Hearts were pounding Sunday as Use Our Voice protesters arrived in Reading, PA to protest the Organizations public history of policy’s that silence and suppress victims of sexual abuse, one of them being their infamous “Two-Witness Rule”.
Jehovah’s Witnesses could be seen on every street corner pouring into Santander’s entrance. One protester, Andrea Brock, recalls a nerve wracking experience of entering a parking garage only to be guided by JW parking attendants straight to the top.
“I was driving through and kept being directed up, and up.” She recalls, as she drove past numerous signs of “No JW parking” staggered all over the lower parking garage levels. “The attendants kept directing me and I felt like I was about to reach the roof top, when suddenly a crowd of witnesses came into view.”
Then, she panicked. Andrea had come to the protest on her own, and she had her message of protest printed on BOTH SIDES of her sign! “I kept worrying that they would see me, or I would have a confrontation. I was very nervous.”
Luckily and somewhat serendipitously the crowd began to thin, and Andrea was able to catch an elevator with only a single witness couple. “I’m not sure if they saw my signs or not, we had a brief exchange of pleasantries and that was that. Such a relief.”
When Chessa Manion arrived to the protest her heart was pounding as well. “I remember seeing everyone walking around and having this overwhelmingly immense feeling of concern. The previous night I had been warned of a potential abuser who had abused two children in TN, who was now reported to be a member of a congregation in Philly, and may have been attending this convention. I was saddened due to the memories of how joyous these days had been for me previously in my life, along with the weight of knowing what the truth is now. As I saw parents walking with their children into the Convention center I prayed for their safety, and got ready for the difficult day ahead.”
Police were already present along with organizational attendants guarding the doors. Chessa recalls the attendants being braced at all times as if they were to come at them with a battering ram.
“There were constant complaints by the attendants that we were attempting entry, or trying to block pathways for the disabled attendees, none of which were true. In fact one of the people with us at the event, Martin Haugh, was a former Convention attendant who worked with the disabled drop off location at Santander itself.”
Another protester named Mike commented “We had no intent to disrupt or spoil the Reading Convention in any way, but merely the desire to urge members to protect their children, and report abuse to their local authorities.”
Survivors, friends, allies, and advocates arrived from as far as Florida, Maryland, and Delaware to stand in protest against the Jehovah’s Witnesses “Two Witness Rule” which has silenced countless victims of abuse by stating that there must be a second party to all abuse accusations in order for the congregation’s body of elders to become involved in the matter.
The Organization has a long, sordid, and well documented history due to controversial methods of dealing with such allegations, from strongly discouraging those who come forward within the congregation with allegations of abuse from going to the police or speaking out publicly warning other members of the abuser, to a recent leaked video showing a Bethel representative urging members to “destroy records, because Satan is coming after us”.
The Philadelphia Inquirer as well as WGAL’s news team have released several articles highlighting these leaks as well as people who have been silenced or shunned due to the organizations policies. Jennifer and Martin Haugh, as well as their daughter have been strongly affected by these policies since their daughter was abused at age 4 at their local congregation in Red Lion, PA. Their family was recently featured in an Inquirer article detailing the trauma their family experienced at the organizations methods of dealing with abuse.
Martin commented at the event to a Reading Eagle reporter “They said they would handle it,” he said. “They did not. They told me not to call the police, so I did not.”
The Haughs have been strong supporters of their daughter since coming out publicly about their story via the Philadelphia Inquirer in April of this year. David Gambacorta, reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, writes “The English language can’t adequately give shape to the horror of such a discovery, to a parent seeing his child’s innocence being corrupted and shattered. But what came next was just as hard to describe. When Haugh and his wife, Jennifer, told the elders who oversaw their congregation about this October 2005 incident, they were greeted with muted concern. Then came the threats.
“We were told on more than one occasion that if we told other parents about this, we would be disciplined,” Haugh, 41, said during a recent interview. “We never heard the words ‘Go to the cops!’ or ‘Are you considering therapy for her?’ ” his wife added. “Then people stopped talking to us.”
Jenn’s comments on the event were as follows “”My husband & I took part in the protest. From my point of view, it was a great success. We were pretty visible, even to those stuck inside. (I had a conversation with a woman through glass inside the arena, she was visibly moved by our message). We got to talk to the cops sent to mind us, which went really well. A truly shocking number of JWs were outside during the lunch break to see and hear the message. My favorite part was at the end of the session, when we reminded departing JWs that we love them unconditionally. We got a truly surprising number of smiles and acknowledgement from JWs. This was an overall very positive experience.”
When asked further about the conversation with the woman inside: “My sign asked the question “What if your child was abused?” She read it and her eyes got wide. I saw that, and said it happened to my daughter, in a Kingdom Hall. More shock and dismay on her face. I said it happened, you can look it up. She said “I will”. Then we had to move on (can’t block the sidewalk).”
On top of the Inquirer’s pre-coverage, as well as WGAL and Reading Eagle’s onsite coverage, there was also a documentary crew present. The morning protest was successful, but as the protesters got ready for the lunch rush there was a report from a member inside the convention to the /exjw subreddit alerting them to an announcement inside the convention arena.
“Just some insider detail from a PIMO Attendant. They are only allowing people in the convention arena that have a convention badge. They are also telling those in attendance not to go outside for lunch. I will keep you all updated.
More comments continued below:
“The attendants working the front doors have taken pics of the protesters who showed up. In order to watch out for them especially.”
“What if someone comes that got an invitation?! So let me get this straight. They made the jdubs do the invitation work for the convention and then only allow jw’s to enter?”
“Pretty much we are on high alert today. If you do come in via invitation, just know the attendants will have a eye on you.”
“We have been encouraged not to leave the building during the program today. If you need to get lunch get it this morning.” Message from my Attendant Captain.”
Nonetheless, the protesters persisted, and it’s of note to add that though the attendance beefed up outside the entrance doors to dissuade members from venturing out, cops were put on alert, and the announcement was made from the stage, thousands still emptied the building at lunchtime and witnessed not only the strong testimony from protestors marching, but also the documentary film crew as well as WGAL covering the signs, which encouraged people to look harder into what everyone was saying.
Beccah Hendrickson, WGAL reporter and representative, attempted to enter the building to do interviews with her cameraman after securing an invite as well as setting up meetings with members inside the convention several days prior and having prior authorization to do so and was met with attendee’s flocking to her and her cameraman. When she asked for comment on why she was not allowed inside a very vocal elder proclaimed “We have revoked your supposed permission to even be here.”
More can be seen via coverage from Use Our Voice’s live stream on Youtube, which was briefly filmed at intervals by Chessa Manion in between interviewing and conversing with the public. Most was filmed during the lunch rush. After lunch, the crowd died down, and the documentary crew took the opportunity to interview members such as John Redwood, the Haugh’s, and Chessa Manion. There were several bystanders and members of the general public who came up to ask questions about the event taking place and quite a few who left with SCAARS brochures and UOV material.
Chessa adds “We had a lot of people walking by who would stop to say they supported our protest in protecting children’s safety and urging parents to go to the police. We also had a woman come up who wanted help expressing abuse she had gone through at a local womens shelter in Reading. Andrea and I were able to direct her to resources and leave her with our contact information prior to leaving the event. Overall the police as well as local vendors were supportive of the movement too, which aided in us being able to spread awareness among the local public about public safety issues present that day in Reading, and at local congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses as well due to their policies protecting the identities of pedophiles and abusers, and not issuing an investigation or urging victims to call the police due to the two-witness rule.
She continues “There were also a couple witnesses who spoke with us as well, either via stopping and speaking with us in the parking lots away from the convention, or mentioning as they walked by that they would look up the information on the Australian Royal Commissions report or the recent case in Delaware when they got home. I believe our protest had a huge impact on the local community, and hopefully those that look up that information will make sure to ensure child safety in their local congregation and take any allegations of abuse to the authorities so they can be dealt with by those who have the background and training to do so.”
At the end of the day due to a video that has been labeled as propaganda in other countries and questioned as to its safety for children due to its fear-mongering and discriminating nature, those in the group decided it would be better to leave those who attended with a message of love. “We love you. Be courageous, protect your children. We are not here to harm you, we are here merely to protect the public. Please do not shun your family, please love your family. It’s okay to research, it’s okay to view court documents. Please be safe going home, please watch your children closely, mind the curb.” And other loving reminders were issued to those leaving the arena that evening.
UOV hopes that the message will continue to stand clear in the minds of those attendants, as well as any who may have been victims of silencing, shunning, abuse, or discrimination inside as well.
What’s next for Use Our Voice? Chessa’s current plans are to officially secure it as an LLC, and in the future a nationwide charity. UOV has multiple opportunities for events next year, and over the winter months will be working on survivor spotlights, artist development, and logistical planning. If you would like to know more about how you can help UOV, please visit here.
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