Misinformation on the Australian Redress Scheme is Harmful to Survivors and It Must Stop

Senator Anne Ruston and the rest of the Australian government have so far been unwavering in holding the JW leadership accountable for the mishandling of abuse, but a poorly-written article tells a different story

Yesterday Cait Kelly at The New Daily put out an article on Jehovah’s Witnesses and their failure to join the Australian Redress scheme that on face value is both disheartening and enraging, at least from the perspective of victims of abuse from within the organization. The article heavily implies that the recent extension granted to Jehovah’s Witnesses allowing them a further eight years to join the redress scheme effectively gifts them impunity from punishment in the interim; exempting the organization from the threatened sanctions of having their charitable status removed.

Unfortunately Kelly’s article is poorly researched and leans heavily on information from two Australia-based ex-JW activists who seem to have misinterpreted the recent legislative changes regarding the redress scheme and leapt to incorrect conclusions regarding the charitable status of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To make matters worse, a lawyer named Nick Hart, “the Principal Lawyer from Slater and Gordon,” is quoted as saying:

This delay may put survivors off making a claim, knowing they won’t have an entitlement to claim until the institution joins the scheme.

Nick Hart, Principal Lawyer at Slater and Gordon

Mr Hart is entitled to his opinion (who knows what information may or may not have been supplied by third parties leading him to his wrong conclusions) but for reasons I am about to explain, the extension (which Mr Hart refers to as a “delay”) manifestly makes it easier for survivors to make claims under the scheme, not more difficult.*

The trouble with some journalists

Both Mr Hart’s less-than-accurate summation of the situation and the factually incorrect statements from the cited ex-JW sources would ordinarily have been given short shrift by a skilled journalist of the stature of Trey Bundy, David Gambacorta or Douglas Quenqua – all of whom have written with masterful attention to detail on what is admittedly an outrageously complicated but deeply important subject: the mishandling of child sexual abuse by Jehovah’s Witnesses and its cover-up on an industrial scale through documented policies of secrecy.

But if my nearly ten years of experience as an ex-JW writer and activist has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no shortage of sloppy journalists like Cait Kelly around who will do minimal fact-checking and put out almost any story that will garner attention irrespective of its accuracy. This, unfortunately, is the case with her article titled “Child abuse survivor slams government’s 8-year extension of national redress scheme deadline.” Quite apart from being factually wrong and misleading, this article will almost inevitably result (perhaps already has resulted) in worsening the plight of ex-JW victims of abuse by insinuating that the Australian government is not holding the Jehovah’s Witness leadership accountable as promised.

Allow me to set the record straight. Here’s what we know:

  • On July 1, 2020, Jehovah’s Witnesses were named by the Australian government along with two other institutions as having failed to indicate any desire to join the redress scheme.
  • On October 30, 2020 the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia wrote a letter to the Committee Secretariat of the Joint Select Committee on Implementation of the National Redress Scheme emphatically declaring that they would not be joining the scheme. The letter falsely claimed that the Jehovah’s Witness religion “does not have the institutional settings that the Redress Scheme is designed to cover.”
  • On November 27, 2020, Senators Anne Ruston and Zed Seselja issued a joint statement declaring plans to “strip organisations of their charitable status if they fail to fulfil their obligation to join the National Redress Scheme for victims of institutional child sexual abuse.” The Senators declared it to be “completely unacceptable for named institutions to refuse to accept their moral obligation and responsibility to acknowledge the wrongs committed.” It was further explained that “deregistration [as a charity] would result in the entity losing access to a range of Commonwealth benefits, tax and other concessions.”
  • On December 14, 2020 Senator Anne Ruston released a statement advising that (bold and italics mine) “Under the current rules governing the Scheme no institution can join the Scheme after 31 December 2020. This means that any institutions yet to be named by survivors would be unable to join the Scheme and potentially cause survivors to miss out on redress.” In the same statement, Senator Ruston explained: “Failure to join the Scheme within six months will mean that institution will be publicly named and have financial sanctions applied and loss of charitable status until they join the Scheme. This is absolutely not about letting institutions off the hook. What this change does is put the onus squarely on institutions to fulfil their moral obligation to survivors to own up to the wrongs of the past.”
  • On January 22, 2021 a parliamentary session took place, the transcript of which is available here, where it was said regarding the deadline for joining the redress scheme: “It has now been extended to 31 January 2028, so effectively to six months before the end of the scheme.”

What has happened is breathtakingly simple and it has been spelled out very clearly in official press releases issued by the Australian Government. Jehovah’s Witnesses missed their chance to sign up to the redress scheme and they will rightly pay a heavy penalty in the form of deregistration as a charity, bringing with it the loss of certain tax benefits and other favorable concessions they previously enjoyed.

How soon will this happen? We will get to that small matter later. But let’s focus on the key issue of the deadline for joining the redress scheme and its adjustment from the end of 2020 to early 2028, which has produced this sudden torrent of misinformation. Simply put, this is a necessary and responsible measure that, far from being detrimental to victims, is actually in their interests.

The slamming door

Under the previous legislation, a dangerous loophole existed whereby the door slamming shut on CCJW Australia’s opportunity to join the redress scheme at the end of 2020 would have left JW abuse survivors without any recourse for redress.

Even in the albeit unlikely event of CCJW Australia having a change of heart, perhaps after seeing the consequences of being stripped of charitable status, there would have been no route back for them to join the scheme. They would have been prohibited under law from doing so! By wisely extending the deadline to 2028, the Australian government has made it possible for CCJW Australia to potentially do a u-turn on their refusal to join, which in turn makes it possible for victims from within the group to apply for and receive redress.

No participation in the scheme = no redress.

Far from “buying themselves time” or having “no clear … strategy to make the Jehovah’s Witness leaders accountable” the Australian Government has shown itself to be putting the needs of abuse survivors first by making sure there is a path for redress claims to be processed. As Senator Ruston said back in December, perhaps in anticipation of precisely the sort of confusion and misinformation we are now witnessing:

This is absolutely not about letting institutions off the hook.

Senator Anne Ruston

Without this crucial and prudent modification to the legislation, Jehovah’s Witnesses as an institution would have been rendered permanently excluded from being considered, at least potentially, as “participating institutions” under the scheme.

Would this have been helpful to victims? In no way, shape or form! As things stand, victims can still submit their claims in hopes that either (1) CCJW Australia will change its mind, or (2) “funds of last resort” will be made available to them. The latter are currently not available to abuse victims from among Jehovah’s Witnesses, but I understand the funds of last resort provisions are currently being reviewed as part of the two-year Senate review of the Redress Scheme with a report due at the end of this month. The point is: to be in with even a chance of getting redress, JW abuse victims needed the door to be open for participation. If the door had been slammed shut on Jehovah’s Witnesses at the end of last year, it would have been shut on abuse survivors too.

When will the organization be punished?

Apart from urgently needed redress and an apology, in my experience of speaking to and interviewing dozens of abuse survivors over the years what they overwhelmingly want is for the organization that failed them to be held accountable in some way. Far from dallying in this regard, the Australian government is currently leading the world in penalizing Jehovah’s Witnesses for letting down abuse survivors.

As Senators Ruston and Seselja unequivocally stated in November, deregistration as a charity beckons for any institution that fails to join the scheme. Jehovah’s Witnesses have not only failed to join – they have issued a letter to the government stating emphatically that they have no intention to! New legislation therefore makes it abundantly clear that they no longer get to call themselves a charity. When will their deregistration come into effect? We will have to wait and see exactly when and how this happens, but according to an amendment to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act 2012, which passed (gained “royal assent”) on December 17, 2020, this should happen on March 17, 2021 (this date being three months after the amendment received royal assent).

If for whatever reason March 17, 2021 comes and goes with absolutely no change in CCJW Australia’s charitable status, and with no sign of any reasonable justification for failure to take the promised action, then it will be time for ex-JWs to take to the streets and chastise the Australian government for its broken promises. But to remonstrate on this issue before promises have even been broken is deeply lamentable. What message does it send to other governments and politicians worldwide who are presently indifferent on this issue when the one country to impose reasonable and measured sanctions on Jehovah’s Witnesses for its failures on child abuse is attacked by the very activists and advocates who should be applauding?

An ongoing problem

As much as I hate to say it, the Jehovah’s Witness leadership is at least partially right when it accuses former members of being lying and deceitful. For my part, I do my very best to make sure all information I share with my viewers and readers is factual and truthful. I also surround myself with like-minded activists here at JW Watch and elsewhere who share my passion for exposing Jehovah’s Witnesses in an honest and responsible way.

But throughout my years of activism I have been wary of individuals who do not care much about facts and seem to thrive on engineered drama and sensationalism. When this has the effect of dissuading doubting Jehovah’s Witnesses from reviewing “apostate” information it is bad enough. But in this case I am seeing something far worse. I am seeing horrific and traumatizing childhood abuse exacerbated through needlessly shattered hopes and expectations. I am seeing abuse survivors who have already been through unimaginable ordeals being manipulated into joining an outrage army; stirred up by invented problems to mobilize against foes who are, in reality, allies.

If you are a victim of abuse from among Jehovah’s Witnesses, take heart from knowing that there is at least one country on our planet that is so far punishing the leadership that facilitated your abuse, and it is the “land down under.” Don’t despair at the lamentable “false stories” being circulated by a small minority of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who seem anxious to hurl themselves into the apostate stereotype carved out for them by the organization. If I am wrong and the Australian government reneges on its promises without any clear explanation, I will join you and be at your side in demanding justice. But the time to do that will be after March 17, and not a moment sooner.

*I am represented as a Core Participant before the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales by Richard Scorer, who is Head of Abuse at a firm named Slater and Gordon, which is based in Manchester, UK. I have been asked to make it clear that neither Richard nor his firm have any affiliation with Nick Hart or the Australian “Slater and Gordon.”

I would like to thank Kim Silvio, Head of Operations and Legal Advisor to JW Watch, for her invaluable assistance in writing this article. Kim is a retired lawyer and she remains at the disposal of any Australia-based abuse survivors who need help with lodging claims under the redress scheme. Kim can be contacted on support@jwsurvey.org

UPDATE #1: It seems since this was published Cait Kelly at The New Daily has been making edits to her article to include some of the above information without offering any retraction or attributing her source. An example of these edits can be seen below. A full cached version of Ms Kelly’s original unedited article is available here.

UPDATE #2: JW Watch has received the following letter in relation to the above article. We will be taking no action in response.