Like many of the best stories, the idea for our podcast “Call Bethel” came from a tip-off. A source claimed that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had a hidden database of alleged abusers. It was late summer when the email came in and the team set about trying to find it was true.
Over the course of a year, they spoke to victims of abuse, former members of the religion and campaigners to understand an organisation which can be wary of outsiders.
Until the start of the investigation, the team’s knowledge of the religion was very limited: including members not celebrating Christmas or accepting blood transfusions. But over time, by building a network of sources, the reporters started gathering information and evidence.
Documents emerged and whistle-blowers stepped forward to tell the investigations team about cases of abuse and how senior members of the religion had responded. The reporters discovered how, in some cases, elders – the name given to leaders of congregations – had failed victims.
The title of the podcast came from instructions given to elders about what to do if they came across a case of abuse – contact “Bethel” as the headquarters is known to followers. The central office – or “Branch” office – then provides instructions about what to do next.
Episode 2, Missing Pieces
It was when she read a news report about a legal judgment that Michelle realised. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Britain had been ordered to pay a substantial sum to a woman they had failed to protect from abuse – a woman we know as Daria. Another child was mentioned, a girl who had also been abused by the same man. As she read the details, Michelle knew she was in fact the other child. She had reported the abuse, but been told she was wrong. She was stunned.
In episode 2, Call Bethel tells the story of how these two women were harmed by the same man – Peter Stewart – and it asks if more could have been done to protect them. We discover that documentation exists which shows that some members of the congregation had known the abuser posed a risk to children.
It is this kind of documentation which is key for another victim. In 2019, Lacie Jones revealed that her stepfather had been abusing her. Clifford Whitely was well respected in the congregation and held a senior position. When confronted by elders, he even confessed part of the abuse, which Lacie thought would be enough. But despite this confession, the route to securing a criminal conviction was not easy. Over the course of several months, Lacie fought to obtain evidence that the police needed, evidence that would lead to her stepfather pleading guilty and being sent to prison.
Episode 1, The Tip-off
In episode 1, we meet a woman called Daria, who tells us how she was sexually abused as a child. Now in her 30s, she describes how she was molested by a man who visited her home to give her and her mother spiritual guidance.
The man, who was around 60 at the time, held a senior role in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and was well liked in the congregation. He was respected and admired, but Daria knew his true character – because unbeknown to her family and friends, he was abusing her.
Years later – after he had been convicted of abusing another child – a handwritten letter written in blue ink would drop on the mat of her home. It was an apology by Peter Stewart, the man who had abused Daria from when she was four years old, addressed to her mother.
Call Bethel’s first episode reveals the contents of that letter and the words which raise questions about whether more could have been done to protect her.
Listen to The Telegraph’s five-part series, Call Bethel, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.