In the summer of 2017 appeared in newspaper Trouw a series of articles about sexual abuse among Jehovah's Witnesses in the Netherlands. Marinde van der Breggen and Rianne Oosterom, journalists from Trouw, conducted research for two years and interviewed victims and bystanders. Their articles reveal a harrowing reality in which victims are not heard and protected and perpetrators can go free.
Earlier in Australia the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is engaged in researching how various - religious or otherwise - organizations deal with situations of sexual abuse. The organization of Jehovah's Witnesses was also investigated. Data from the Watchtower organization there revealed 1006 perpetrators of sexual abuse. None of these perpetrators had been reported to the authorities by the organization. Public hearings with the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses in Australia were held in 2015 for all to follow, and the final report was published in late 2017. Conclusion: the organization's policy on sexual abuse has major flaws.
When the elders in a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses face an allegation of sexual abuse within their congregation, they must contact their branch's legal department. He then gives instructions on how to proceed further.
The elders should investigate whether the charge is true. This includes looking at whether the person making the accusation can be found to be reliable and credible. The victim is asked for the most intimate details of the abuse. Until 1998, the victim was asked to confront the perpetrator with the accusation in the presence of elders. In any case, current policy no longer requires this from underage victims. Unfortunately, it is not in black and white that adult victims are now also immune from this confrontation.
To proceed with further action, the elders need two witnesses. If the perpetrator denies and there is no second witness, the perpetrator is considered innocent and the victim is told to leave the matter "in Jehovah's hands." The victim and family are asked to remain silent about the matter because otherwise it can be interpreted as slander. No further steps are taken and the perpetrator remains in the municipality. Even if the perpetrator confesses and repents, he will remain part of the congregation and at most will be restricted.
If there is sufficient evidence and the perpetrator shows no repentance, he is excluded. Both in the case of restrictions and exclusion, only that fact is reported in the presence of the municipality, it is not explained why. In the first case, other children within the municipality and outside are at risk of becoming a victim, in the second case still in society outside the organization.
The use of sexual abuse can not be declared to the authorities
Jehovah's Witnesses are a closed community. They see themselves as the only true religion and do everything to keep the image of a clean organization where, according to high moral standards, the world is maintained. Negative information about the organization is seen as attacks by "the devil" or "defamation on Jehovah's name."
Within the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses, sexual abuse is initially seen as a sin. That is why church members are expected to report sexual abuse to the elders.
The organization does not see it as its task to report a perpetrator of sexual abuse to the authorities. Following the investigation by the Royal Commission in Australia (and subsequent recommendations), the organization has made a minor change, so that elders now have to inform the victim and his parents that they have the right to report the case to world authorities. However, they place the responsibility for reporting to the victim and / or the parents. The tone in which these are informed by the elders, in combination with the beliefs, can be of essential importance to their final decision.
The two-witness rule
The organization focuses entirely on the Bible in its policy. She believes that the guidelines they find there are applicable at all times. The two-witness rule is based on the text at Deuteronomy 19:15 and Matthew 18:16. This means that only when there are two or three witnesses to an offense can the act be considered proven and the accused punished. Because there are rarely witnesses to sexual abuse, it is usually the victim's word against that of the perpetrator. The two-witness rule therefore works in favor of the latter.
Within the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses, only the Governing Body has the authority to explain Bible texts and change policies. Hopefully they will see that the two-witness rule is not applicable in case of sexual abuse and to change their policy.
When a perpetrator of sexual abuse is excluded, only the report is made in the presence of the municipality: '(name) is no longer one of Jehovah's Witnesses'. There is no mention of the reason. Even when a repentant perpetrator is only restricted, the sexual abuse is not mentioned. If, in the absence of a second witness and denial, there is no proof, the victim is asked to keep silent about the abuse, because otherwise this can be interpreted as 'slander'. In some cases, family heads - usually the fathers - of families with children are informed. But the municipality as such is not informed when there is an (alleged) perpetrator of sexual abuse among them. This culture of silence and secrecy seems largely aimed at protecting the image of the organization.
Lack of women in the process
It can be much more difficult for a victim of sexual abuse to reveal details of the abuse to men than to women. However, because women are not allowed to hold positions of authority within the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses, they are not involved in sexual abuse proceedings. This means that within the procedure outlined above, a victim of sexual abuse will always have to deal with men.
During the investigation of the Royal Commission in Australia, some high-ranking executives of the organization indicated that women could be involved in the trial of an allegation of sexual abuse. The final decision, however, also concerning the reliability of the accusation, is always taken by the (male) elders.
There is also no guideline or provision for a female supporting person. The current guideline as indicated in the letter to the elders of 1 September 2017 (par.11), shows that in case of a minor victim, in addition to the elders, another person, preferably a parent, should be present at the providing pastoral care to the victim. If the parent himself is the perpetrator, it may also be another church member in whom the victim has confidence. However, it is not explicitly stated that this can be a woman and it is not mentioned that this supportive person may be present at questions concerning the accusation of sexual abuse. For now victims of age, no guidelines have been included regarding a supporting person.
There is a big chance that a victim who has to tell her story in front of men does not feel at ease here. This procedure can even aggravate the trauma.
The current policy of the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses is seriously inadequate with regard to sexual abuse. Everything seems to be aimed at protecting the organization and acting according to the rules, while too few precautionary measures are taken to protect children or prevent further trauma.
Good policy regarding situations of sexual abuse should put the child or victim first. Children should be protected from potential perpetrators and, as victims, should be at the center of the care and assistance provided.