Openly showing your vulnerability to the camera by telling what you have experienced is brave. We therefore want to express our appreciation for those who have told their story in the report Abuse on the way to Paradise, from Zembla. These personal stories impress.
In the report, two subjects seem to intertwine: on the one hand sexual child abuse and how to deal with this, on the other hand growing up within this community and possible consequences thereof. For (ex-) Jehovah's witnesses who have had to deal with physical abuse, exclusion and negative consequences of growing up within this community, it is good that there is also recognition for their experiences.
The world of faith of Jehovah's Witnesses is complex. It can be a challenge for a program to make this clear to the general public in 35 minutes. In our opinion, three points in the Zembla broadcast, which were mainly related to the subject of sexual abuse, deserve a more nuance or correction. All the more so because misunderstanding can arise as a result of the image that has now been outlined.
Abuse not primarily by elders
In Zembla, an image is wrongly sketched as if it were mainly elders who commit sexual abuse within Jehovah's Witnesses. This is not in accordance with the outcome of the investigation of the Royal Commission in Australia. There it appeared that of the 1006 perpetrators between 1950 and 2015, there were 108 elder or servant in the ministry. That is slightly more than 10 percent. In an average congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, more than 10 percent of male congregation members are elder or servant. In short, the allegation or perception that sexual abuse of Jehovah's Witnesses is mostly committed by elders is incorrect. Also in the stories that come with Reclaimed Voices have only entered a limited number of elders.
It is true that an elder has a position of authority and trust in the congregation. As a result, abuse by an elder receives an extra charge. After all, this man represents God's organization within faith. He is supposed to have been appointed by holy spirit. This also affects the victim's personal faith experience. Because how can God put this man in an elder position or let him stay when God sees everything? Even in the heart (of this man) can see? It is much more difficult to bring an accusation against an elder, because his position is more likely to believe it.
Abuse by elders could be compared to abuse by a clergyman in another church. For Jehovah's Witnesses, in most cases it is about sexual abuse in a family context or by a fellow believer. The fact that Jehovah's Witnesses see themselves as one large spiritual family, in which one can easily trust each other, can play a role in this.
Internal legal procedures are religious in nature
Another point that deserves nuance is the internal legal proceedings at Jehovah's Witnesses. It is all too easy in the media to say that Jehovah's Witnesses handle cases of sexual abuse internally, that they have their own legal system. It is true that - certainly in the past - things were kept internal. Even now it is preferable to prevent negative messages from coming out. That has to do with the closed culture and the experience of one's own religion as the only true (and good) one.
To be clear: the internal legal procedures are of a religious nature. This concerns matters that are considered sinful according to one's own doctrine, whereby an attempt is made to repent the sinner or to keep the church clean. There is something to be said about the way in which these internal legal procedures are carried out, but they are not primarily the cause of cases being held internally. The primary cause of the culture of silence lies primarily in image protection, which you see in every closed community, and in the conviction that you have the true religion in which there is no room for 'evil'.
It is therefore not the case that these internal legal procedures are a substitute for secular courts. It is also not the case that sexual abuse never comes out. There are a number of victims who have reported the crime after which there has been a lawsuit.
It is true that in the past victims or their families were advised against reporting. Then there would only be negative headlines in the newspaper. That would bring libel to Jehovah's name. It is a pity that the leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses offer no recognition for such matters. They would seem so much stronger by acknowledging that mistakes have been made in the past and that they want to do better now. In our opinion, publicly addressing the problem can contribute to the safety of children.
Old policy read as new
Somewhere on three-quarters of the Zembla broadcast (from 24: 19) the voice-over says:
“Nevertheless, the society has since tightened the guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse. The new "Biblical position on the protection of children" states: "Child abuse is a crime. Never tell anyone not to make a declaration. "
The document Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Scripturally Based Position on Child Protection, which is referred to, can be found on the website of the organization and therefore accessible to everyone. When the document was released, the elders received a letter reminding them to follow the instructions in the letter from 1 September 2017, which is only visible to elders.
The excerpt read in the broadcast - and whatever is on screen - comes from the elders' book 'The flock of God' from 2010. This is a paragraph that, according to the instructions in the letter from 1 September 2017, had to be canceled. Zembla read the old policy and presented it as new.
Hereby the point in the relevant letter from 1 September 2017, in which the said directive is included [in bold, RV]:
3. From a Biblical point of view, child sexual abuse is a gross sin (Deut.23: 17, 18; Gal. 5: 19-21; Ks10 5: 10; w97 1 / 2 29; g93 8 / 10 10, vtn.). Jehovah's Witnesses abhor sexual child abuse (Rom. 12: 9). Therefore, the congregation will not protect someone who does such disgusting things from the consequences of his grave sin. The steps that the municipality is taking to deal with an allegation of child sexual abuse are not intended as a substitute for treatment in question by worldly authorities (Rom. 13: 1-4). Therefore, the victim, the parents or anyone else who reports an accusation to the elders must be clearly informed that they have the right to report to the secular authorities. Elders cannot criticize anyone who wants to do that (Gal. 6: 5).
In this letter it is formulated more positively than in the 2010 elders book. It would be even better if elders would actually encourage victims and their relatives to report to or support the authorities.
The relevance of correct information and imaging
Presenting things in the wrong or indiscriminate way does not help the matter further. It distracts from what really matters. For Jehovah's Witnesses, it merely confirms that the media is out to put them away in a negative way and to attack them in their faith.
Jehovah's Witnesses have "true religion" thinking a blind spot where their sexual abuse issues are concerned. Have a lot of media a blind spot concerning religion and therefore do not know how to interpret a number of things properly. Zembla wants to keep its program accessible to the general public and that is understandable. It should not, however, lead to an over-simplified and one-sided view from which it is all too easily wrong to judge.