free– something the organization absolutely does not want.
Here’s some of what you can find when you browse through the archives.
Archives of the Australian Royal Commission
Candace Conti Court Documents
Candace Conti’s case was an international sensation when a jury awarded her $28 million in damages – the largest verdict for a single victim of child abuse against a religious organization in U.S. history.
Secrets of Pedophilia in an American Religion
This collection of documents includes approximately 5,000 pages of court documents from twelve court record depositories in four states. These court documents are the result of twelve lawsuits against the Jehovah’s Witnesses between 1999 and 2007.
Witnessing the Witnesses Today
So what’s changed since Barbara left Bethel? Not enough. The hideous reality of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that the religion still protects its leadership over its members. The sexual abuse of minors is still going on, and they’re still refusing to report the abusers to the authorities.
And that’s why we’re here, reading about what Barbara Anderson has done. The point of this isn’t just to introduce you to the life’s work of a courageous individual– the point is to show you that the organization’s power can be broken. All it takes is being willing to see past the lies.
If you're an XJW searching for the truth about the organization, Watchtower Documents is the place to start. You can see for yourself how the organization perpetuates child abuse.
There's an old cliche- seeing is believing. Once you see for yourself how the Jehovah's Witness leadership keeps secrets and see the lengths they go to protect predators at the expense of children, you may find some answers to any questions you have about the religion and the legitimacy of its leadership. If the leadership is willing to keep these secrets about child sexual abuse rampant among its members, what does that say about those in leadership? What do they really value if they’re willing to hide such damning secrets? And what does it mean for them when the truth gets out?
You may have a lot of feelings about this work and these documents. Anger, resentment, betrayal, shock, overwhelmed numbness- no matter what you're feeling, it's valid.
Many XJWs, upon leaving the religion, have enormous feelings that are a challenge to deal with. There's a lot you can do as you process this information and navigate your emotions.
First and foremost, give yourself time to absorb what you've learned. Be kind to yourself and give yourself space to recover. Cults try to erode your sense of self-worth, and recovering from that kind of control won’t happen overnight– so give yourself the time you need. Seek support from those who understand your experience, whether it's friends who have also left the organization or online communities where you can share your thoughts and feelings openly. Support groups, like the weekly talks held by Recovering From Religion or The Liberati, can help you feel less isolated.
Education is crucial. Keep learning about the history and practices of the Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as similar organizations, to gain a broader perspective. Knowledge can empower you and help you make informed decisions about your future. Knowledge can also help expose you to more of the outside world. Just getting out of the JW bubble and seeing the world for what it is can teach you so much and be so important for your recovery. Many who have landed on the outside have had success moving to a new location– a new town, state, or even a new country. Travel helps broaden your horizons and exposes you to new perspectives, and that distance can help you heal.
Consider seeking professional help if you find that your emotions are overwhelming or affecting your well-being. Therapists experienced in dealing with religious transitions can provide invaluable guidance and support as you navigate this complex journey. There are many wonderful therapists out there (some of whom are XJWs themselves) who know just what you’re going through. Check out Dare to Doubt’s information on therapists to find a place to start. The Secular Therapy Project is another good resource to help with Religious Trauma Syndrome and other challenges of leaving a cult.
And finally, tell your story. Storytelling lets you connect with the outside world. It’s a way to fight back against the culture of silence and express yourself. Self-expression is something that the organization tries to discourage, and I think it’s no coincidence that many former members (like Holly Brewer from the Panorama episode) have turned to music and art as a way to express themselves. When I was making Witness Underground about musicians who were in– and then out– of the religion, the human need for self-expression was a critical part of the story. We need to be able to talk about the things we experience and the things we’re going through– and only you can answer what that means for you. Who are you now that you’re out, and maybe even more importantly… who do you want to be?
In the end, the revelations about the Jehovah's Witnesses and the courage of individuals like Barbara Anderson serve as a reminder that even within seemingly unshakable systems, change is possible. By acknowledging the truth, you can reclaim your agency and shape your own path forward.