Aaron Kaufman’s film Vice Versa: Crusaders covers a heavy topic: child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness cult. Kaufman's point here is that the Jehovah’s Witness organization is filled with corruption, especially at authority levels.
He’s right. Kaufman does a fantastic job of researching, relaying, and depicting the experiences of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses and the abuse they suffered while still providing us with the hope that activists, both inside and outside the organization can create change. Crusaders gracefully depicts the fight against the Watchtower’s secrecy, using real accounts from ExJWs (former Jehovah's Witnesses) nationwide, active on Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and the early 2000s internet.
This review aims to expand on and report the accuracy of Kaufman’s work, at least from my perspective.
My name is Scott. At 19 years old, I left the religion in 2000 for half a year and then returned to it on my own terms. It was an evolving and fluctuating experience; take it more seriously, to step back, observe, and also try live my life. In 2003, I moved to a city, away from my family. In 2008, I stopped believing. My family hasn't spoken to me since 2011.
As an ExJW, I want to educate the greater community and provide resources for mentally out/questioning people who need a push like I did. If I can help inspire more people to speak out or teach people outside of the cult how to support us, I’m doing my job. I believe that highlighting quality art and well thought-out activism, is the most effective method.
The human rights violations detailed in Crusaders are nothing new to an ExJW, and Kaufman does an excellent job informing viewers of what the organization has (and continues) to do.
Child Sexual Abuse
The first, most widely covered violation in Crusaders is child sexual abuse and subsequent scandals. The documentary follows several whistleblowers, all former JW members, and their attempts to reveal well-kept secrets behind the scenes at the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters and local kingdom halls.
Human Sacrifice (The Blood Doctrine)
Expanded upon later in the film, Kaufman also explains how Jehovah’s Witness members must carry a legal document on their person at all times, allowing organization elders into the hospital room at any time to refuse life-saving medical treatment. Specifically they ban blood transfusions, forbidden under their belief system.
Kaufman builds up to this point exceptionally well through the setup of the Jehovah’s Witness belief system regarding life as a whole and then further cements it by depicting just how tight-knit these communities really are… according to their beliefs, a faithful Witness will be able to see their deceased family members again after the apocalypse, where they can live forever in peace. Imagine hundreds of community members and their loved ones who want to see their dead friend again: that’s a strong pull for staying in the organization! Perhaps that’s the reason they prefer that you die as a martyr rather than survive using modern medical care. If someone recieves a transfusion and survives the illness, they are usually disfellowshipped. If they aren't officially shunned, they will at least be avoided and treated as less-than by the community as if they have a disease.
Corruption and Forced Silence
So, how does the Jehovah’s Witness organization keep people quiet about child sexual abuse, neglect, and the blood doctrine?
Generally speaking, there are two methods of effective social control that organization leaders use to keep things quiet:
Shunning through disfellowshipping (to be forced out) is one of the organization’s primary forms of emotional abuse. When someone is disfellowshipped for a “sin” they’ve committed is announced, they are cut out from the organization completely. Their friends, family members, and other members of the community are not allowed to speak or interact with them for any reason. Although not always permanent, to be disfellowshipped is, in essence, an extreme version of “the silent treatment.” The same thing happens if they simply stop participating, “fade,” or if they write a formal letter to unsubscribe from the book club, “disassociate.”
I don’t think anyone can emphasize how devastating being disfellowshipped is, but Kaufman certainly tries. The interviews he conducts with former Jehovah’s Witnesses do a fantastic job of detailing the shunning process, especially from the O’Donnell family’s point of view.
Crusaders spends a lot of time explaining how The Watchtower and local Jehovah’s Witness sects keep files listing every single reported abuse case ever presented to the organization’s elders. When conflict arises or a member reports something to their elders, the elders will take detailed notes of the meeting and then file them accordingly. These files are kept under lock and key in local kingdom halls and are considered vital evidence when reporting CSA cases to authorities outside of the cult. While most of these files don’t see the light of day, information leakers like Judas and Mark O’Donnell have put their livelihoods on the line to release these files to the public.
The Heavy Hitters
While the film features several former Jehovah’s Witnesses and their stories, three of the individuals listed stood out to me the most:
The creator of Silent Lambs, Barbara Anderson, was a major whistleblower in the 1990s and played a major role in waking my friends and me up in the early 2000s by revealing the thousands of letters detailing preteens and teenagers being sexually abused by Jehovah’s Witnesses. We all knew someone or of someone who was a CSA survivor– it wasn’t just around us. The abuse was everywhere!
O’Donnell was another major whistleblower whom I get the pleasure of talking to regularly! He’s still active in the ExJW community and writes regularly on his website. Mark’s goal overall is to keep people informed about the legislative changes surrounding child abuse and how it relates to the Jehovah’s Witness organization– his work consists of news updates, case study reports, and leaking information about the organization as it updates.
Recent Related Updates
Despite Watchtower’s efforts to conceal the organization’s history of child sexual abuse, victims and former cult members continue to speak out about their experiences and elevate the voices of those harmed. Recently, two significant upsets have seriously affected the organization’s merit and have helped create more cracks in its friendly facade:
Back in 2015, a case like those detailed in Crusaders came to light in Australia. Dubbed Case Study 29 by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, the report details how the organization protected over 1,000 members accused of child sexual abuse and sexual assault. The report further cites the “two-witness rule" as one of the main reasons why religious authorities do not report assaults to the police– if there aren’t two valid witnesses present during the assault, how can they confirm that it happened?
Ultimately, the case study and subsequent hearings greatly affected the Jehovah’s Witness organization, especially in Australia. As more people begin to speak out and become aware of their rights, the church cannot quietly manage every single one of them– the best we can do right now is to stand by victims of the church and support them however we can.
In January of this year, a group of Japanese lawyers started a case against the Jehovah’s Witness organization to prosecute the various human rights violations the organization commits. One of the lawyers, Kotaro Tanaka, was a former Witness who knows firsthand what horrors the organization puts its members through.
In March 2023, the coalition of lawyers presented their latest findings to the Japanese Ministry of Health, citing that Witnesses were still required to refuse blood transfusions, even after the Ministry released a statement detailing the refusal of blood to be a form of child neglect.
Legal updates related to shunning:
Victims of shunning have successfully taken on the religion in two European countries:
In April 2023, after a lengthy legal battle, Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially deregistered as an official religion and also defunded losing approximately 1.5 million Euros annually. All legal religions in the country enjoy money that comes from taxation. The big reasons for the government taking this action is:
The reason for the withdrawal is the exclusionary practice that the Jehovah's Witnesses uphold when someone in the community breaks religious rules, Vart Land reported on Thursday. "In our opinion, the religious community violates the members' rights to free expression. We believe this violates the members' right to freedom of religion", the statement of the State Administrator reads. In addition, the government body argues that the Jehovah's Witnesses violate the rights of children by allowing the exclusion of baptized members.”
In 2022 Jehovah’s Witnesses were tried and found guilty of "incitement to hatred" in a criminal court in Ghent, Belgium.
“The public prosecutor’s office in Ghent had summoned Jehovah’s Witnesses on four counts: incitement to discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs against a person, and against a group, and incitement to hatred or violence against a person, and against a group.”
Vlessing, Etan. ‘Vice Versa: Crusaders’ Director Talks Confronting Jehovah’s Witnesses With Child Sexual Abuse, Cover-Up Claims: “It’s About Corruption.” The Hollywood Reporter. 7/14/2021. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/vice-versa-crusaders-director-talks-confronting-jehovahs-witnesses-with-child-sexual-abuse-cover-up-claims-its-about-corruption-1234981182/.