Sarah Brooks was sitting next to her father in his pickup truck when she confessed to him she had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of two church members.
Brooks was just 17 at the time, but she claimed it all started when she was just 15.
“I deliberately chose that moment,” she told Fox News. “I didn’t want to look at him in the face. I knew something wasn’t right and I just didn’t know what to do about it. He said, ‘The best thing to do is tell the truth. That’s the only thing you can ever do.’ That’s when I proceeded to tell him what had happened to me, all the touching and kissing that occurred.”
Brooks, along with other former Jehovah’s Witnesses who claimed they were abused within the organization, are participating in a new docuseries on Oxygen titled “The Witnesses.” The series chronicles investigative journalist Trey Bundy’s six-year investigation into how the group has had a history of allegedly covering up sexual abuse.
According to the special, the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion “has long relied on its own governing body to set the course by which its followers live their lives.” Bundy, along with the other survivors coming forward, are examining the organization’s policies and practices, exploring “whether those procedures operate to conceal the identities of potential child predators.”
In response to the allegations made in the special, a rep for Jehovah’s Witnesses, United States Branch, told Fox News in a written statement: “Jehovah’s Witnesses view child sexual abuse as an especially repugnant wicked deed. Child abuse is a grave sin that hurts the child in devastating ways. Children must be protected from such a wicked deed, and those who have been victimized by it need comfort and help. Child abuse has far-reaching consequences; it aﬀects the victims as well as those who care about the victims — their family members and their Christian brothers and sisters.”
“Jehovah’s Witness elders have a weighty responsibility,” the statement continued. “They care deeply about the flock. They want their brothers and sisters to feel secure in the congregation. For that reason, they act promptly when they receive a report of serious wrongdoing, including child abuse. When elders learn of an accusation of child abuse, they immediately consult with the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses to ensure compliance with child abuse reporting laws.
Sarah Brooks was a fourth-generation member of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Even if the elders have no legal duty to report an accusation to the authorities, the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses will instruct the elders to report the matter if a minor is still in danger of abuse or there is some other valid reason. Elders also ensure that the victim’s parents are informed of an accusation of child abuse. If the alleged abuser is one of the victim’s parents, the elders will inform the other parent. Elders have received detailed Scriptural training on how to handle the sin of child abuse. The organization continues to review the way congregations handle the sin of child abuse to make sure that our way of handling the matter is in harmony with the law of Christ.”
Brooks told her father that Joshua Caldwell, a friend from the church, as well as her sister-in-law Jennifer McVey, had sexually abused her, York Daily Record reported.
According to the outlet, McVey was having an affair with Caldwell. Brooks, a fourth-generation follower of the faith, met them through the Yorkana Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in York, PA. Brooks had been working for the pair cleaning out homes that were in foreclosure. She initially believed the gig was safe and was located within the church’s closed community.
The duo were in their 20s and allegedly took turns assaulting Brooks, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Sarah Brooks is one of several former Jehovah’s Witnesses who participated on Oxygen’s ‘The Witnesses.’
After Brooks told her father what had happened, her parents called two appointed elders of the church, or overseers of the congregation, to question Brooks. They turned out to be Caldwell’s father-in-law and brother-in-law.
Despite feeling terrified, Brooks told them about Caldwell and McVey abusing her, both separately and together. She described sexual games she was forced to play. However, the outlet reported law enforcement was not called. Instead, the elders said they would “handle the situation internally” and bring “secular authorities into it.”
“I had to repeat the details over and over,” said Brooks. “I felt humiliated. I felt shame. They had to alert the headquarters, which mean telling my story to different men over and over.”
A week later, Brooks found herself sitting before a judicial committee made up of three elders selected by church headquarters, shared the outlet. Brooks said she believed the proceeding was meant for them to fully understand what had happened to her and then punish the offers. However, she alleged it was actually intended to determine her punishment for the crime of being victimized.
Sarah Brooks said “it’s complicated” when it comes to her family today.
“I was told I was being published because I kept a secret from them,” she claimed. “I wasn’t allowed to associate with other members. I wasn’t allowed to hang out with my friends. I couldn’t participate in any church activities. But I had to get my story out.”
According to the outlet, Caldwell and McVey were also called before the judicial committee. However, they both went through “disfellowship,” a form of discipline where they are removed from the church. However, those who have been “disfellowshipped” can return by showing “spiritual growth” and mending their ways.
Brooks said that despite being a victim, she felt punished for what had happened to her.
“They basically acted as if she had died,” she claimed. “The whole experience was traumatic. In her case, she didn’t do anything wrong. She just didn’t want to be a Jehovah’s Witness anymore.”
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Brooks became “a walking ghost” within her community. Her friends couldn’t speak to her anymore and other followers avoided her altogether. Feeling isolated, Brooks attempted to work three jobs, but her crippling anxiety led to an eating disorder.
‘The Witnesses,’ a two-night investigative special on Oxygen, follows the stories of four former Jehovah’s Witnesses, as they recount details of alleged sexual abuse they endured during their time within the organization.
Brooks was urged by her counselor to report the abuse to the York County District Attorney’s office, the York Daily Record shared. The outlet claimed there was a lack of cooperation from the Jehovah’s Witnesses who declined to comply when county detectives showed up with a search warrant. Investigators were told headquarters needed to be contacted and they had to consult their legal department.
But four months after Brooks reported the abuse, Caldwell and McVey were arrested, charged with sexual offenses, indecent assault and corruption of minors, the outlet shared. The pair accepted plea deals, pleading guilty to corruption of minors. In December 2014, Caldwell was sentenced to six to 23 months in county prison, followed by probation for three years. As for McVey, she was sentenced in September 2015 to three years of probation and ordered to perform 50 hours of community service.
“It was a slap on the wrist,” said Brooks. “I tried to hide because I wasn’t just isolated from the outside world. I was isolated from them when I had reached out for help. Even back then I made excuses for them — maybe [the church] just wasn’t educated enough to handle such cases. They would never allow anything bad to happen to me. Maybe there was something wrong with me.”
“It wasn’t until I was in the courtroom when I felt that lightbulb turn on within me,” she continued. “[On the day of the trial] there was no one from the Kingdom Hall to support me. There were no offers of support. They just felt I was going after them.”
Sarah Brooks said she hopes others will be encouraged to come forward and share their stories.
In January of this year, the Montana Supreme Court reversed a $35 million judgment against the Jehovah’s Witnesses for not reporting a girl’s sexual abuse to authorities. Montana law requires officials, including clergy, to report child abuse to state authorities when there is reasonable cause for suspicion. However, the state’s high court said in its 7-0 decision that the Jehovah’s Witnesses fall under an exemption to that law in this case.
“Clergy are not required to report known or suspected child abuse if the knowledge results from a congregation member’s confidential communication or confession and if the person making the statement does not consent to disclosure,” wrote Justice Beth Baker.
The ruling overturned a 2018 verdict awarding compensatory and punitive damages to a woman who was abused as a child in the mid-2000s by a member of the Thompson Falls Jehovah’s Witness congregation. The woman had accused the church’s national organization of ordering Montana clergy members not to report her abuse to authorities.
Today, Brooks said her relationship with her family is “complicated.” However, she hopes that coming forward in the docuseries will shed light on an ongoing problem concerning how allegations of sexual abuse are allegedly treated within the organization, as well as encourage other victims to come forward.
Sarah Brooks today.
“People should be more aware of it and hopefully the more discussions we have about it,” she said. “The more people will be willing to come out and finally heal.”
“The Witnesses” premieres Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. on Oxygen. The Associated Press contributed to this report. If you or someone you know is suffering from abuse, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.