The summer of 2015 saw The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse hold an eight-day hearing focusing on the Jehovah’s Witness organization.
Far from being a dry legal debate, the hearings made headlines around the world for good reason. It emerged that since 1950, the Australian branch of the Watchtower had failed to report over 1006 alleged child abusers in its membership to the authorities, and that this was not merely due to incompetence but rather a deliberate result of Watchtower policy and doctrine.
Now, almost six months later, the Royal Commission has published the Submissions of Senior Counsel Assisting the Commission, Angus Stewart.
The way this process works is that the Senior Counsel Assisting the Commission submits to the ARC what he feels the findings should be, based upon evidence gathered. Then the other involved parties get to respond to his submissions. Thus on the Royal Commission website you can see that both Watchtower and one of the abuse survivors, BCG, have submitted their requests for changes to the submission. These will be taken into consideration by the ARC, with modifications made where appropriate, and presented to the government.
This means changes might occur between now and final publication, but given the rather feeble nature of the Watchtower’s counter-submission I wouldn’t expect much watering down of the key findings.
In total, there are 77 findings, each supported by explanatory paragraphs. To examine them all in detail would take many articles, but in this series of three articles I have chosen to focus upon three areas, the first of which will be covered below:
The child sexual abuse policies and practices of Watchtower
To fully understand the gravity of Senior Counsel’s findings, we must first establish a little context about Witness culture.
One of the goals of the ARC was to establish why none of these 1,006 alleged abusers had been reported to the police. After all, even if it was the self-stated policy of the Watchtower for elders not to report (for reasons explored and debunked elsewhere in the submission), surely the outraged parents and their children would still be rushing to law enforcement? Why then had so many survivors and their families not done this?
As the hearings progressed, an answer emerged; a picture of a religion that on one hand tells its followers to obey secular laws, but adds caveats that the laws of the religion supersede secular laws, and that any person or organization outside the faith is potentially a tool of Satan, wicked and untrustworthy.
Thus, the first finding of the submission identifies what many exJW’s know all too well:
F1: The Jehovah’s Witness organisation presents its members with conflicting and ambiguous teachings regarding their relationship with secular authorities, thereby fostering a distrust of such authorities.
Given the explicit policy of not reporting abuse to the authorities, and with deep distrust of those authorities indoctrinated into Jehovah’s Witnesses, this meant that often the only measures available to Witnesses to investigate allegations, sanction abusers and protect children were those taken by the religion itself. This places even greater responsibility on Watchtower to ensure that these steps are effective in protecting children and sanctioning abusers.
How did Watchtowers internal processes hold up to scrutiny from the independent experts of the ARC?
Not well, to put it mildly.
Lets take, for example, the now infamous two witness rule. This is a Watchtower policy stating that any crime or sin must have at least two witnesses to the act before any judicial action can be taken, even if the investigating elders believe the accusation to be true. The religion justifies this policy as being a direct scriptural command found in Matthew 18:16, Deuteronomy 19:15, as well as in 2nd Corinthians and the book of Timothy.
The obvious problem here is that sexual abuse rarely occurs in the presence of two witnesses.
Much back and forth went on during the hearings between the Commission and senior Watchtower officials about whether this policy could be changed, and indeed as to whether Watchtower’s application of the scripture was even true to the original intent of bible writers. Watchtower made it clear that, despite their acknowledging the serious flaws inherent in the rule, it was nonetheless set in stone.
Due to the importance of this specific issue, the full submission of Senior Counsel is replicated below. It’s hard to see how it could be more damning. (Bold is mine)
F42 The requirement that two or more eyewitnesses to the same incident are required in the absence of a confession from the accused, the testimony of two or three witnesses to separate incidents of the same kind of wrongdoing, or strong circumstantial evidence testified to by at least two witnesses (i.e. the two witness rule):
a) means that in respect of child sexual abuse which almost invariably occurs in private, very often no finding of guilt will be made in respect of a guilty accused
b) causes victims of child sexual abuse to feel unheard and unsupported when it results in allegations of child sexual abuse not being upheld
c) is a danger to children in the Jehovah’s Witness organisation because its consequence is that very often nothing is done about an abuser in the organisation
d) does not seem to be applied by the Jehovah’s Witness organisation in the case of an accusation of adultery, which suggests that adultery is taken more seriously by the organisation than child sexual abuse, and
e) needs to be revisited by the Jehovah’s Witness organisation with a view to abandoning it or at least reformulating it to ensure that safe decisions as to someone being guilty of child sexual abuse can be made more easily.
The Commission also found that the policy of a male-only judicial committee interrogating a female survivor and investigating the accusation “is a fundamental flaw in the process which weakens the decisions by excluding women.”
With Watchtower’s investigative process judged dangerously flawed, what of the sanctions applied to offenders? The ARC was told that, should an abuser somehow be found guilty in spite of the two witness rule, they faced two possible sanctions from the religion: Reproof if they are considered to be repentant, and disfellowshipping if not.
Let’s start with the sanction of reproof. How did it fair up under Royal Commission scrutiny?
It was established that, whilst a reproof would be announced to the congregation, the reason for the reproof would not be. The problem here is that a reproof can cover a vast spectrum of behavior; from simply getting a little drunk at a party at one end of the spectrum, all the way up to crimes such as child molestation and rape on the other. Thus there was no way for the congregation to know if the reproof meant there was a child abuser in their midst, and thus take steps to protect their children.
Thus, the Senior Counsel finds:
F52 The sanction of reproval therefore does nothing to protect children in the congregation and in the broader community.
Let’s say, however, that the elders do not judge the abuser to be repentant. In this case, they would disfellowship the person. Now, it must be admitted that since all in the congregation would then utterly shun this person, the children in the congregation would probably no longer be at risk from this abuser. However, as became painfully obvious during the interview with elder Kevin Bowdich on Day 149, there is still a massive problem with this sanction.
(Excerpt from Transcript Day 149)
Senior Counsel Angus Stewart: In your decision on whether or not to disfellowship someone, you don’t take consideration of children outside of the congregation?
Kevin Bowdich: We do take consideration of them, but what ability have we got to protect every child in Australia?
Thus, the Senior Counsel finds:
F54 The sanction of disfellowshipping does nothing to protect children in the community.
So, to summarize:
- The Watchtower judicial process is usually prevented from taking place due to the two witness rule.
- If the process does take place, it is not fit for purpose.
- The sanctions available to the judicial process are in most cases meaningless from a child protection standpoint.
Hardly surprising that of the Watchtower policies overall, the Senior Counsel finds: (Bold is mine)
F67 The practices and procedures of the Jehovah’s Witness organisation for the prevention of child sexual abuse, and in particular for the management of the risk of an abuser reoffending, do not take account of the actual risk of an offender reoffending and accordingly place children in the organisation at significant risk of sexual abuse.
Oh, and one other quick finding to discuss before we go…
The hearings explored what would happen if an abuse survivor, disgusted and wounded from her treatment by Watchtower, wanted to leave the religion. The Watchtower representatives questioned on this point tried to spin and misrepresent their policy as being enlightened, kind and respectful of religious freedom, allowing people to choose another faith without serious repercussions.
Did the Senior Counsel agree?
If you are currently being shunned, or feel that you are being forced to shun someone despite your conscience, this is what an independent legal investigative team with no skin in the game finds on the question of the JW shunning policy. (Bold is mine)
F69 Members of the Jehovah’s Witness organisation who no longer want to be subject to the organisation’s rules and discipline have no alternative than to leave the organisation which requires that they disassociate from it.
F70 The Jehovah’s Witness organisation’s policy of requiring its adherents to actively shun those who leave the organisation
a) makes it extremely difficult for someone to leave the organisation
b) is cruel on those who leave and on their friends and family who remain behind
c is particularly cruel on those who have suffered child sexual abuse in the organisation and who wish to leave because they feel that their complaints about it have not been adequately dealt with
d) is not apparently justified by the Scriptures which are cited in support of it
e) is adopted and enforced in order to prevent people from leaving the organisation and thereby to maintain its membership, and
f) is in conflict with the organisation’s professed support for freedom of religious choice and the belief that Jehovah God is a compassionate God who recognises the worth and dignity of all human beings.
If you are an active Jehovah’s Witness, perhaps reading this article because you are having doubts, or because you are seeking to better understand the accusations you have heard about your organization, please read the findings contained in the submission. Read the transcripts available on the same website. Watch the videos of the testimony available on youtube. Then ask yourself:
- Were you aware that Watchtower dealt with child abuse in this way?
- Do the facts uncovered by this independent investigation based on Watchtower’s own documents and the testimony of elders match the way this matter has been presented to you by Watchtower?
- Do you think an organisation that treats perpetrators and survivors of sexual assault in this way can have the approval of a loving God?
- Reveal article: Jehovah’s Witnesses shield child sex abusers from police, report says
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- Australian Royal Commission hears that 1,006 alleged child sex abusers were covered up by Watchtower
- Stephen Lett slams “apostate-driven lies and dishonesties” concerning child abuse record
- JWsurvey articles on child abuse