A lawsuit against a Ridgewood church that some former members have described as a cult is moving forward after a judge denied a motion to dismiss a woman's claim that she was subjected to "psychological harm and trauma" after joining and that she was pressured to have an abortion.
The federal lawsuit, filed in 2014, alleges that the World Mission Society Church of God deprived a former North Jersey woman of sleep, overworked her and alienated her from friends and family as a form of "brainwashing" in order to destroy "her independent will."
The plaintiff, Michelle Ramirez, also alleges that the church defrauded her by persuading her to donate 10 percent of her income without revealing its true beliefs. Former members have said they attended the church for months before being told a South Korean woman in her 70s is the living manifestation of God.
The church has denied the lawsuit's allegations in court papers.
A judge denied the church's request to dismiss the case in April, one year after the motion was filed in federal court in Newark. Court papers filed by the woman's attorney this month say the case "resumed following a year-long stay" that was related to the motion.
The Ridgewood church, which oversees the operations of numerous affiliated churches along the East Coast, is connected to an international church based in South Korea that expresses devotion to a woman named Zahng Gil-Jah, who ex-members said is known as God the Mother or Heavenly Mother.
Over the years, the church has developed a reputation for community volunteer work. In 2013, 1,200 members wearing bright yellow shirts filled an auditorium to receive emergency response training. The Bergen County officials who led the session praised their enthusiasm, which included chanting "We love you" and a rendition of the wave.
Another view of the church emerged in interviews The Record conducted with eight former members for a story published more than two years ago. The ex-members offered independent accounts of being lured slowly into the church without being told all of its beliefs, and then being frightened into devotion and donating large amounts of money by talk of the impending end of the world — in 2012.
Some went so far as to call it a cult. They said the church backtracked when the world didn't end.
Church leaders disputed that portrayal, saying the use of the term "cult" was a form of "religious intolerance." As for doomsday predictions, the church said it merely comforted people who were confused by reports that an ancient Mayan calendar had predicted the end of the world, assuring them they could be saved "whether 2012 were true or not."
Ramirez, who now lives in Brooklyn, could not be reached, and her attorney declined to comment. In her lawsuit, she said the World Mission Society "purports to be a non-profit charitable church, but is actually a profit-making global enterprise" that provides money to the mother church in South Korea. That money, the suit alleges, supports the church's leaders.
The church called the allegations "baseless claims" in a statement issued Tuesday evening. The statement went on to say that the judge's decision to allow the case to continue "did not address any of the merits of the claims."
Ex-members have told The Record that they agreed to donate 10 percent or more of their incomes to show devotion to the Heavenly Mother. Several said it was widely understood that the money was sent to her in South Korea, though the church said on a federal tax-exemption form that it did not send money to foreign organizations.
The church told The Record at the time that it did not send money overseas and that “there is no evidence that any distributions have been made to a South Korean entity.”
Former members told The Record that the church discouraged members from having children before 2012 because of its belief that the world was about to end.
According to the federal lawsuit, Ramirez became pregnant in 2010, at a time when some World Mission leaders "would instruct the pregnant member to get an abortion."
The lawsuit accuses the church of "coercing Plaintiff into getting an abortion by indoctrinating her to believe she would be unable to remain a World Mission member in good standing if she had a child." As a result, the suit alleges, Ramirez attempted suicide.
The church filed a motion to dismiss the case last year, citing a Superior Court judge's decision to dismiss a similar case filed in Hackensack by another former member. The judge in that case wrote that the First Amendment prohibited her from “determining underlying questions of religious doctrine and practice,” and that “the court may not give an opinion on the validity of a religion.” The decision was upheld on appeal.
The federal judge, John Michael Vazquez, wrote in an April 5 decision that the federal court was not bound by the state court's interpretation of rights under the U.S. Constitution. The motion to dismiss, he wrote, was based on a "fatally flawed" legal theory.
Crises of faith
Kokotajlo’s film unfolds as a series of crises of faith. Even the steadfast Ivanna is tested.
“She is facing an impossible choice between her family in the here and now or the promise of seeing her other family in paradise,” explains Kokotajlo. “That’s representative of what a lot of Witnesses have to go through. Family members are forced to shun other family members. But they’re ultimately the ones who are left on their own.”
Kokotajlo was already a huge fan of screen veteran Siobhan Finneran from her work on Rita, Sue and Bob Too and Happy Valley. Casting the two newcomers Parkinson and Wright took a lot longer.
“Siobhan lives close to the hall in Oldham I used to go to,” says the director. “So she knows that world and had a lot of compassion for her character. I worked with casting director Michelle Smith who is based in Manchester, and who casts pretty much all northern films and a lot of TV that goes on there. We saw hundreds of people. It was very important to me that we cast working northern actors and show people what kind of film talent is up here. The thing about Manchester is that there is loads of talent but they tend to get snapped up by TV.”
The subject matter weighed heavily on Kokotajlo. Established in 1879 by Charles Taze Russell in Pennsylvania, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian, but not Protestant faith. They have their own translation of the Bible, the New World Translation, which emphasises several core beliefs. Witnesses hold that God, or Jehovah, is a singular being and therefore do not believe in the Trinity. They don’t celebrate Easter, Christmas or birthdays. In 1945, Witnesses introduced the controversial doctrine which holds that the Bible prohibits ingesting blood and that Christians should not accept blood transfusions. Meetings for worship are held at Kingdom Halls.
Knocking on doors
For much of his youth, Kokotajlo was actively promoting the sect, knocking on doors and handing out copies of the Watchtower. His own drift from the Witnesses was not nearly as wrenching as the abrupt ostracisation depicted in the film. Despite harbouring doubts, he continued to attend services until he finally moved away from his hometown.
“For me personally it was a slow process, I know a lot of ex-Witnesses who experienced it as an extreme thing. For me, it was different. I was careful about it. One of the biggest things that happened to me was going to college. Suddenly, people were asking for my opinion on things. That was a new concept for me as a Witness. At the Kingdom Hall, if you were asked questions, it was an opportunity to say what was already there in the Watchtower magazine. There was always an answer for everything. We were told to avoid anything that was critical of us. And there’s something very comforting in that, in the black-and-whiteness of everything. But those absolutes don’t really fit with the real world.”
“I have a good relationship with my close family,” he says. “Obviously, there was a natural distancing that went on between me and my extended family. We don’t share the same interests anymore. They are Witnesses. So it can sometimes be difficult to communicate honestly. But I’ve never dealt with the kind of treatment you see in the film.”
Apostasy has been rapturously received at festivals in Mumbai, London, Toronto, Bergamo and San Sebastián but has, unsurprisingly, sounded a particular resonance with those who have personal history with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In common with Ivanna in the film, Kokotajlo’s mother worked for the council, while his father did odd jobs as a handyman. Daniel was eight when his mother converted. The family remain close, despite his own apostasy.
“One of the aims of the film was to treat the Witnesses with a lot of respect,” says Kokotajlo. “Mainly because of my personal connection with the story and my own family. I have a lot of compassion for the people within the religion. It’s the rules that the organisation creates that I have an issue with. Not the people trying to navigate those rules. Whenever we’ve screened it, there’s always a significant number in the audience who are ex-Witnesses. And they really relate to what’s going on. Some of them are very angry.”
Kokotajlo, who is now 37, is a relative latecomer to cinema. He studied fine art at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he specialised in textiles. After graduation, he became a hip-hop artist. It was only after a friend introduced him to British cinema that he became interested in the medium.
“That was a revelation for me,” he laughs. “Because until then I hadn’t realised there was such a thing as British cinema. So I got into Anthony Asquith, Terence Rattigan, David Lean and then Nic Roeg and Ken Russell. And then I got into other filmmakers through my Ukrainian and Italian heritage. And I realised that this was something I could do and that it was a way to combine all the interests I had.”
Aged 27, he left Manchester for London. He sold paintings and worked part-time to fund his MA in screenwriting at Westminster University. His first short film, The Mess Hall of an Online Warrior, screened at SXSW in 2010. A second short, Myra, inspired by the Moors murderer, Myra Hindley, was longlisted for a Bafta. In 2015, Kokotajlo was named by Screen International among their Star of Tomorrow selections.
Apostasy, his first feature, was shot in 21 days through the iFeatures low-budget film-making scheme, with backing from Creative England, BBC Films, BFI and Oldgarth Media.
“I’ve been trying for a long time to get a feature film made,” says Kokotajlo. “And something about this project got people excited. They don’t really know much about the Witnesses. Which made some backers a bit nervous at first. But they came to see this is a subject that’s very close to me. The film forced me to look at my own life. In the end that was very helpful for me and I’m grateful for it.”
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