Rebekah Vardy has spoken for the first time about her experiences of growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, as she alleges in a Channel 4 documentary that the religion failed to support her through sexual abuse as a child.
The media personality and wife of footballer Jamie Vardy was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in Norwich, Norfolk, but left at the age of 15, after she was “shamed” for the sexual abuse and was shunned by the community alongside family members following her parents’ divorce.
Mother-of-five Vardy, 41, said she was sexually abused by an individual in the community between the ages of 11 to 15, which she claimed was covered up by “elders”, senior male religious leaders.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination with about 8.5 million followers worldwide, which believes the destruction of the world is imminent.
They impose a strict moral code on members, including that homosexuality is a sin, and punishes those who deviate from their beliefs by “disfellowshipping” them, ostracising them from the community.
In the documentary Vardy returns to Norwich, where several members of her family still live as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and with whom she has had little contact since leaving the community.
She says: “I was brought up in a strict and controlling religious organisation.
“What happened to me during my childhood still affects me every single day.
“From the age of around 12 years old I was being abused and instead of being supported I was blamed, manipulated into believing it wasn’t the best thing to take it to the police.
“I told my mum about the abuse that I was experiencing. She cried, but didn’t believe me.
“I told numerous members of my family, Jehovah’s Witness community, and they called a meeting, I think I was about 15, it was suggested that I had misinterpreted the abuse for a form of affection.
“I knew that I hadn’t, I was well aware of what was right and what was wrong, and it was explained that I could bring shame on my family, and I was basically manipulated into believing it wasn’t the best thing to do to take it any further and take it to the police.
“It’s hard to see how I survived that.”
Vardy recalls a childhood without Christmas or birthday celebrations, in line with the religion’s beliefs, with bible studies and visits to the Kingdom Hall, the religious centre of worship for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As a child Vardy said she believed she would die at Armageddon if she was not “perfect” and recalls “upsetting” images shown to her depicting the end of the world, which still cause her nightmares as an adult.
Visiting the Kingdom Hall where her congregation gathered, and where her grandfather was an elder, Vardy said: “You would have to do things to keep Jehovah happy, because he was always watching.
“Who you spoke to, how you spoke, how you dressed, how you held yourself, how you conducted every part of your whole life, and we were told if we didn’t pray enough, bad things would happen to us.”
Vardy said she always knew her family was different, from an early age, their faith causing her to be bullied and picked on at school.
At home her parents’ relationship was difficult, with elders regularly called to their home to “calm down” arguments.
When Vardy was 11, she said, her family were shunned by the community after her parents’ divorce.
Vardy said relatives and friends were forbidden from associating with her family, which contributed to her “resentment” of religion and her parents.
“I think that’s where my real resentment to religion started, was being made to feel so bad, so different.”
During the documentary Vardy also meets former members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, including a victim of child abuse and the mother of a man who died by suicide after being expelled by the organisation.
Vardy described the experience of revisiting her past as an “emotional rollercoaster”.
She told reporters: “I had closed Pandora’s box and didn’t want to revisit that.
“I went into this thinking this was going to be quite easy and actually, wow, it was a real challenge.
“It was an emotional rollercoaster.
“I have never been so open and personal about my experiences but also to discover other people who had been through similar experiences, witnessed similar things, if not worse, and to hear their stories, I just think they’re incredibly brave for being prepared to speak out.”
Asked whether making the documentary had given her closure on what she experienced as a child, Vardy said: “Definitely. I think this chapter has closed.
“It already really was, but I really wanted to do this when Channel 4 approached me, because I was fascinated by it.
“Knowing that I had a voice, knowing that my voice could help and hopefully there will be more people who come forward to share their experiences.”
Rebekah Vardy: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Me, is on Channel 4 at 10pm on May 16.