Jehovah's Witnesses Recount Stories of Abuse, Estrangement in Leah Remini-Hosted Special
In a special preceding 'Scientology and the Aftermath's' third season, Remini gathered ex-members to discuss their experiences with the church on issues including blood transfusions, justice and women's rights.
Leah Remini kicked off the third season of her A&E series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath on Tuesday night with a deep-dive, two-hour special on the Christian denomination Jehovah's Witnesses.
On Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath: The Jehovah's Witnesses, Remini led a panel of ex-Jehovah's Witnesses as they explained some of the church's most controversial positions and practices: its belief in Armageddon, disavowal of blood transfusions, disfellowships and subjugation of women.
As Remini explained at the beginning, the special stemmed from letters and social-media messages the production received, asking it to look into the denomination. "I thought Jehovah's Witnesses were just nice people knocking on doors," Remini said. But "We have received many letters, [saying], 'Please look into the Jehovah's Witnesses'" and making the connection between Scientology and Jehovah's Witnesses, she noted.
"Take Scientology, add eight million members, and you've got Jehovah's Witnesses," Lloyd Evans, a former member of the church and author of a book called The Reluctant Apostate, told her.
Jehovah's Witnesses emerged from the International Bible Students Association in the 19th century but was officially given its current name in 1931. Believers differ from other types of Christians in denying the Trinitarian belief that Jesus is divine, instead acknowledging him only as the son of God. Jehovah's Witnesses believe that Armageddon is coming, and when it does, non-Witnesses (or "worldly" people) won't survive and God's Kingdom will be established on earth with only Jehovah's Witnesses populating it. They do not celebrate holidays or birthdays and also famously oppose blood transfusions on grounds of faith.
In an early discussion on Armageddon during the special, one man noted that his beliefs stopped him from being friends with "worldly" children, as he believed that those could imminently die once Armageddon came. Another, Nate Quarry, said, "As long as you can understand words, you're being told Armageddon is coming … I had the most horrific nightmares for at least 10 years after leaving the organization."
Believing that those Jehovah's Witnesses who stray from scripture also will not survive Armageddon, followers police each other, panelists said. One means of doing this is "disfellowshipping," or shunning church members who have disobeyed rules that range from adultery to smoking a cigarette; family, friends and church members avoid contact with those who have been disfellowshipped.
Quarry and panelist Sharon Follis noted that they had been disfellowshipped for dating "worldly" partners. Another panelist, Cliff Henderson, was disfellowshipped for having a relationship with a woman while he was depressed. After, he says he made "desperate" attempts to re-contact his family, including showing up at his brother's wedding, where his father rebuffed him. When his mother saw him, she started crying but didn't say a word: "I have to accept that I may never have a relationship with them again, and that hurts," Henderson said.
"The basis of this organization is conditional love," Quarry noted.
The panelists lingered on the topic of suicide, which is forbidden in the church but had touched many of their lives. Panelist Jerry Minor attempted to commit suicide because he thought he was too flawed to survive Armageddon; the mother of another panelist, Shannon Rowland, took her own life after experiencing a long period of depression. Panelists Rick and Sharon Follis, who are siblings, noted that they only reunited with their parents after having left the church at the funeral of a brother who also committed suicide.
The last quarter of the special touched on hot topics that have pervaded news coverage of Jehovah's Witnesses in recent years. The Witnesses' position on blood transfusions — that they are forbidden by scripture — led to the death of Rowland's brother, she says, before he was about to get married. "Imagine finding out the one medical thing you cannot do is what your loved one needs," Rowland said. One panelist noted that a Jehovah's Witnesses publication, Awake! magazine, once published a list of "youths who put God first" by dying instead of accepting a blood transfusion.
The church also believes that women should live in subjection to men, using such fictional justifications as that their brains are 10 percent smaller and that their skulls are lighter than men's. The only grounds for divorce within the church is adultery, which three of the female panelists said led them to be trapped in marriages with abusive husbands.
One, Cynthia Hampton, reported the alleged abuse to church elders, only to be told to be more submissive and stop "nagging" her husband. Only when she was able to prove he smoked — forbidden by the church — was she able to separate from him.
Shana Rubio described giving her daughter up for adoption to a congregation member when she was disfellowshipped for getting a secular divorce. "I felt I couldn't let her suffer the consequences of my sins," Rubio said. But her daughter, Mikaysha Soto, who was also on the panel, said that the night she was officially adopted, her adoptive father began molesting her.
The special's final discussion, on the topic of child abuse, especially homed in on the church's "two-witness" rule, which does not allow members to punish a crime unless two people have witnessed it (which is naturally rare in cases of child abuse). Followers are strongly encouraged to handle judicial matters within the church, and pedophiles can be forgiven if they say they're sorry, one panelist noted. Soto was eventually able to prosecute her alleged abuser because a 9-year-old friend of hers said she was also being abused by the man, satisfying the two-witness rule.
In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, Church of Scientology Media Relations representative Karin Pouw said, "Leah Remini treats religion as a commodity that she can monetize by spreading hate. Now she is exploiting the Jehovah's Witnesses, a faith neither she nor her woman-abusing co-host Mike Rinder know anything about. Ms. Remini remains the narcissistic, self-promoter selling religious bigotry for $$ amid her deconstruction into insignificance. See https://www.leahreminiaftermath.com/"
At the end of the special, Evans noted, "As a Jehovah's Witness you're taught to look forward to paradise. But you never realize that the paradise is being able to think for yourself." The final sequences showed panelists estranged from family members who are still within the church telling them what they wish they could say in person.
Season three of Scientology and the Aftermath will examine the church's tax-exempt status and the vast resources that enable its organization. The series will return Nov. 27 at 9 p.m. on A&E, with eight new episodes and four specials.