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Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses to protest sex abuse scandals at Pa. convention

A group of ex-Jehovah's Witnesses plan to protest at the Reading Santander Arena on Sunday, hoping to convince Witnesses who are attending a convention to question the religion's response to child sex abuse scandals.

Chessa Manion on the steps of the Pennsylvania Capitol building. JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Chessa Manion on the steps of the Pennsylvania Capitol building. JOSE F. MORENO / Staff PhotographerRead moreStaff

Chessa Manion insists she's not looking for revenge, or to spark an ugly confrontation, when she heads to Berks County this weekend.

The plan that she and a group of former Jehovah's Witnesses have cobbled together is fairly simple: They'll gather in front of the Reading Santander Arena on Sunday with signs and artwork, and try to catch the eyes of some current followers of the millenarian religion who will be streaming into the building for a convention that's expected to draw thousands from Pennsylvania and Maryland congregations.

For some of the ex-Witnesses, it'll be a chance to share painful experiences that they tried to bury for years — in Manion's case, the rape that she suffered as a 5-year-old at the hands of a teenage Witness in a small Illinois town in 1994. Others hope to encourage active Witnesses to question the organization's leaders, who have responded to a growing number of child sex abuse cases around the world with denials and instructions to destroy records that could prove harmful in litigation.

>>READ MORE: Silent Witnesses: Experts say archaic rules and an insular culture have created a 'recipe for child abuse'

"We just want to have an open dialogue," said Manion, 29, who now lives in Delaware and organized the protest, which will run from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Ex-Witnesses from 13 countries attended similar protests at a Jehovah's Witnesses convention earlier this month in London, in the wake of British authorities' receiving reports of more than 100 child sexual assaults that occurred at numerous congregations. (The organization's officials have declined multiple interview requests.)

Martin and Jennifer Haugh will be among those in attendance. The couple have become the most recognizable ex-Witnesses in Pennsylvania since telling the Inquirer and Daily News earlier this year about the 2005 molestation of their daughter, which unfolded in a York County kingdom hall that once felt like a second home for their family.

The Haughs said elders discouraged them from contacting police about their daughter's abuse, even they though they knew the identity of her alleged attacker, a family relative named John Logan Haugh. (The 26-year-old was arrested in May, and charged with two counts of indecent assault on a minor. He's receiving therapy as part of a stipulated court agreement that was filed in York County this month.)

When the Haughs decided to leave the religion and seek justice for their daughter, they were shunned by their closest friends and family, some of whom even held a wake in their memory.

>>READ MORE: Suspect in Jehovah's Witness child sex abuse case arrested

"I think many of us who have left have this feeling of, 'I have to do something, but what?'" Jennifer Haugh said.

Establishing a visible presence outside of a convention felt like a logical step, especially at a time when the general public has shown increased interest in religious sex abuse scandals, coming on the heels of a Pennsylvania grand jury report on decades of molestation that occurred in Catholic dioceses across the state.

Haugh knows that Witness leaders label people like her — ex-followers who question some of the organization's rules, like one that requires sexual abuse survivors to produce two eyewitnesses to support their claims — as "apostates," nonbelievers who can't be trusted.

"We're not going to be shouting and waving signs, because we're not going to feed into the apostate trope that we're all possessed by Satan," Haugh said. "We're going with the intention of trying to open some minds, and posing questions that someone could Google later."

>>READ MORE: Jehovah's Witnesses official says to destroy records because 'Satan's coming after us'

Manion's efforts won't end with the demonstration in Reading; she's formed a foundation, Use Our Voice, to help sex abuse survivors find a path beyond the wreckage others brought to their lives. She knows that for some people to move forward, they have to make peace with their past. For Manion, that's meant reaching out to authorities in Illinois to see if they'll revisit her rape case, which didn't result in an arrest, if she files a new complaint.

"I'm still trying to figure it out," she said.