FaithLeaks, a young transparency organization focused on religious communities, published its first big trophy this week: a collection of 33 letters and documents from an internal investigation into alleged sexual abuse within a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Like other whistle-blower organizations, FaithLeaks provides sources the ability to anonymously submit sensitive documents, which the site then posts publicly. FaithLeaks uses SecureDrop, an encrypted open-source system that is also used by media outlets including the New York Times and ProPublica. SecureDrop uses the anonymizing Tor network to facilitate submissions that leave no trace online. Founded by two former Mormons in November, FaithLeaks believes that “increased transparency within religious organizations results in fewer untruths, less corruption, and less abuse.”
The documents released this week span from 1999 to 2012, and they’re devastating. They include details about accusations by three women against one church member. The first case involves allegations made by the man’s adult daughter, who accused him of sexual and physical abuse that began when she was 5 years old. (Names have been redacted in all the FaithLeaks documents.) Another daughter and an unrelated woman later came forward to make abuse accusations against the same man; the second daughter said her father had begun to “fondle and touch” her at the age of 3, and began raping her at 8.
The first document, a detailed report from the local congregation to Jehovah’s Witness headquarters in Brooklyn, makes clear the church found the first accuser credible. “It certainly appears that these were real events,” the letter concludes. “It is our opinion that these allegations have substance.” But the documents that follow capture Jehovah’s Witness leaders’ attempts to deal with the accusations internally over many years, without intervention from the “worldly court of law”—that is, without going to the police. One of the documents describes an incident in which the accused man apparently violated a restraining order against one of the alleged victims; church leaders criticized her husband for calling the police at the time, accusing him of “bypassing theocratic organization because of his personal feelings.” Church leaders revoked some privileges from the accused man and even excommunicated him, but he was reinstated after only a year.
The founders of FaithLeaks hope to shed light on corruption and cover-ups within other religious communities going forward. “Our goal is to reduce the amount of deception and untruths and unethical behaviors that exist in some facets of religion,” Ryan McKnight told Religion News Service. “If someone is in possession of documents they feel deserve to be made public, we’re simply here to help facilitate that.” McKnight and his co-founder, Ethan Dodge, say they are particularly interested in documents related to finances, congregational policies and procedures, and information on sex-abuse settlements.
McKnight first got involved in facilitating church-related whistle-blowing in 2015, when he was involved in the bombshell release of an internal memo that revealed new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints policies relating to Mormons in same-sex partnerships. Mormons in same-sex marriages would be considered apostates, the memo stated, and the church would refuse infant blessings and baptisms to the children in those families. If those children want to join the church as adults, they must first denounce their parents’ marriage. The release of the documents caused a major backlash within the church.
McKnight and Dodge went on to found MormonLeaks, a transparency group that has since released dozens of internal documents from the Mormon church, including pay stubs, budgets, and public-relations memos. And it soon became clear there was an appetite for a broader site. At a hacker conference last summer, Dodge spoke about MormonLeaks and said he was immediately contacted by people who wanted to set up similar systems for “a wide range of religions and cults.” The pair founded the Truth and Transparency Foundation in November, which serves as an umbrella organization for both FaithLeaks and MormonLeaks.
It’s easy to imagine FaithLeaks being used by whistle-blowers within a wide range of religious communities, but it’s notable that so far the greatest interest and excitement seems to be coming from former Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons. These are organizations that are famously secretive and close-knit, and which can be hard for members to publicly criticize. (Individual Protestant churches can be authoritarian and secretive, too, but there are usually dozens of local competitors, which makes it relatively easy for disgruntled congregants to simply leave.)
Gizmodo reports that FaithLeaks will be releasing more documents related to sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness community in the coming weeks.