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Oxygen’s ‘The Witnesses’ Isn’t About a Religion’s Secrets, It’s About a ‘Public Safety Issue,’ Investigator Says

”What I hope happens is viewers get a ton of information they didn’t have before,“ Trey Bundy tells TheWrap

Ever heard of “clergy-penitent privilege?” You probably haven’t, but the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Trey Bundy wants to change that, because, he says, it is creating a “public safety” issue by making it possible for child sexual abuse to go un-reported to law enforcement.

Saturday and Sunday at 7 p.m. ET/PT on Oxygen, you can see his two-part documentary special, “The Witnesses,” for yourself. “The Witnesses” showcases the stories of four women who are former Jehovah’s Witnesses. They detail accusations of sexual abuse they say they endured during their time within the organization while Bundy provides insight from his five years looking into the accusations against the church and its leaders.

What I hope happens is viewers get a ton of information they didn’t have before on what we consider to be a public safety issue,” Bundy told TheWrap Thursday by phone. 

Through exclusive interviews and firsthand accounts, the special shows testimonies of four former Witnesses — Debbie McDaniel, Deloris Lyles, Sarah Brooks and Chessa Manion — along with attorney Irwin Zalkin, who provides legal services to victims of abuse, provide a look inside the organization. “The Witnesses” highlights not only these four women, but the growing number of former members who are speaking out to change the institution.

Clergy-penitent privilege, in Bundy’s words, is a precedent “designed so if somebody confesses a sin, say, in a Catholic church, that the priest doesn’t have to report the sin to authorities.” In some states, that privilege includes child sexual abuse, which the subjects of the documentary say they went through. Recently, Montana’s Supreme Court ruled that even if a victim, not a penitent, goes to a clergy member with a story of abuse, the privilege means the clergy member doesn’t have to tell secular authorities.

Bundy wrote about that and is continuing to work on reporting about the Witnesses that will continue long after the documentary premieres Saturday.

When asked how it feels to help these women tell their stories, he offered a gentle correction: “They’re allowing me to tell their stories.”

Brooks, one of the women in the special, told TheWrap that having the platform to share her story has been scary, but also “a relief.”

“I’m excited but I’m also very nervous,” she said, noting that while she’s “a little apprehensive” about her friends and family members hearing so many personal details, she doesn’t regret participating “in the least.”

I had time to sit and ponder what had happened,” she said of the moments after Oxygen’s film crew left her home. “I felt really good and a lot had been lifted off of me because here I am trying to tell my story … and I kind of handed off the torch to them and they made it blow up and that’s something I could not do on my own.”

Her hope, she said, is to raise awareness and create a “big enough group” of victims speaking out and outsiders speaking up on behalf of victims. 

“If enough of us can create a big enough group to do that, it can finally get recognition it deserves,” she said.