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Chessa Manion has become a vocal critic of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization and a stirring advocate for sexual abuse survivors. Manion, who now lives in Kentucky, says she was sexually assaulted by a Witnesses boy when she was 5, but that church elders concealed the report from the authorities, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
It all began in the 1990s when Chessa and her family moved from Chicago to the small town of Havana, Illinois, where they quickly felt comfortable with the local Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation. One day, their five-year-old daughter, Chessa, was invited for a sleepover by another family of Witnesses, who promised to bring her back the next day for a service at the Kingdom Hall. As Manion later told her mother, the family’s 14-year-old son had raped her during the sleepover.
The family went to a doctor, who confirmed the sexual assault, and told them that, as a mandatory reporter, he would be forwarding the report on to the appropriate law enforcement officials. The doctor gave the Manion family seven days to report the assault to the police on their own. Chessa’s father met with the 14-year-old boy at the Kingdom Hall. Eventually, the boy confessed, but reporting the crime to authorities proved more complicated than Chessa’s father had hoped.
A 1989 memo from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, for example, instructed congregation members to turn their backs on secular authorities. Jehovah’s Witnesses who learn of sexual abuse are instructed to contact the Watchtower’s legal department, rather than police.
Another church policy stands in the way of investigating sexual abuse complaints internally. Abuse victims are required to produce two eyewitnesses who can corroborate their story before church elders can take action.
Lisa Manion, Chessa’s mother, who remains a Jehovah’s Witness, says that several congregation members tried to discourage her family from reporting the abuse. “They were friends of both families that felt if we would just make peace with this and each other that we wouldn’t have to go to the authorities,” the mother said.
Before the seven-day deadline was up, Manion’s father contacted the police and was referred to their county state’s attorney. But Manion’s family, reports suggest, were unwilling to see the 14-year-old boy prosecuted. They feared that prosecution would force Chessa to relive her trauma. So Mason County State’s Attorney Alan Tucker worked out a no-contact agreement, under which the boy would no longer be able to interact with Chessa or other young children.
Today, Chessa Manion says her parents were pressured by Jehovah’s Witnesses. She claims that elders urged her parents to “speak more delicately” about the incident, dissuading them from using the word rape. At the elder’s urging, Chessa says, she was forced to return to the boy’s house and made to hug him in a gesture of false reconciliation. “I hugged my rapist after he raped me,” she recounts, emphasizing the horror of the experience.
After that, Chessa got worse; she “got really dark,” in the words of one family member outside the church. Without psychological counseling, Chessa says her PTSD only worsened. She dropped out of school at 14 and became a pioneer, spending hours on missionary work for the Witnesses. Ultimately, she became disillusioned with the faith and left the Jehovah’s Witnesses for good.