PHILADELPHIA — A short Amtrak ride from New York to Philadelphia changed Aaron Kaufman's life.
He was a successful Hollywood producer, with a resume that included the comic book noir "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," and the retro action film "Machete Kills." But for years, Kaufman considered working on on something entirely different, a project that would explore the Jehovah's Witnesses in some way — a screenplay, maybe, or a documentary.
In 2017, his research led him to Philadelphia, where attorneys for the millenarian religion were fighting a lawsuit that had been filed by Stephanie Fessler, who had been sexually abused dozens of times when she was a teenaged Witness in Spring Grove, York County. Witness elders discouraged her parents from contacting the police.
"I saw that there were two Jehovah's Witnesses' attorneys, and another high-profile secular attorney, trying to discredit this poor woman who had been abused as a child," Kaufman said. "I took the train back home, and thought, 'Ohh. The organization's bad. There's something rotten at the core.'"
Kaufman spent the next few years digging into the culture of secrecy that has protected Witnesses who prey on children, and emerged with a documentary, "Vice Versa: Crusaders," that will air Wednesday on Vice TV. (Disclosure: Kaufman interviewed me as part of this project.)
A Long Island, New York, native, Kaufman, 47, was raised a Witness, and familiar with the lifestyle restrictions the religion's leaders impose on millions of followers. But interviews that Kaufman conducted with dozens of ex-Witnesses revealed an even darker side of the organization — one that finds Witness officials discounting survivors' stories of abuse and instructing elders to destroy records.
"The hubris," Kaufman said, "is crazy."
More than a year ago, a Pennsylvania grand jury began probing the Witnesses' handling of child sex abuse complaints, an investigation believed to be the first of its kind in the country. (When The Inquirer recently asked if that investigation is still ongoing, a spokesperson for Attorney General Josh Shapiro declined to comment.)
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.