Published August 4th, 2016
In a newly released letter to all elders dated August 1st 2016, The Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses has once again revised its instructions to elders on dealing with allegations of child abuse.
Unfortunately, the changes are completely inert, failing to address the flaws which have resulted in unprecedented numbers of lawsuits against JW congregations and their worldwide headquarters in New York.
This leaked, internal document is a modification of the October 1st 2012 letter to elders, which served as a guideline for Jehovah’s Witness elders who have come to obtain knowledge of an accusation of the physical or sexual abuse of a minor.
For those unfamiliar with this ongoing saga, Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain a rigidly controlled central network of elders who are required to make first contact with the JW legal department instead of local police or child protection authorities when they become aware of child abuse allegations.
The letter, deceptively titled “Protecting Minors from Abuse” is a 6-page document that contains the terms “legal” or “legal department” no less than 17 different times, and functions as an organizational tool that should be more accurately titled “Protecting the Jehovah’s Witness Organization from Liability and Negative Publicity.”
Following a descriptive definition of the term “child abuse,” Watchtower’s instructions waste no time reminding elders that they may be obligated to report an allegation of child abuse to local authorities.
This is significant because this statement offers no proactive protection for victims, only a reactive reminder that elders might be forced to comply with state laws. And who is responsible for informing elders of state laws in their jurisdiction? The Watchtower Legal Department.
“To ensure that elders comply with child-abuse reporting laws, two elders should immediately call the Legal Department for legal advice when the elders learn of an accusation of child abuse. (Rom. 13:1-4)” – Paragraph 6 August 1, 2016 Letter.
Using the example of the United States, it might seem logical that with 50 independent state governments, a centralized legal department would simplify the process for local elders, who are generally uninformed in legal matters. Unfortunately, the cold reality is that once the call is placed to Watchtower’s legal department, the focus shifts from the protection of the victim to the protection of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, and their internal investigation of the accused.
As stated in paragraph 5 of the Watchtower letter, “In all cases, the victim and her parents have the absolute right to report an allegation to the authorities.” The term “absolute right” does not originate with Watchtower, but is a legal term defined this way:
an unqualified right : a legally enforceable right to take some action or to refrain from acting at the sole discretion of the person having the right” (Merriam Webster)
The term appears in the final chapter of the JW elders’s handbook “Shepherd the Flock of God” under “Clarifications and Guidelines on Handling Certain Matters”
“Child abuse is a crime. Never suggest to anyone that they should not report an allegation of child abuse to the police or other authorities. If you are asked, make it clear that whether to report the matter to the authorities or not is a personal decision for each individual to make and that there are no congregation sanctions for either decision. Elders will not criticize anyone who reports such an allegation to the authorities. If the victim wishes to make a report, it is his or her absolute right to do so.” – Shepherd the Flock of God, pages 131- 32
Clearly, Watchtower has purposefully muddied the waters of justice by issuing a confusing statement in the very book which should be relied upon to clarify the handling of serious matters. Instead, they obfuscate procedures by suggesting inaction on the part of elders, and shifting the burden of reporting abuse to the victim. There is a substantial difference between never telling someone not to report, and actively telling someone they should report.
In a great majority of JW abuse cases, the victims are underage, emotionally devastated, embarrassed, and completely unable to comprehend or navigate the process of reporting their abuser and the crime itself. Watchtower has effectively told the victim “We won’t stop you from reporting this crime to the police if you really feel this is necessary; we are required to inform you that it is your legal ‘absolute right’ to do so, but we will not encourage this unless we as the body of elders are legally held responsible to contact the authorities.”
During the April 2013 Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations, held in Victoria Australia (not the 2015 Australian Royal Commission,) Watchtower legal counsel Ms. Rachel Van Witsen regurgitated the “absolute right” phrase multiple times, including the following statement defending Watchtower’s position:
“On that, if I may add, as part of giving that advice, our instructions are that first and foremost is the protection of children in the organisation, whatever that takes. At the moment, because there is no mandatory reporting for ministers of religion in Victoria, then the victim, who has very often had their dignity removed, is then put in the driver’s seat. It is entirely their absolute right, and the elders are directed to tell the victim and their family that it is their absolute right, to report to the authorities, that they would be fully supported whichever decision they made and that the elders are also directed in that advice to fully cooperate with any police investigation.”
Ms. Van Witsen was reminded by the court that the Australian Evidence Act of 2008 makes a special allowance for elders of any religion to report details of criminal conduct to civil authorities with no penalty. Watchtower has flat out refused to comply with this allowance. This detail was revealed in the exchange between the honorable Nicholas Wakeling and acting Watchtower Australian Branch Overseer Terry O’Brien:
Mr. WAKELING — I am trying to be very clear here. If there was evidence of child abuse within the church that you are aware of, would you report that to the police?
Mr. T. O’BRIEN — Not if the victim did not want it reported.
Mr. WAKELING — No, I am not asking you about the victim. I am asking: would you as an organisation report that to the police if you became aware of child abuse within your organisation?
Mr. T. O’BRIEN — We do not have the authority to do that.
Mr. WAKELING — And why do you not have the authority?
Mr. T. O’BRIEN — Because of the mandatory reporting act.
Mr. WAKELING — And why do you say that?
Mr. T. O’BRIEN — Because the minister does not have the priority over the victim. It is the victim’s absolute right and privilege to decide whether they want the matter ——
Mr. WAKELING — Mr. O’Brien, if I may take you to the Evidence Act which we are talking about, section 127 of the Evidence Act states:
“(1) A person who is or was a member of the clergy of any church or religious denomination is entitled to refuse to divulge that a religious confession was made, or the contents of a religious confession made, to the person when a member of the clergy.” The law does not prevent the church from providing information. The law provides an exemption for the church, but the law does not prevent a church in this state from providing information. It is clearly within the province of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, if child sexual abuse is such a significant issue, for you as an organisation to waiver that and to report that.
Ms. VAN WITSEN — Absolutely.
[bold and italics ours]
It is clear that Watchtower Attorney Rachel Van Witsen was caught between a rock and a hard place, formally agreeing with the court, while at the same time defending a position that obstructs justice and puts victims at an extreme disadvantage.
She declared that “our instructions are that first and foremost is the protection of children in the organization, whatever that takes” while simultaneously refusing to do “whatever that takes.” The international courts of law have come to an agreement that it takes swift and immediate contact with law enforcement and child protection authorities to protect our community and children from abusers, and this action in no way violates the scriptural and religious beliefs of those who belong to Christian organizations.
Following the section on legal concerns, the newly released Watchtower letter focuses a great amount of attention on the internal investigations of any accusations of physical or sexual abuse of a minor. It is significant that an organization that directs so much effort into its internal religious justice system has been the subject of worldwide investigations by the very secular authorities which Witnesses claim to obey.
The Watchtower organization suggests that their own due process protects minors, positing that the reproving or disfellowshipping of an offender warns the congregation about a predator in their midst. However, this premise is deceptively weak. In a great number of sexual abuse cases, the victims have come forward only after extreme damage has been inflicted by the perpetrator on not one, but in most cases, multiple victims, often numbering double digits. The Australian Royal Commission on Child Abuse found that of the 1,006 known cases of child abuse uncovered among Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia, the number of actually reported victims exceeded 1,730.
Predators associated with the Jehovah’s Witness religion know very well that the lack of cooperation with civil authorities coupled with the infamous JW “Two Witness” rule allows an environment of tolerance to exist inside this religion which has paved the way for many sexual encounters between these predators and innocent Witness children.
What many may not realize is that disfellowshipping for child abuse is a somewhat rare occurrence. [In many cases, elders have disfellowshipped on the grounds of “lying” rather than the actual crime of child abuse.] Obviously most abusers will flat out deny an accusation of abuse, and justice is further prevented because wrongdoing is usually not “established” without two credible witnesses. Aside from the ultra-rare confession of a molester, the only way an abuser can be convicted by a judicial committee would be when at least 2 independent victims come forward accusing the perpetrator of the same crime. Again, this is extraordinarily rare. The fact that Witness victims are effectively discouraged from contacting the authorities makes the chance of additional victims coming forward even more unlikely.
The list of policies and procedures for elders involved in processing an accused child molester is seemingly endless, as evidenced by the release of the new August 1st letter. What is absolutely horrific is that an accused and convicted child molester may not only attend meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses but engage in the public door-to-door ministry and become baptized (or reinstated) as an approved congregant.
This letter mandates that “restrictions” will be placed on the abuser, stating that:
“The elders will be directed to caution the individual never to be alone with a minor, not to cultivate friendships with minors, not to display affection for minors, and so forth.”
Is this really a restriction? No, it is not. It is a suggestion to “caution” this predator to avoid circumstances that might lead to abuse. Any concerned parent would find absolutely no comfort whatsoever in the knowledge that a Jehovah’s Witness elder “cautioned” a sick individual to avoid contact with their child. Abusers have severe personality disorders and are manipulative and controlling. When a deviant urge rises to the surface, there is no “caution” in the world which will prevent an abuser from manipulating circumstances to his sick, sexual advantage.
It is noteworthy that Jehovah’s Witnesses offer absolutely no professional counseling either to the victims of sexual abuse or to predators seeking religious asylum within this organization. This is because, as an organization, they support or sanction no approved treatments for either group. In the case of offenders, even the suggestion of obtaining professional help is conspicuously absent from JW policy. They seem to have no problem reinstating, baptizing, or even offering “privileges” to offenders in some cases, but refuse to encourage consultation with a mental health professional.
No Help for Victims
For as long as I was associated with the Jehovah’s Witness organization, there was a notable reluctance to recommend professional counseling for any individual suffering from mental illness, depression, alcoholism, or the effects of child abuse. They believe the first authority in all such matters is the Bible, but only as interpreted by the Jehovah’s Witness Governing Body.
This is yet another obstruction of justice, particularly for victims of child abuse who, more often than not, have already been denied civil justice or the benefit of child protection advocates.
Just as with their reluctance to contact the police when learning of alleged abuse, they are equally remiss in establishing a welfare plan where victims can make contact with appropriate professionals who are trained to deal with physical or sexual abuse. The only mention of professional counseling occurs in section 11 of the Watchtower letter, which says:
“In addition to the spiritual shepherding provided by the elders, the victim or her family may desire other assistance. For example, the victim or her family may decide to consult a mental-health professional. This would be a personal decision for them to make.”
Once again, “spiritual shepherding” comes first, and is performed by window washers, carpenters, contractors, and other men who have absolutely no qualifications to handle counseling of any kind. Making matters worse, they are by design always men, further exacerbating an already sensitive situation for female abuse victims.
The suggestion that victims “may” decide to consult a mental health professional, and that this would be a “personal decision” demonstrates the well-known opposition among Jehovah’s Witnesses to opening their minds and deepest thoughts to “worldly” individuals and persons they would refer to as “so-called experts” who do not have the “best interests” of Jehovah’s Witnesses at heart.
Evidence of this position can be found in countless Watchtower and Awake! articles, such as the September 8th, 1986 issue of the Awake! which covered the subject of mental illness:
“Medical science today is likewise limited. True, one can take reasonable steps to attain a measure of relief. But rather than getting trapped on a treadmill of searching for an elusive cure, some may simply have to learn to live with and endure the problem.”
The August 8th 1982 Awake! magazine article titled “Making Wise Health Decisions” stated:
“A wise objective is to try to go through as much of life as possible free from pills or therapy. The number of persons who can say they live a pill-free life is becoming increasingly smaller”
Non-Jehovah’s Witness Parents Excluded
The Jehovah’s Witness organization governs its members on the principle that families should all accept the “truth” and describes anyone who has not accepted this religion as an “unbeliever.” It stands to reason that if a husband and wife do not share the Witness theology, this detail would be irrelevant when it is discovered that one of their children has been abused. However, Jehovah’s Witness leadership makes no mention of the involvement of a non-Witness parent during an abuse investigation, either in the updated 2016 letter to elders, or in the elder’s handbook “Shepherd the Flock.”
“In the case of any discussion with a child abuse victim who is still a minor, an elder should never meet alone with the minor but should always involve another elder and another adult member of the congregation, preferably the minor’s parent(s).” August 1st 2016 Letter to Elders, Par. 11
This is a very subtle point, but the use of the term “preferably” opens the door for the involvement of a non-parent in cases where one of the parents is either deceased, the accused, or a non-Witness. This is a reminder that the investigations performed by JW elders have no relevance in the real world, and are only used to execute their religious tribunal.
A non-Witness parent is likely already aware that his presence at a JW judicial meeting is completely undesired. He is deemed worthy of death according to the Watchtower. When discussing the consequences of marrying an unbeliever, the May 1st, 2002 Watchtower says:
“God’s view of marrying an unbeliever is expressed at Malachi 2:12: “Jehovah will cut off each one that does it.” Christians are urged to marry “only in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:39) Under the Christian system of things, a believer is not “cut off” for marrying an unbeliever. Still, if the unbeliever stays in his or her unbelief, what will happen to that one when God shortly brings this system to an end?—Psalm 37:37, 38.”
In case you are unfamiliar with the Biblical term “cut off,” it means execution by God. Watchtower emphasizes that in pre-Christian days, marrying an unbeliever would result in death. They harness fear in the 21st Century by stating that the same behavior will result in death by Jehovah at Armageddon.
Summary of Changes
It has been nearly four years since the release of the October 1st, 2012 letter to elders, and while Watchtower’s policy on handling child abuse allegations has remained stagnant, for legal and administrative reasons the JW organization has seen fit to publish the following changes as noted in the August 1st, 2016 letter
- The term “two witnesses” has been eliminated, but the policy itself has not changed
- The statement that the “branch office” determines who shall be deemed a “predator” has been eliminated
- The direction of what to do when an adult has been viewing child pornography has been eliminated
- The statement that the Watchtower “branch office” determines whether an abuser shall be known as a “child molester” has been eliminated
- Internal investigations with a victim do not need to proceed in the presence of the accused molester
- Elders are instructed to DELETE paragraphs 20 and 21 of chapter 12 of their Shepherd the Flock elders manual
With reference to the last item, Watchtower has eliminated some grossly damaging direction, particularly regarding how it handles the testimony of the accuser (the victim) It part, the 2012 letter stated:
“The following questions should be answered with regard to the accuser: (1) What is the level of maturity of the child or youth? (2) Is he (or she) describing conduct that one his age would not normally know about? (3) Is the child or his parents known to be serious, mature? (4) Is his memory consistent, or is it intermittent, or does it involve repressed memories? (w95 11/1 pp. 25-26) (5) What is the reputation of the parents? (6) Are they spiritually and emotionally mature? After carefully considering the matter, the branch office will then give you direction as to what information about the allegation should be shared, if any, with the elders of the new congregation.”
Not only did Watchtower refuse to defer accusations of child abuse to the proper authorities, it scrutinized the victims, suggesting that some might be immature, have faulty memories, unstable parents, or may even be guilty of fabricating their claims. These disgusting and inappropriate questions have disappeared from the written edicts governing Jehovah’s Witness elders, but you can be sure that they will be asked in private when the legal and service departments are contacted by elders.
While the changes to the 2016 child abuse handling letter are primarily omissions, one addition is the newly minted policy which states the following:
“Elders should remember that during the investigation process and during the judicial committee process, a victim of child sexual abuse is not required to make her allegation in the presence of the alleged abuser.”
Jehovah’s Witness children have been traumatized by the very thought of revealing that someone touched or abused them, let alone reliving this horror in front of a group of Witness elders. Even worse, they were until now required to face their abuser in a religious tribunal.
While some might argue that eliminating the “face your abuser” madness is a step in the right direction, we must not forget that the victim must STILL spell out the details of their sexual abuse to Jehovah’s Witness investigating elders. Unless the victim is a minor, the new Watchtower directive STILL requires full disclosure to the very same men who preach that Armageddon is around the corner, and who would deny a life-saving blood transfusion to an innocent child.
The nature of these judicial proceedings is embarrassing, humiliating, and enormously stressful for the person required to recount the sordid details of the physical or sexual abuse. Remember, the men in the room are tradesmen, salesmen, pin-stripers and plumbers – anything but qualified therapists.
We must not forget that elders are required to contact the JW legal and service departments first in any cases of abuse, which means that their policies have remained essentially the same; Witness elders almost always get the first crack at interviewing the victims of child sexual abuse.
This is a significant obstruction of the child protective and civil processes which govern most countries. From the moment abuse is mentioned or reported, only trained professionals should be consulted. There are severe consequences that result from the unethical and unprofessional mishandling of abuse allegations.
In a 2013 paper on the subject of forensic interviews, the US National Institutes of Health published a paper describing the implications of multiple interviews and the fragility of victim testimony:
“Sexually abused children may have trouble disclosing1 their abuse despite the fact that the child’s history may be the most important part of the diagnostic evaluation and may lead to conviction of the perpetrator(s) (Berkoff, Zolotor, Thackeray, Shapiro, & Runyan, 2008). The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS) model suggests that children react to their sexual abuse in the form of secrecy, helplessness, entrapment and accommodation, delayed and unconvincing disclosure, and retraction (Summit, 1983). Sense of responsibility for abuse, shame and social stigma, and fear of the consequences for the perpetrator, self, siblings, or non-involved parent all may hinder a child’s ability to disclose (Goodman-Brown, Edelstein, Goodman, Jones, & Gordon, 2003; Summit, 1983). Older children may further fear a parent’s incarceration, siblings’ removal from the home, or the loss of financial security (Block, Oran, Oran, Baumrind, & Goodman, 2010). Thus, children might not disclose abuse that has occurred for any of several reasons.”
The conclusion any reasonable person would reach is that the victim of child abuse is often in an extremely fragile state, and the interviews conducted with such persons need to be performed only by educated and qualified child protection agents and the special victims departments of law enforcement. Elders who intervene and interfere under the premise of spiritual guidance or internal investigations may cause irreversible damage to the victim, and obstruct justice.
How Have Other Religions Responded?
In noticeable contrast with the gross mishandling of child abuse cases by Jehovah’s Witness elders, other religions who have experienced similar tragedies have learned their lesson, apologized, and have put in place effective policies which favor the protection of children and have instituted a zero tolerance policy for child abusers.
For example, the Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of Baltimore Maryland has published a FAQ page on its web site titled “How the Church Responds to Sexual Abuse Allegations.”
Their published policies include the following statements:
“The Archdiocese of Baltimore is committed to healthy ministry, and seeks to utilize only competent, qualified, and responsible personnel. All clergy and Archdiocesan employees as well as all volunteers who work with children undergo criminal background checks. They also receive training on how to create a safe environment and how to recognize and report abuse. Children – including those in Catholic schools and religious education programs – are educated about healthy relationships and boundaries in the context of Catholic moral teaching.”
By contrast, the Jehovah’s Witness organization continues to appoint elders and ministerial servants (deacons) to positions of responsibility with absolutely NO BACKGROUND CHECKS whatsoever. Any male Jehovah’s Witness can work his way into a position of authority in the congregation, receiving no professional training, and has no authority to vet fellow appointed elders and servants.
The site further states:
“The Archdiocese complies with Maryland laws requiring that suspected child abuse be reported to civil authorities. Under Maryland law any person who has reason to believe a child has been subjected to abuse must report the suspected abuse to civil authorities, even if the potential victim is now over 18-year-old and even in cases where the alleged perpetrator is deceased. If Church personnel are suspected of abuse, then the suspected abuse must also be reported to the Archdiocese’s Office of Child & Youth Protection.”
Jehovah’s Witness elders continue to evade the responsibility to report abuse to civil authorities proactively, only doing so under duress.
How does the Catholic Church currently help victims?
“The Archdiocese of Baltimore has long been committed to the treatment and healing of those who have been harmed through abuse. We apologize and offer counseling assistance and pastoral services. The Archdiocese also recognizes the importance of offering support to family members. We do this for as long as it is helpful, and regardless of the age of the incident. We provide this support regardless of lawsuits and statutes of limitations. We have paid $2.8 million in victim counseling, and more than $7.6 million in direct payments to victims/survivors. The Archdiocese continues to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to assist victims and protect children.”
While the Watchtower organization continues to malign all other religions as corrupt and “false” – one can’t ignore the candor of the Archdiocese, which has simply stated that “We apologize” and follow up by offering counseling and financial settlements to victims. What this means is that the Catholic organization has acknowledged that they were wrong, and they have taken responsibility for failing to protect children.
What is their current policy for handling accusations of abuse?
“Today, as it has done for many years, the Archdiocese offers assistance and healing to a victim who reports an allegation of abuse. The Church immediately reports the matter to civil authorities. When given permission by the local authorities, the Archdiocese conducts an investigation, presuming the accused is alive, and remains in ongoing communication with law enforcement. If the allegation is deemed credible, the accused is permanently barred from ministry and from serving in any capacity on behalf of the Archdiocese or any Catholic institution.” [bold is ours]
While this site does not endorse or recommend any religion or set of beliefs, we applaud those organizations that have at the very least, apologized for their mishandling of child abuse accusations, and have taken drastic steps to reverse the processes which caused the problem in the first place.
Filing immediate reports with the civil authorities and permanently banning any individual who has perpetrated a crime of sexual misconduct proves that change is possible no matter how large the organization or how widespread the problem was.
As I write this article, Jehovah’s Witnesses are facing a tidal wave of litigation and negative press due to their destructive organizational policies. In the end, they will find that they did not serve themselves very well. Their legal departments worldwide are being taxed, and they are forced to retain outside counsel from third party law firms to defend themselves in the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, and numerous additional countries.
Watchtower continues to amass a vast database of child abuse reports within their organization, but has refused to produce these documents under court order, and has exhausted every possible legal strategy to insulate their organization from accountability.
At this moment, the Superior Court of California has levied a $4,000 per day fine against the Watchtower organization for failure to comply with the court’s discovery order. This fine has been deemed by the court as a “lesser sanction” designed to motivate Watchtower’s compliance, and is a very small fraction of the terminating sanctions which will be levied in a matter of weeks against this organization.
All of this is the sad consequence of unyielding and disastrous policies which have crippled the lives of countless abuse victims, and is being financed by the unsuspecting members of the Jehovah’s Witness organization, who have little knowledge of the legal perils of their religion.
The JW.ORG web site news section features frequent articles on the legal battles being fought in defense of their religious freedoms, but never once have they posted a story explaining their highly publicized battles on the subject of child abuse.
Even the elders who carry out these policies and orders have almost no understanding of the underlying meaning of all of this. They follow directions, completely trusting the Governing Body and its legal department.
I take no delight in reporting on these issues, as they expose a systemic crack in our society that has permitted Jehovah’s Witnesses to exploit legal loopholes to elevate their internal justice system above the very secular authorities which they claim to respect. Witnesses state that they obey civil leaders except when their laws conflict with God’s laws, yet obedience to child protection laws violates no Christian principles.
Watchtower has fought so hard to protect its secretive database of child abuse accusations that it raises suspicions of not only how many cases appear on that list, but whose names might surface once this list is exposed. The fallout might just be more than this organization can bear.