Jehovah's Witnesses' handling of child sex abuse
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As with other religious organizations, Jehovah's Witnesses have been obliged in recent years to develop child protection policies to deal with cases of child sexual abuse in their congregations. Jehovah's Witnesses strongly denounce all kinds of sexual abuse, and according to a 2009 study there were no more documented cases of sexual abuse among Jehovah's Witnesses than among society in general. The Watch Tower Society states that incidence of this crime among Jehovah’s Witnesses is rare.
Details of the Society's child abuse policies have been published in Jehovah's Witnesses' publications, although more specific guidelines are only made available to elders, or on request. Press releases issued by the Watch Tower Society's Office of Public Information confirm that if a person accused of molestation repeatedly denies the charges of his victim, and there is no other witness to the incident, "the elders cannot take action within the congregation at that time", but would report to authorities if required by local laws.
Critics have accused Jehovah's Witnesses of employing organizational policies that make the reporting of sexual abuse difficult for members. Some victims of sexual abuse have asserted that they were ordered by certain local elders to maintain silence so as to avoid embarrassment to both the accused and the organization.  Jehovah's Witnesses maintain that they have no policy of silence, and that elders are directed to report abuse to authorities when there is evidence of abuse, and when required to by law. In 1997, Jehovah's Witnesses' Office of Public Information published their policy for elders to report allegations of child abuse to the authorities where required by law to do so, even if there was only one witness. Individuals known to have sexually abused a child are generally prohibited from holding any position of responsibility inside the organization. Unless considered by the congregation elders to demonstrate repentance, such a person is typically disfellowshipped.
In June 2012, the Superior Court of Alameda, California, ordered the Watch Tower Society to pay $21 million in punitive damages, in addition to compensatory damages, after finding that the Society's policy to not disclose child abuse history of a member to parents in the congregation or to report abuse to authorities contributed to the sexual abuse of a nine-year-old girl. Her attorney claimed at the time that it was the "largest jury verdict for a single victim in a religious child abuse case in the country". The plaintiff claimed in her lawsuit that the national leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses formed a policy in 1989 that instructed elders to keep child sex abuse accusations within the group secret to avoid lawsuits. A subsequent motion in September 2012 resulted in a reduction of the punitive damages to $8.61 million. The Watch Tower Society appealed the revised ruling, and the case is ongoing.
- 1 Policies
- 2 Reporting to civil authorities
- 3 Lawsuits
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Advice to members
The Watch Tower Society has published information on how to protect children from sexual molestation, such as the articles, Protect Your Children in the October 8, 1993 edition of Awake!, Help Your Children to Thrive in Awake! of August 8, 1997, the series, Keep Your Children Safe, in the November 2007 edition of Awake!, and in the book, Learn from the Great Teacher. These articles focus on prevention, and do not specifically state that a child or its parents should contact the police in the event of molestation. They also suggest that, in some countries, "the legal system may offer little hope of successful prosecution." Whether or not a victim seeks professional treatment from psychiatrists, psychologists or therapists is suggested as being the personal decision of the victim (or the parents), but such ones are warned to "make sure that any such professional will respect your religious views."
Jehovah's Witnesses' congregational judicial policies require the testimony of two material witnesses to establish a perpetrator's serious sin in the absence of confession. The organization considers this policy to be a protection against malicious accusations of sexual assault. The Society maintains that this two-witness policy is applied solely to congregational discipline and has no bearing on whether a crime is reported to the authorities in countries where this is mandatory.
The Society states that it is not necessary for both witnesses to have observed the same instance of child molestation to establish guilt. Since 1991, statements by two victims of separate incidents by the same perpetrator may be deemed sufficient to take action and impose internal sanctions. However, critics argue that such an approach to determining guilt overlooks the seriousness of the initial abuse, and effectively allows a pedophile to go unpunished until he or she abuses a second child. DNA evidence, medical reports, or information from forensic experts or police that proves sexual abuse is also accepted as a valid "second witness", however critics argue that, without mandatory reporting for all accusations of abuse regardless of the local laws, such evidence could remain undetected.
In cases where there is only one eye-witness—the victim—to an allegation of child abuse, elders may monitor the accused individual closely, or even suspend any conspicuous congregation duties—but only if there is evidence based on the testimony of more than one witness to suggest that the alleged perpetrator has abused children. In some instances where there is only one Witness to molestation, elders may discreetly inform parents in a congregation not to allow their children to spend time with someone accused of child abuse provided such a person has been deemed a "predator" by the local branch office based on the elders' observations.
Questioning the victim
In instances of a child reporting abuse, elders are instructed to not ask probing or intimate questions, with elders' immediate concern to do what they reasonably can to protect children from further abuse. Elders are instructed that, however surprising the allegations, they should not indicate disbelief, nor should they criticize the complainant, as elders are regarded as 'spiritual shepherds' only, and have no professional training to investigate or evaluate allegations of child abuse.
Testimony based on repressed memories is not considered reliable enough to form the basis for internal action. Elders are encouraged to treat persons reporting this type of memory with kindness, but not to pursue the case unless further proof is found. Abuse victims may be required to face their abuser to make an accusation, as stated on the Society's official website: "If the accused denies the charge, the two elders may arrange for him and the victim to restate their position in each other’s presence, with elders also there."
If allegations of child abuse satisfy the organization's religious tenets, an internal judicial committee is formed, and the accused individual may potentially be relieved of positions of responsibility in the congregation. Anyone found to have sexually molested a child and failing to demonstrate repentance is to be disfellowshipped from the congregation.
Reproof and restrictions
An abuser who is judged repentant by a committee of elders is given a 'public reproof', wherein it is announced to the congregation that the named individual "has been reproved", though the nature of their crime is not stated. Such a person is automatically debarred from serving in any appointed position in the congregation, however privileges can be restored in the future depending on whether he or she is deemed by the branch office to be a "known molester". Some time later, a talk may be given to the congregation, discussing the type of sin and the need to be on guard against it, but the reproved individual is not named in connection with this talk. When reprimanded, sex offenders may not offer public prayers, read paragraphs during congregation studies, or be given even minor responsibilities in the congregation, such as handling microphones or distributing literature in the Kingdom Hall.
Sex offenders are still permitted to participate in the congregation's house-to-house preaching. According to the Watch Tower Society's spokesperson, J. R. Brown, such ones are only allowed to preach when accompanied by a responsible adult.
For a considerable period of time, a reproved individual is not permitted to participate in meetings by commenting in group discussions or making presentations from the platform. A 1997 issue of The Watchtower article stated: "For the protection of our children, a man known to have been a child molester does not qualify for a responsible position in the congregation. Moreover, he cannot be a pioneer or serve in any other special, full-time service." Elders are advised to give "kindly cautions" to the abuser in regards to "not [being] alone with children," "refrain[ing] from holding children or displaying other forms of affection for them," and "not allowing children (other than his own) to spend the night in his home, not working in field service with a child, not cultivating friendships with children, and the like."
Former child molesters, including those who molested children before becoming Jehovah's Witnesses, those eventually reinstated into the congregation after being disfellowshipped, and those who were deemed repentant, are subject to a number of restrictions. Commenting on the effect of these restrictions, Jehovah's Witnesses' legal representative, Mario Moreno, stated that these restrictions alert members that the individual "lacks spiritual maturity." 'Privileges' may be restored to known child sex offenders if "considerable time has passed," at the discretion of local elders.
If a former child abuser moves to another congregation, elders from the previous congregation must send a letter to the body of elders in the new congregation, outlining the offender's background and whether the abuser is still subject to 'restricted privileges'.
Positions of responsibility
The January 1, 1997 issue of The Watchtower stated, "For the protection of our children, a man known to have been a child molester does not qualify for a responsible position in the congregation. Moreover, he cannot be a pioneer or serve in any other special, full-time service." Whether or not a child abuser is deemed a "known molester" is left to the discretion of the local branch. The October 1, 2012 letter to elders states, "the branch office, not the local body of elders, determines whether one who has sexually abused a child is considered a known child molester" and adds, "It cannot be said in every case that one who has sexually abused a child could never qualify for privileges of service in the congregation."
Cases of alleged abuse are reported to secular authorities if required by local laws or as instructed by the local branch office. A press release issued in 2003 by Jehovah's Witnesses' Office of Public Information stated: "In addition to making a report to the branch office, the elders may be required by law to report even uncorroborated or unsubstantiated allegations to the authorities. If so, the elders receive proper legal direction to ensure that they comply with the law." The Watchtower has outlined the following policy: "Depending on the law of the land where he lives, the molester may well have to serve a prison term or face other sanctions from the State. The congregation will not protect him from this." A 2002 memo to all congregations stated: "Our position is that secular authorities deal with crime while elders deal with sin." Even where there is no mandatory reporting requirement, victims or others having knowledge of an incident of sexual abuse must not be discouraged from reporting it.
The New York Times commented:
The shape of the scandal [in Jehovah's Witnesses] is far different than in the Catholic church, where most of the people accused of abuse are priests and a vast majority of the victims were boys and young men. In the Jehovah's Witnesses, where congregations are often collections of extended families and church elders are chosen from among the laypeople, some of those accused are elders, but most are congregation members. The victims who have stepped forward are mostly girls and young women, and many accusations involve incest.
In 2008, the Watch Tower Society of Britain, in discussions with the UK Charities Commission, undertook to produce a Child Protection Policy and update its procedures to bring them into line with other religious and secular bodies.
Critics claim that in many cases, members of Jehovah's Witnesses have been prevented from reporting child molestation to civil authorities Particularly since around 2000, the Jehovah's Witnesses organization has been accused of covering up cases of child molestation committed by its members. In February 2001, Christianity Today—an evangelical journal that disagrees with the theological perspective of Jehovah's Witnesses—printed an article reporting allegations that Jehovah's Witnesses' policies made reporting sexual abuse difficult for members, and did not conform to typical treatment of such cases. The article also included a response by representatives of Jehovah's Witnesses.
The BBC reported allegations of a cover-up in July 2002, in an episode of Panorama entitled "Suffer the Little Children". The report revealed that the headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses, the Watch Tower Society, requires all congregations to submit details of child abuse allegations and maintains an internal database on all cases of child abuse reported to them. It described one case where a child came forward to the elders of her congregation to report sexual abuse by her father, but was sent home, despite their having known for three years that her father was an abuser. When the girl eventually went to the police, her father was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
According to Witness spokesman J. R. Brown, Jehovah's Witnesses are not required to report crimes to elders before calling civil authorities. Victims and their families are free to call police, he said, although some don't choose to.
The Watch Tower Society maintains a policy with no explicit requirement for elders to report all child abuse cases where such is not required by law. In one case, elders urged a perpetrator himself to go to police. However, in their official guidelines, elders are instructed to "leave matters in Jehovah's hands" if an abuser denies the accusations and there is no second witness available.
2014 investigations in the United Kingdom
In 2013 at the Jehovah's Witnesses congregation of Moston, Manchester, England, church elder and convicted paedophile Jonathan Rose, following his completion of a nine-month jail sentence for paedophile offences, was allowed in a series of a public meetings the people to cross-examine the children he had molested. Rose was finally ‘disfellowshipped’ after complaints to the police and the Charity Commission for England and Wales.
In a separate incident, prior to the trial and conviction for rape and sexual assault in June 2014 of Mark Sewell, an elder of the congregation in Barry, Wales, the church conducted an internal investigation of the allegations, where the women and children had to face their alleged abuser in “judicial committee” hearings organised by their church. A child victim, for whom Sewell was later convicted of rape, alleged that she was questioned closely by church elders when she came forward years after the attack, and was required to describe the incident to them in intimate detail, with Sewell present, but her claims were dismissed by the committee and not taken to the police for further investigation. In June Sewell was jailed for fourteen years for the rape and sexual abuse of parishioners, including children. All but one of Sewell's fellow elders who investigated claims against him, declined to give evidence in his Crown Court trial. They also provided no assistance to police and prosecutors in their investigation, despite “dis-fellowshipping” Sewell 20 years previously, and destroyed evidence showing claims against Sewell dating back more than 20 years.
In June and July 2014, the Charity Commission for England and Wales announced that it was formally investigating both the Moston and Barry congregations over their child protection policies, to be conducted independently of two statutory inquiries opened the previous month into Jehovah’s Witnesses charities in relation to issues including child protection. The Charity Commission noted that it had "serious concerns" about the New Moston Congregation, having most recently opened a case into it in December 2013.
In a press release dated November 21, 2007, Jehovah's Witnesses' Office of Public Information stated:
In the United States, over 80,000 elders currently serve in over 12,300 congregations … During the last 100 years, only eleven elders have been sued for child abuse in thirteen lawsuits filed in the United States; In seven of these lawsuits against the elders, accusations against the Watchtower Society itself were dismissed by the courts.
In 2004, a Canadian court awarded CAD$5000 to a plaintiff for the negligence of an elder who failed to follow the official policy of the church. However, the court dismissed charges against the Watch Tower Society, and directed the plaintiff to pay the Watch Tower Society's legal fees amounting to CAD$142,000.
In 2007 during a ground-breaking trial motion in the Napa, California court against the Watchtower Society, victims' lawyers convinced the court that 'ecclesiastical privilege' does not supersede the legal obligation of clergy to report child sex abuse to secular authorities. The Watchtower Society paid an undisclosed amount without admitting wrongdoing in an out-of-court settlement with 16 unnamed victims of alleged sexual abuse within the religion. According to court documents obtained by NBC News, one plaintiff was awarded over US$780,000.
Newspapers have reported that subpoenaed elders decline to testify against accused penitents, citing the confidentiality of penitent-clergy privilege. However elders did not object to testifying once a specific matter of penitent-clergy privilege had been adjudicated.
In June 2012, a California court ordered the Watch Tower Society to pay more than US$20 million in compensation and punitive damages to a woman who, as a child, was allegedly abused by a member. The court found that congregation elders, following the policies of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, contributed to the abuse. In the post-trial motion, the Watch Tower Society's attorney stated in a court memorandum that no United States court has previously found its conduct or policy regarding sex abuse to be unlawful, claiming that the Watch Tower Society's reprehensibility is "very low" if any. The court stated that the elders as agents of the Watch Tower Society failed to disclose to other parents regarding the confession of the molester who inappropriately touched his step daughter, adding that the reprehensibility is of "medium range". Based on the ratio between the compensatory and punitive damages, the court subsequently reduced the Watch Tower Society's total liability to US$10 million, Lawyers for the Society appealed the ruling, calling the decision "unprecedented" and denying responsibility for abuse.
- Child sexual abuse
- Criticism of Jehovah's Witnesses
- Religious abuse
- Roman Catholic sex abuse cases
- Scouting sex abuse cases
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- Case documents
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- Internet Archive
- Woman who won $5,000 in a sex abuse suit against church must pay legal costs
- Jehovah's Witnesses pay a multi-million dollar settlement
- News video: NBC news report
- "Elders John Vaughn and Andrew Sinay balked at testifying against [Jehovah' Witness Gilbert] Simental, when subpoenaed by [prosecutor] Strunsky. They cited the confidentiality afforded by the penitent-clergy privilege."
- "the elders in this case felt they had no duty to keep the confession confidential"
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- "Alameda district court document".
- "Jury awards $28M to woman who said Jehovah’s Witnesses allowed church member to molest her". The Washington Post.
- "Jehovah's Witnesses ordered to pay more than $20 million to woman who said she was sexually abused".
- Watch Tower Society's official response
- Courts of Appeal - Case Docket