The last article in the series about love and justice is about offering consolation to victims of sexual abuse. It deals with three questions: (1) How is it that someone who has been abused as a child needs comfort? (2) Who can give the necessary comfort? And (3) How can you comfort them in a good way?
Why is comfort needed?
For anyone who knows anything about the consequences of child sexual abuse, the first question is a very silly one. Sexual child abuse causes serious damage to a child. The psychological and emotional consequences are often noticeable years later. All the more so when traumas are reinforced by environmental factors and when victims have been prevented from seeking good assistance at an earlier stage.
The Watchtower leaders do not seek the answer in the seriousness of the sexual abuse itself, but in the fact that 'children are very different from adults' and abuse therefore has a different effect on them (par.4). The article gives three examples of how children are different from adults and what consequences do they think. To begin with, children must learn to trust their parents or caretakers. In sexual abuse, that trust is put to shame and that is why victims have years of trouble with trust.
As a second example, the article mentions: 'children are vulnerable and sexual abuse is cruel and harmful'. This too speaks for itself. The article, however, gives a typical explanation: "It can be very harmful to force children into sexual acts long before they are physically, emotionally or mentally ready for sex within the marriage." The consequences would then be that victims of sexual abuse get a distorted view of sex.
What really matters is that the child is forced and unable to resist because there is an unequal balance of power. In addition, the child is often in a different phase of sexual development. Sex or not within marriage has nothing to do with it. A victim can indeed later experience problems in the sexual field. However, the leaders of Jehovah's Witnesses mean something different with that distorted view of sex. For them, all sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman is wrong.
We want to take a closer look at the third example that is mentioned:
'In children, the ability to think, to reason or to recognize danger and avoid it is not yet fully developed ' (1Kor.13: 11). It is therefore very easy to deceive children. Child abusers teach children dangerous lies. For example that it is their own fault, that it must remain a secret, that no one will believe or help them or that sexual acts between an adult and a child are actually normal expressions of love. Through such lies, a child sometimes has a distorted way of thinking for years and a distorted view of what is true. Such a child may get a negative self-image, feels guilty and dirty and thinks he is not worthy of the love and support of others. (par.7)
It seems as if they are trying to reduce the psychological consequences of sexual abuse to a kind of inability of children to think well or to recognize danger. Child abusers use lies and children are easy to deceive according to the YG leaders. To say that victims have a 'distorted' way of thinking for years is harmful. It can lead to victims of abuse being thought to be psychologically confused or 'wrong' in other areas.
This section too lacks the insight that perpetrators use abuse of power and prevalence. A child is in no way (co-) responsible, regardless of his ability to think, or to recognize danger.
In section 8, Jehovah's Witnesses in the extent of child sexual abuse see clear evidence that we are living in the last days. This is simply not true. We just hear more about it because it only gets more attention in the last decades and we talk about it more openly. But that does not fit in the faith of Jehovah's Witnesses. They want to designate Satan and his world as the great culprit.
"But Jehovah is much stronger than Satan and his servants," the article says. Where was this God when the abuse took place? If God is so powerful, why did He not intervene? What has the experience of sexual abuse done with the ability to put trust in God? The article says that we can be certain "that Jehovah knows very well how much pain we experience", that he is "the God of all consolation." But how can a victim of abuse trust that after the previous experiences? Loss of trust in God is not discussed as a result and the question is to what extent it can be discussed during a pastoral visit by elders.
Who can give comfort?
In paragraphs 9 through 11 it is argued that Jehovah's Witnesses are one big family that can support each other. Elders give comfort from the Bible "with kind, tender words". One seems to think that reading a Bible text is comforting. Actual support is precisely in the attention of the person and his story, recognition, or just being there.
According to section 11 and the image on page 16, 'mature sisters' can offer support and comfort to victims of sexual abuse. In the other pictures, on page 18, we see that this 'mature sister' may also be present when the elders in the abuse victim are on a pastoral visit. The latter provokes the suggestion that a recommendation from the Royal Commission in Australia, to provide a (female) support person. Actually, the Royal Commission would like women to be involved in the internal legal procedures, but that is virtually incompatible with their beliefs for Jehovah's Witnesses.
Asking or using a 'mature sister' for providing comfort and support is not new. However, the document "The Biblical View of Jehovah's Witnesses on the Protection of Children" states at point 9 that a victim of moral support may take a confidant (male or female) with him when submitting the accusation to the elders. That 'ripe sister' may now be present. In the new Shepherdbook (2019) is unfortunately not mentioned explicitly. There they have placed the 'mature sister' with the people on whom the victim can appeal for comfort and support (Chapter 14, point 17). Let us hope that the victim of abuse can in any case determine who can support her.
How can you offer comfort?
The last part of the article gives practical tips on what you can do to support an abuse victim. However, they try to substantiate these tips 'Biblically' with the example of Elijah and miss the mark altogether.
According to the biblical report 1 Kings 19 Elijah had just killed a bunch of prophets. When Queen Jezebel threatened him with death, Elijah was frightened and fled. Then he sat depressively in the desert and asked God to take his life away. God sent an angel who miraculously supplied food and water to Elijah. Strengthened by this food, he walked in 40 days and nights to the Horeb, the mountain of God. God speaks to him there and Elijah complains. Then God shows himself to Elijah. First there was a strong wind that smashed rocks, then an earthquake, then a fire and finally a quiet soft voice. It is a story full of wonders.
Who knows how often a victim has asked God for help, to be delivered from the abuse? No angel appeared, no miracles happened, and God did not show up. Paragraph 18 states that abuse victims may feel unworthy to pray. The chance is at least as great that the victim has no (or no longer) confidence in God. Faith or loss of trust in God is not discussed throughout the article. While it is precisely an important consequence of sexual abuse in a religious environment.
The question is whether these kinds of faith questions can be discussed safely with the elders. While they are just called up by using an example like Elijah. Spiritual care should link up with the existential questions and concerns with which an abuse victim is involved.
The whole article does not seem to be asked anywhere what abuse victims want or would feel comforting. Nowhere is it referred to or encouraged to seek professional assistance. Only a small footnote says it is a personal decision.
The Watchtower comes with ready-made answers about what to do or not to do and with biblical texts that serve as comfort. The article ends with the 'comforting thought that Jehovah will finally cure everyone who has been abused by Satan and his world' (par.21). With that, the cause of sexual abuse is once again placed with Satan and the outside world. Whoever seeks the cause outside himself does not take his own responsibility. It makes that one blind is for the actual problem.
- February 2019, board of Reclaimed Voices