Jehovah's Witnesses have been pretending for many years to provide information and practice prevention where sexual abuse is concerned. Yet the many reports concerning child sexual abuse within this religious community give a signal that children are not sufficiently protected. Many survivors were further traumatized by how Elders dealt with them. This raises the question, among other things, of whether Jehovah's Witnesses understand the nature of sexual abuse. This article attempts to gain some insight into this.
Definitions of sexual abuse
The organization of Jehovah's Witnesses uses the following definition of (child) sexual abuse (Letter 'To All Bodies of Elders', September 1st, 2017):
“Child sexual abuse is a perversion and generally includes sexual intercourse with a minor; oral or anal sex with a minor; fondling the genitals, breasts, or buttocks of a minor; voyeurism of a minor; indecent exposure to a minor; or soliciting a minor for sexual conduct. Depending on the circumstances of the case, it may include involvement with child pornography or “sexting” with a minor. “Sexting” describes the sending of sexually explicit messages or images electronically.”.
For comparison, the definition of Movisie (2015):
“Sexual abuse is any form of crossing a sexual boundary involving sex between an adult and a child because by definition there is inequality, or other situations where exploiting an age or power difference, for example when a teacher has sex with a pupil or a counsellor with a client. Sexual abuse of children is also called sexual child molestation.”.
Movisie describes sex with a child by definition as abuse, because there is inequality. The definition of Jehovah's Witnesses does not refer to that difference of power or that inequality, while that actually plays a role in sexual abuse. Instead, a number of concrete sexual acts are mentioned.
Unjust link with homosexuality
Under Jehovah's Witnesses, it is common for a pioneer - one who does full-time evangelism work - to work regularly with young Witnesses of Jehovah and serve as an example for them. Raymond Hintjes, chairman of the Reclaimed Voices foundation, was once a pioneer. When it became known that he is homosexual, he was told: "Maybe it’s not wise that you do field service with young 'brothers'." It seemed to suggest that someone might be prone to child sexual abuse because of his sexual orientation.
We see the same thinking in the Awake! of 8 October 1993 with the title 'Your Child is in Danger' which is included in the information material on the website. It states that child sexual abuse is an old problem and refers to the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The article speaks of ‘a sex-crazed mob of Sodomites ranging “from boy to old man” seeking to rape Lot’s two male guests’. About the young boys the article concludes: ‘Clearly they had already been introduces to homosexual perversions’. Nowhere in that Bible story is child sexual abuse spoken of. However, Jehovah's Witnesses unjustly associate homosexuality with sexual abuse according to their interpretation.
Already in the Awake! of June 22, 1982, sexual abuse of boys was directly linked to homosexuality. To indicate how long Jehovah's Witnesses have been addressing prevention of sexual abuse, Tony Morris, member of the Governing Body of the organization, waved this magazine during the broadcast of JWbroadcasting in July 2015. with this magazine. He said regarding the article '”Chickens” and “Hawks”': “It warned about homosexual men who prey on and advocate the right to use boys for sex.” It seems like no difference is seen between pedosexuality and homosexuality. The article was part of a series about 'The New Morality'.
'... you would have squealed like a pig'
In the documentary Sex abuse accusation within the Jehovah's Witnesses of W5, Katja tells that she was, at the age of ten, sitting opposite the Elders - men only - and had to tell them about her sexual abuse. She was asked if there were witnesses. In sexual abuse this is rarely if ever the case. The Elders therefore could not do anything and said that they would leave it 'in Jehovah's hands'. One Elder said to her: "If you really were sexually abused, you would have squealed like a pig. Which you did not, which means it never happened." A harsh and insensitive statement that, in my opinion, indicates that this elder not only lacks empathy, but also has no idea of the nature of sexual abuse. A victim is often unable to scream because of coercion or 'freezing'.
Would this Elder have thought of the Bible passage in Deuteronomy 22: 23-27? It speaks about an engaged girl who is being raped. If she did not scream, she apparently had agreed to the sexual act, and she had to be stoned like the perpetrator. Sex with someone while you were almost married to another was under the law of Moses considered to be adultery and the punishment was the death penalty. Thinking along the lines of this biblical texts brings the danger with it that a victim is not believed or that the focus is on whether someone has done something wrong, while the focus should be on care for the victim.
Consciential training in information?
In the video Protect Your Children (Lesson 17) which is used as educational material for children, little Caleb and Sophia are taught to say 'no' to people who want them to do something that is not allowed. According to the 'father', they have received a conscience from Jehovah for this, to protect and warn them if something wrong happens. The parents then want to test the conscience of the children in the video and ask them what they will do if someone says something they do not like, scares them, or ask them to do something they don’t feel comfortable with. The correct answer is that they loudly have to say 'stop' or 'no' and walk away. In addition, they must tell their parents and have no secrets from them.
Sexual abuse usually involves a power difference, a relationship of dependence, or emotional and psychological manipulation. In this video this seems to be ignored. Children are vulnerable and often unable to say no. There is also a curious use of the term "conscience." Conscience is something that warns you when you are about to do something wrong, not when you are in danger or someone else is doing something wrong. The 'training' of conscience suggests that the children themselves have a responsibility when it comes to preventing sexual abuse.
Another thing that stands out in the video is that the danger is represented as a 'dark ghost'. A child is usually abused by somebody they know, someone who is trusted by the child, such as the father, an uncle or that nice elder in the congregation.
Chapter 32 of the book Learn from the Great Teacher is also in the list of educational materials for children. The chapter begins with an illustration of how a mother bird protects her young. Then a long piece follows that tells how Jesus was protected by God as a baby. The story takes a turn when the child is told that Satan and his demons want to hurt him. They want people to have sexual relations that God does not like, it is said. Here, too, the example of Sodom and Gomorrah is mentioned. It says ‘that people there, “from boy to old man”, tried to have sex with men who had come to visit Lot’. That it concerns 'boys' here, who wanted to have sex with (adult) men, seems to turn the matter around and also in the present time make a child (co)responsible for what happens.
The chapter goes on about the 'bad things' that others may want you to do. When asked how you can protect yourself against people who do such bad things, it is said that you should never let someone play with your genitals. If that happens, you have to shout very loudly: “Stop that! I’m going to tell on you!”. The child is told to walk away and has to tell it, even if the perpetrator is trying to buy you with presents or scare you. If the child really was able to shout or walk away, it probably would.
It seems that the child is mainly taught what is 'morally reprehensible'. The idea arises that you as a child should be able to prevent something that is bad, or not to get involved in something bad, instead of something bad happening to you by someone else.
Also theologically there is something to say about this chapter. What does it do to a child who is sexually abused to learn that God did protect Jesus? Where is that same God when you fall victim of sexual abuse?
Focus on Sin
In the letter of September 1st, 2017 containing the current policy on child sexual abuse, paragraph 14 states the following:
“Victims of child sexual abuse are not handled judicially. However, if the body of elders believes that congregation action may be warranted in the case of a mature minor who was a willing participant in wrongdoing, two elders should call the Service Department before proceeding.”
You could say that if there is 'willing participation', someone is not abused. One seems to be wondering here whether the somewhat older minor may have been guilty of 'porneia'. With Jehovah's Witnesses, any form of sex outside of marriage is a sin. Elders are keen to keep the congregation clean and to bring to justice those who have committed a sin. This brings us to an underlying problem when it comes to sexual abuse. The focus is on religious morality, on the question of whether someone has committed a sin or not.
The focus on the 'sinfulness' of the sexual act itself is illustrated by a footnote in a series of articles about child sexual abuse in the Awake! from October 2007:
“Sexual abuse of a child occurs when an adult uses a child to gratify his or her own sexual desires. It often involves what the Bible calls fornication, of por-nei’a, which could include fondling of genitalia, sexual intercourse, and oral or anal sex. Some abusive acts – such as the fondling of the breasts, explicitly immoral proposals, showing pornography to a child, voyeurism, and indecent exposure – may amount to what the Bible condemns as “loose conduct” or “uncleanness… with greediness”. – Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 4:19 . "
Child sexual abuse is associated here - almost defined - with varying degrees of sinning. By approaching it as a sin, the focus is on "saving" or bringing to justice the sinner. The goal is to make them repent so that he can again be in a 'good relationship with Jehovah'. This can lead to the focus being on the perpetrator. There is also a danger of treating a victim as a perpetrator by investigating whether he/she is (also) guilty of immorality.
Restrictions imposed, as well as exclusion from the community, have the primary purpose to bring the sinner to justice. It is meant to bring him to repentance, to make him see that his practice is wrong with the intention of getting the sinner back on the right path. This is strictly a religious approach. In contrast, a prison sentence after a conviction by a worldly court is intended as a punishment for the crime committed and to protect society.
A danger of the 'sin' approach is that it is all too easily thought that the sinner subsequently will not fall into repetition. As a result, the victim and other children are insufficiently protected.
With regard to sexual abuse, there seems to be little or no regard for power difference, for physical, psychological or other forms of coercion or manipulation. Little insight seems to exist into what happens to a child that is being sexually abused. Quite incorrectly, a link is made with homosexuality, which seems to be aligned with pedosexuality. Consistently, the main focus is always on (im)morality, whereby one looks at whether and which sin has been committed. A focus that arises from the religious views of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Ignorance about the nature of sexual abuse stands in the way of good prevention and timely recognition. In the case of ten-year-old Katja, it led to an Elder's disbelieve of her story. Lack of insight can also mean that Elders seriously underestimate the traumatic consequences of sexual abuse for the victim.
In the handbook for Elders (2010, p.59) written in relation to the encouragement of those who are abused as children, the instruction is that it is not necessary to 'spend time reading worldly literature on psychology or psychiatry'. It is true that Elders are only "spiritual shepherds" and not psychiatrist or therapists - as the handbook says - but additional knowledge can help you to provide better care for victims. The danger is that Elders now rely mainly on the information provided by the organization. This means that their understanding of the nature of child sexual abuse is also formed accordingly.
A possible reason for the organization to refrain from further studying background knowledge, as well as to discourage its followers to do so, is that it confronts them with ideas that are in conflict with their Biblical views. Time and again the ultimate underlying problem seems to be the religious views they held, that all stem from the idea Jehovah’s Witnesses have that they are the only true religion and their organization is guided by God. Because of that supposed 'divine guidance', they are convinced that their own guidelines are the best. No background knowledge is required, the wisdom of the world is foolishness in their eyes.
The above does not pretend to be a complete investigation. It’s only a first indication that Jehovah's Witnesses do not understand the nature of (child) sexual abuse. It would be good to do further qualitative research regarding this. It should also be investigated to what extent the current concept, which is mainly based on religious views, stands in the way of good prevention of sexual abuse or proper care for victims.
It may be advisable to have the educational material for children assessed by a religion educator.
- Berlo, W. van, & Ina van Beek (2015)Seksuele grensoverschrijding en seksueel geweld [Whitepaper] Rutgers WPF & Movisie. See: https://www.movisie.nl/publicatie/whitepaper-seksuele-grensoverschrijding-seksueel-geweld
- Haines, A. (W5 Investigative reporter). (2018). W5: Sex abuse accusations within the Jehovah's Witnesses , [documentary], Canada: CTV News Network. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=13ja8dMEmPY
- JWBroadcasting (July 2015), see: https://tv.jw.org/#nl/mediaitems/StudioMonthly2015/pub-jwb_201507_1_VIDEO
- Learn from the Great Teacher (2013), [Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY]. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Consulted from: https://wol.jw.org/nl/wol/publication/r18/lp-o/lr/O/2003
- Awake! October 2007. [Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY] Consulted from: https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/rXNUMX/lp-e/XNUMX https://wol.jw.org/nl/wol/lv/r18/lp-o/0/31379
- Awake! October 8, 1993. [Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY] Consulted from: https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/rXNUMX/lp-e/XNUMX https://wol.jw.org/nl/wol/lv/r18/lp-o/0/36104
- Awake! June 22, 1982. [Watchtower ONLINE LIBRARY] Consulted from: https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/rXNUMX/lp-e/XNUMX https://wol.jw.org/nl/wol/lv/r18/lp-o/0/40140
- Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Australia, (September 1, 2017) To all Bodies of Elders [Letter], concerns: to protect minors against abuse.
- "Shepherd the flock of God" (2010) ks-10, handbook for elders [PDF]. Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
- Become Jehovah's friend, lesson 17, Protect your Children [video clip], Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. Consulted on October 14, 2018, see: https://www.jw.org/nl/publicaties/videos/#nl/mediaitems/BJF/pub-pk_17_VIDEO