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Former Jehovah's Witnesses discuss their alleged abuse within the organization

By Elaine Aradillas
January 30, 2020 02:27 PM
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Debbie McDaniel and Deloris Lyles grew up in the small town of McAlester, Okla., where they worshiped at the same Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall and eventually built quiet lives as wives and moms.

But the pair also shared the same secret: McDaniel and Lyles were molested as children by a well-respected elder in their congregation.

“My body’s shaking now, thinking of it,” McDaniel recounts to PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I feel my skin start to crawl.”

McDaniel and Lyles — along with former Jehovah’s Witnesses who say they were also abused within the group — are part of a new series, The Witnesses, airing Feb. 8 and 9 on Oxygen. The show chronicles journalist Trey Bundy’s six-year investigation into an alleged pattern of covering up sexual abuse within the faith and features interviews with survivors.

“It takes a lot to come forward the way they have,” Bundy says.

jehovah's witness sexual abuse investigation
Debbie McDaniel and Deloris Lyles
| Credit: Oxygen Media

• For more on allegations of sex abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

McDaniel, now 50, alleges her abuse started when she was 7 and was forced to spend the night at the home of elder Ronald Lawrence, who taught her to proselytize door-to-door.

Ronald Lawrence
Ronald Lawrence

Lyle alleges her abuse began when she was 10 years old after she took a job helping Lawrence with janitorial work so she could earn money to help her widowed mother and four siblings.

“It was a daily thing to be left alone with this man,” Lyles, 51, says. “I experienced a lot of pain.”

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It wasn’t until McDaniel and Lyles discovered their shared secret years later and together reported Lawrence to church elders that he confessed and was ex-communicated, but was later allowed back into the group after “repenting.”

Eventually, after police obtained documents corroborating the women’s accusations, Lawrence was arrested in 2013 for multiple accounts of lewd molestation, rape and other sexual-assault related charges, but three months later, his charges were dismissed due to the statute of limitations. Attempts to reach Lawrence were unsuccessful.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses public information office declined to comment on Lawrence’s case, but the group posted a three-page document on its website responding to allegations of child sex abuse within the faith.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and view it as a crime,” it states. “We recognize that the authorities are responsible for addressing such crimes. The elders to not shield any perpetrator of child abuse from the authorities.”

Irwin Zalkin, a San Diego-based attorney whose firm has litigated about 40 child sexual abuses cases against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says his firm hopes to obtain a database, which contains “documentation of known molesters that were in position of authority, or are in positions of authority.”

“Our goal is to expose the truth,” he says. “Our goal is to protect children.”

The Witnesses premieres Saturday, February 8 and Sunday, February 9 on Oxygen (7 p.m. ET/PT).