Survivors of Alleged Sexual Abuse Inside Jehovah's Witnesses Hope for Justice — and Change

A two-part investigative series on Oxygen Feb. 8 and 9 examines allegations of child sex abuse within the Jehovah's Witnesses organization

jehovah's witness sexual abuse investigation
Photo: Oxygen Media

For years, Debbie McDaniel lived with a dark secret.

One of the elders at the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in McAlester, Oklahoma, where she and her family worshipped, allegedly began molesting her when she was 7, McDaniel, 50, tells PEOPLE.

Highly respected in the congregation, Ronnie Lawrence allegedly found any excuse to have her ride in the car with him when they went proselytizing door-to-door, says McDaniel.

“I would throw up … because I knew he was going to assign me to his car group,” she says.

She had no idea Lawrence was allegedly doing the same thing to another little girl at the same congregation: Deloris Lyles, now 51.

Lawrence, now 82, allegedly began molesting her after her father died, Lyles tells PEOPLE.

“This predator swooped in under the guise of this uncle figure helping with the kids,” she says.

As adults, McDaniel and Lyles joined forces to try to find justice, to no avail.

Still hoping for justice, McDaniel and Lyles — along with former Jehovah’s Witnesses who say they were also abused within the organization — are part of a two-night investigative special, The Witnesses, airing Feb. 8 and 9 on Oxygen.

jehovah's witness world headquarters
The Watch Tower Society’s World Headquarters in upstate New York. Erika Norton

The docu-series chronicles veteran journalist Trey Bundy’s in-depth investigation into an alleged pattern of covering up sexual abuse by the organization’s leaders — and tells the stories of four former Jehovah’s Witnesses and the molestation they say they endured.

A journalist at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting in California, Bundy began working on the story in 2014, when his office received a package containing a “small sampling of Watch Tower child abuse memos,” he tells PEOPLE.

Issued by the non-profit corporation, the Watch Tower Society, which oversees the organization, the memos allegedly directed elders on how to handle child abuse, he says.

“It wasn’t a whisper campaign,” he says. “What was different was that there were policy directives in black and white issued to all the elders in the United States saying, ‘This is a confidential matter. We are concerned about lawsuits.’”

Thus began a years-long quest to search for the truth – and to tell the stories of victims including McDaniel and Lyles, who opened up about the alleged abuse they suffered.

After McDaniel and Lyles reported Lawrence to elders, he “admitted some possible inappropriate touching,” says Bundy.

“Elders in the congregation believed Debbie and Deloris and disfellowshipped Lawrence for sexually abusing them,” he says.

He was later allowed back into the group after he repented. But elders never reported him to police.

In 2013, after McDaniel told police about the abuse, Lawrence was arrested and charged with multiple accounts of lewd molestation, rape and other sexual-assault related charges.

Ronald Lawrence
Ronnie Lawrence’s 2013 mugshot.

The charges were later dismissed because of the statute of limitations.

“Basically, he got a slap on the wrist,” says Lyles. “There were no legal repercussions. He was still allowed to go in the field ministry with children. It just sickened me.”

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The women are no longer in the organization and are being shunned by friends and family who are still Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But they’re still hoping for changes within the organization so this doesnt ever happen to anyone else.

“The greater good will only be accomplished if they’re forced to review their policies and standards and are moved to make change,” says McDaniel.

One way they could be forced to make changes is if Bundy or others are able to get ahold of a database within the organization that allegedly contains files with the names of a host of alleged child abusers, he says.

“I would imagine the police and public would want that information because now we’re talking about a public safety issue – perpetrators who have not just abused kids once but are still free to operate,” he says.

Attempts to reach Lawrence, 82, were unsuccessful.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses public information office declined to comment on Lawrence’s case or the database, but emailed PEOPLE a statement, saying in part, “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 the Christ.”

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

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