A journalist from Trouw On August 9, 2002 asked the community spokesperson for Jehovah's Witnesses whether there are known cases of sexual abuse within the community. "The register is virgin white, because I have never heard of such abuse in the Netherlands," was the spokesman's reply.
On 29 December 2017, the current spokesperson for Jehovah's Witnesses decides in the Dutch newspaper the interview with the words: "Our main goal is to keep the organization clean". In 2018, this same media spokesperson indicated that the number of reports of sexual abuse that came with foundation Reclaimed Voices be known 'is very very high'.
These incidents tell us that there is hardly any insight into the prevention of sexual abuse on the one hand and the focus on the victim on the other. It seems as if the community is convinced that there is no structural problem. Imagine: as a child you were sexually abused by a fellow believer. As you get older, you experience that the abuse is increasingly affecting you. Ultimately, you no longer function. You seek help. You do this within the community, because this is expected of you and because you are brought up with the idea that the 'solution' is offered within the community, not outside of it.
And now it comes: The most important need is Erkenning of the abuse. In fact, this is the most powerful medicine for good recovery. Imagine that you have gathered the courage to share your experience with an elder, then the process of recognition begins. The most desirable scenario is that you are asked what you need to heal. Help must be offered by the community based on understanding, knowledge about the consequences of sexual violence, empathy and sincerity. Community interests, reputation damage and no knowledge of the problem will have the opposite effect. Not the victim, but putting one's own religion at the center is harmful and does not lead to recovery.
What is the practice? The influence of statements by media spokespersons give a sense of denial of the trauma. The policy and approach does not help victims. Secondary victimization arises simply because the victim does not receive the recognition needed to proceed to recovery. Experience shows that the victim must meet 'requirements' before the problem is addressed by elders. Burden of proof is essential for them. If this is not present, the victim is asked not to talk about it anymore. The advice is given to put the matter in God's hands. What is the consequence? There is no recognition. The victim is alone. While all help is needed.
When I read the August 2005 interview in Trouw - only in 2002 - something broke in me. I have been struggling since 1994 to find a hearing for my problem. My heart screamed to be heard and seen. I didn't want to meet the abuser five times a week during meetings. Elders heard what I said, but did not listen. These 'wise' men could not meet my needs. They adhered to the policy imposed from above. I have never felt more lonely than this moment. All possible aspects of recognition were not given. I became despondent, depressed and did not feel like living anymore. The second trauma was introduced, or secondary victimization.
What does recognition mean for a victim? Recognition is about empathy, feeling seriously taken and giving space to share the story. The victim wants the past to be listened to and listened to with respect. Recognition of victimization means explicitly confirming to the victim that the suffering that has been done took place outside the control of the victim and that this should never have happened. Giving recognition is different for every victim. There is no one approach or way. Freedom of choice and autonomy are central to this exploration.
Advice to the guidance of Jehovah's Witnesses
If the leadership of Jehovah's Witnesses really wants to help victims, how can they do this? Primarily, the community must ensure that a victim feels seen and heard. Facilitating conversations between fellow sufferers is a means. This is what everyone in the community needs to be informed about. Experience experts can be actively deployed to help victims and to review internal policies.
Stories from victims show that preventing violence in the future was an important reason to contact Reclaimed Voices. If no measures are taken to prevent abuse in the future, this indicates that victims are not being taken seriously.
How can the perpetrator's excuse and the leadership of Jehovah's Witnesses ensure recovery? If an excuse is made, it must consist of acknowledging responsibility for what has happened and what consequences it has had, expressing compassion and offering remedial action. It is important that it is a sincere regret, which becomes visible through action. To date, management has made no excuse for the abuses. In fact, they hardly acknowledge that there are any. Perpetrators of abuse, when they have known their actions, are urged by elders to write a letter to the victim asking for forgiveness. However, this is separate from offering an excuse.
An excuse can lead to forgiveness, but this is not necessary. Apologies can be offered both publicly and to victims individually. For example, the Pope has offered public apologies within the Catholic Church for her role in the abuse scandals. The leadership of Jehovah's Witnesses can offer an excuse for their role of covering up abuse and applying harmful policies. They can provide a memorial site or museum.
In short, what challenge does the community of Jehovah's Witnesses face?
That is recognition of sexual abuse within the community and recognition of the story to individual victims by:
- Give victims a voice by referring to contact with fellow sufferers, or by facilitating and developing a digital platform or monument with information about research, help and stories of victims.
- Sincere regret by offering a public apology.
- Shaping measures to prevent, identify and tackle sexual abuse.
- Compiling a sounding board group with, among others, experience experts with the aim of realizing a change in policy and discussing recommendations from the report of the University of Utrecht.
- Actively involving professional care providers and recovery mediation within the community.
- Give victims the opportunity to talk to a (senior) representative of the community to be able to tell their story and receive an excuse
- Financial compensation for example through existing schemes, such as Violent Crimes Compensation Fund and general compensation.
I look forward to the recommendations of the research committee of the University of Utrecht. I sincerely hope that the advice from the report is applicable to recognizing victims of sexual abuse, which contributes to recovery. I also look forward to the title of the next publication of The Watchtower:
"We are setting a good example: finally recognition for victims of sexual abuse!"