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 Jehovah's Witnesses (WTS)

Reactions to child sexual abuse
by church leaders, members, etc.

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Sponsored link.

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Reactions by WTS leaders:

Mario Moreno, associate general counsel for the Jehovah's Witnesses has said that the WTS obeys state laws which mandate reporting of suspected cases of child abuse. He said:

"If there is a law that mandates reporting, that takes precedent over any confidentiality, whether in church policy or statute....The laws of this country, as well as people's moral values, tell you there are some things that should be kept private. That's why laws protect confidential communications between clergy and their flock....Parents are encouraged to do whatever they need to do to protect their child."

He explained that in some cases, elders relocate the victim to isolate them from the alleged perpetrator. Other times, the WTS recommends that the victim's parent or guardian -- or even the accused person themselves -- report the abuse to the police.

Other leaders feel that all suspected cases should be reported.  In his letter of resignation as presiding overseer (chief elder), William H. Bowen of Draffenville, KY, wrote:

"I refuse to support a pedophile refuge mentality that is promoted among bodies of elders around the world. Criminals should be ousted, identified and punished to protect the innocent and give closure to the victim."

Bowen later co-founded a support and advocacy group for abuse victims with Barbara Anderson called: Silentlambs.

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Reaction by some WTS members:

Some members have reported an unsympathetic response by their local elders when they reported instances of abuse:

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Sara Poisson of Claremont, NH felt like many Jehovah's Witnesses that she should go to the elders with problems, rather than to the authorities. She reported to the elders that her then-husband, Paul Berry, had physically abused some of her children. She said:

"Whatever issues might arise that required guidance were to be handled within the congregation by the body of elders...You have to understand the Jehovah's Witnesses organization. Their life revolves around following the direction of what the local elders and the organization say."

The elders allegedly told her that she "needed to be a better wife" and "needed to pray more." Poisson said that "Each time I spoke to the elders I was sanctioned in some way...Some privilege was removed because I had dared to usurp the authority of my husband." She said that she was prohibited from speaking at some meetings and restricted in the amount of door-to-door evangelism that she was allowed to do. When her son was discovered at school with marks of abuse on his skin, she was told by a social worker to either have her husband leave the home or lose custody of her children. She did the former and was then shunned by the congregation. She finally went to police after discovering that her former husband had sexually abused her daughter from the age of 4 to 10. Stories of aggravated sexual abuse and torture were revealed in court. At Berry's trial, 29 fellow members of his congregation testified favorably about his character. When sentencing Berry, Judge Arthur Brennan said the WTS might have done more to help the victim.

"The church didn't help her and the state didn't help her... Perhaps if somebody had spoken years ago, if somebody had inquired, instead of relying perhaps on Jehovah...maybe it would have been...a lot less cruel for that child."

The Hillsborough County Attorney's Office did not investigate whether the elders violated the law, because more than a year had passed. The legislation that mandates such reporting has a statute of limitations of 12 months.

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In a case in Houston TX, parents reported that their teen-aged son was molesting his younger sister. When the elders visited the home, they counseled the family and received assurances from the boy that he would stop. Kelly Siegler, an assistant district attorney for Harris County. "All they did is tell him to stop and they prayed about it. They just blew it off. No one ever told the police." He continued with his sexual abuse and was eventually charged and tried as a 22 year old for abuse that he committed while an adult. He received a 40 year sentence for aggravated sexual assault. The ADA mentioned that she would have prosecuted the elders for violating Texas' mandated reporting law, except that the two year statute of limitations had expired. The family sued the WTS in a civil court and reached a settlement. Like most such cases, the family is prohibited from discussing the details.

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In Augusta. ME, Larry Baker had confessed to elders that he had sexually molested a boy. According to member Bryan Rees, the elders secretly disciplined Baker, giving him "some real strict, severe counsel...and that was essentially it." Alan Ayers, was one of the elders, but he did not warn his stepson Rees he was at risk of abuse by Baker. Later Baker and Rees went evangelizing door-to-door together. Baker is reported to have admitted that he molested Rees at least 30 times between 1989 and 1992 while Rees was a minor. He was convicted of unlawful contact with a minor and served about a 90-day jail term. Rees later won a $1.2 million judgment against Baker. He attempted to sue the Witnesses in 1998 but was unsuccessful.

bulletIn Keene, NH, the guardian of a 15-year-old girl sued a Witness congregation in 1987, alleging that elders threatened the girl's parents with "religious excommunication and eternal damnation" if they they informed the police or obtained counseling for the victim, who was sexually abused from 1975 to 1985. The perpetrator pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated felonious sexual and was given a sentence of from three to eight years. WTS lawyer Mario Moreno said it would be "ridiculous" for an elder to make such a threat, which would violate WTS policy. He said: "That's not scriptural...We teach the Scriptures. The Scriptures don't say, 'If you file criminal charges against an abuser you're going to have eternal damnation.' The one in danger of eternal damnation is the abuser."

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Reaction by child abuse specialists:

The Courier-Journal, in Louisville, KY, reported the comments of "David Richart, of the National Institute on Children. He said that :

"... a strictly spiritual approach to child molestation is inadequate ... The whole idea of child sexual abuse is that it generally is an invisible kind of crime and it generally doesn't go away without in some cases treatment and in other cases imprisonment...The whole idea implicit in their response is that somebody can be persuaded or guilt-tripped into changing their behavior. It's generally a much more sophisticated problem than that. Prayer can do a lot of things, and in the case of child sexual abuse it can be a powerful instrument for change, but it's no substitute for a societal intervention...A lot of churches deal internally with allegations of child sexual abuse and refer to Scripture in ways which seem to encourage the children to be compliant."

Sam Neal, an elder in the Witness congregation in Jeffersontown, KY and a social worker said:

"Nobody has a right to keep matters that really put other folks at risk secret. We're concerned about every member of the organization, and their best interest, their welfare, their security and safety are matters of concern...We don't feel we would be discharging our spiritual responsibility if we held something secret that has a direct impact on the safety and welfare of others."

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Sponsored link:

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Silentlambs protest group:

Silentlambs is a support group for people who have been discouraged by the Jehovah's Witnesses from getting help when they have been molested or abused. 1 They claim that the organization has established a child abuse policy that has ignored abuse survivors, protected child molesters and disfellowshipped those who have tried to support the victims. They have a hotline:

"... for victims of child abuse who need further assistance, for anyone to call to present material to establish hard evidence of Watchtower Abuse, [and] to provide information about where to go to get help."

It is toll-free number: 1-877-WTABUSE or 1-877-982-2873. No record of the call will appear on your telephone bill. It is only accessible by U.S. callers. Others can call via long distance to 270-527-5350.

On 2002-SEP-3, they sponsored a demonstration at the Witnesses' head office in Brooklyn NY. Adults, and their advocates, who claim that they were molested in their childhood by Jehovah's Witnesses carried signs and 12 stuffed lambs to deliver as a symbol of innocence lost. They delivered a formal request for a WTS hearing to investigate possible criminal cover-ups by the denomination's governing body. They held a news conference and announced a national march for Witness' molestation victims scheduled later on 2002-SEP-27 September. 2

On 2002-MAY-7 The Jehovah's Witnesses is reported to have started the process to excommunicate Bowen and three other outspoken members. Bowen reported:

"Over one year ago when we first came forward, the leaders of the organization said the problem did not exist; when we produced over one thousand victims' stories on the "silentlambs" website, they [the victims] were called liars. After we filmed the Dateline program with extensive proof, local congregations directed by home office now decide to disfellowship lifetime members who have been filmed by Dateline shortly before the program is set to air at the end of May first part of June? Apparently it is being done to discourage church members to not tune in to this expose' because Jehovah's Witness theology requires members not to listen to anything disfellowshipped members have to say about their church. If members refuse to obey, it could result in their being excommunicated as well."

According to the Silentlambs web site:

"Barbara Anderson, was informed that she was being accused of causing 'divisions' within the organization and summoned to attend a judicial hearing or disassociate herself. Anderson is a former researcher who worked for the Church's Writing Department, in Brooklyn, New York. She was also featured on Dateline speaking out about child molestation cover-ups that go all the way up to the denomination’s Governing Body. 'For years the Governing Body (church leadership) has tried to silence abuse victims, so they can protect the image of the church,' said Anderson. 'Now they’re expanding their intimidation and cover up to include those of us who are whistleblowers trying to protect kids.' " [Grammar corrected]

The group alleges that there are reports of 23,720 suspected child molesters on file at the Witness headquarters. If true, then this would be a rate of known molesters of 0.4% of the total Jehovah's Witnesses population. That is a reasonable percentage. It is often estimated that about 1% of girls are molested by their fathers, and a further 1% are sexually abused by step fathers. Victimizing of boys is at a lower level. However, the WTS denies the number. They state that "the total number of names in our records is considerably lower." 3

Barbara and Joseph Anderson, were disfellowshipped from the WTS. They later sued the denomination for $20 million, claiming defamation, fraud, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. On 2007-JAN-22, the Tennessee court of appeals dismissed the case, claiming that "... the First Amendment’s protection of decisions of church tribunals on religious questions" prevented the court from intruding. Barbara Anderson said:

"I went public about the fact that they were not reporting child abuse. They punished me for something I was legally bound to do. I came forward and showed their policies protect pedophiles. ... The retribution was quite difficult. We lost out on family and friends. My son shuns me." 4

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JW Child Custody assistance group:

According to their web site's "About Us" page:

"Since 2001, JWCC and its associates have worked assisting child custody cases internationally. We have been involved with many cases regarding custody and various legal issues involving Jehovah’s Witnesses. Advocates with our organization have worked as National Director in religious research and child protection organizations, specializing in the sociological, historical, doctrinal teachings, and policies of Jehovah's Witnesses. They also serve on the board of directors for Silentlambs, Inc., The Healing Alliance, Rescue and Recovery International, assisting survivors of childhood sexual abuse."

They offer a free consultation at 800-762-9227. This is a toll-free number that is accessible from the U.S. and Canada. There web site is at: http://www.jwchildcustody.com/

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More information:

One episode of the program Panorama, sponsored by the British Broadcasting Corporation,  (BBC) deals with the sexual abuse problem within the WTS. They interview individuals in England, Scotland and the U.S. A free 50 minute video is available online at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/

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References:

  1. Silentlambs' web site is at: http://www.silentlambs.org/
  2. "New Support Group Seeks Investigation of Church Hierarchy," Silentlambs news release, 2002-SEP-3.
  3. Letter: J.R. Brown, Director, Office of Public Information, WTS, to Betsan Powys,  Panorama program, British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002-MAY-9.
  4. "Jehovah's Witnesses: Court dismisses case of ousted Jehovah’s Witnesses," ReligionNewsBlog, 2007-JAN-22, at: http://www.religionnewsblog.com/

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How you got here: Home page > Christianity > DenominationsWitnesses > here

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More information:

One episode of the program Panorama, sponsored by the British Broadcasting Corporation,  (BBC) deals with the sexual abuse problem within the WTS. They interview individuals in England, Scotland and the U.S. A free 50 minute video is available online at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/

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Copyright © 2002 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written on: 2002-SEP-3
Last updated on: 2007-MAR-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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