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 Jehovah's Witnesses (WTS)

Policies & examples of child sexual abuse

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Quotation:

bullet "In the organization, you have to have two witnesses, and of course it's almost impossible to have two witnesses to a child molestation. So if a parent comes with their daughter to the elder, they ask and he says, no, I didn't do it, then that's the end of the matter. I would like to see them recognize it, take it to the civil authorities and professionals that are capable and qualified to help the victims." Joe Anderson, former Jehovah's Witness elder. 1

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Placing abuse in perspective:

Since the year 2000, evidence has emerged of widespread child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, and of subsequent payoffs and cover-ups by the church. Some evidence of sexual abuse within the Watchtower Society (WTS) has also appeared in the media in recent years. What is missing is a measure of balance.

Sexual abuse is found throughout society. Approximately 1% of girls are so abused by their fathers before puberty, and about 1% by their step-fathers. Abuse of boys is at a lower level. There is really no reliable data which demonstrates whether religion plays a role in this phenomenon. We have never located any trustworthy evidence that sexual abuse of pre-pubertal children is higher or lower in the WTS when compared to the Roman Catholic Church, other faith groups, or in society as a whole.

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WTS rules about abuse:

Christianity bases its beliefs and practices on the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). Three main themes in the Scriptures are:

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A person should forgive someone who has hurt or abused them.

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Individuals can be redeemed.

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People can change through prayer and spiritual support.

These biblical themes often come into conflict with secular standards, which may include beliefs that:

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Abusive pedophiles, hebephiles, and ephebophilies should be punished for their crimes against children.

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Child sexual abuse perpetrators typically molest dozens of children before they are caught. Thus, they have to be isolated from new potential victims, at least until they receive counseling and there is some confidence that they will not reoffend.

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Parents need to be informed if a child abuser is in their group or neighborhood.

Every religious institution develops their own policies and regulations concerning accusations of child sexual and physical abuse. The Jehovah's Witnesses organization follows a biblical standard when investigating allegations of any offense on the part of a member. Proof that an offense has occurred requires either:
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A confession on the part of the alleged perpetrator, or

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The testimony of at least two witnesses to a single case of abuse, 2 or

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The testimony of one witness to abuse, followed by testimony of a second witness to another instance of abuse. 2,3

In the case of sexual abuse, the only witnesses are usually the perpetrator and the victim. As a result, proof cannot often be obtained unless the perpetrator is willing to confess to the crime. According to a 1995 article in the Watchtower, a publication of the Watchtower Society (WTS), if proof cannot be obtained, elders are to "explain to the accuser that nothing more can be done in a judicial (church disciplinary) way...the congregation will continue to view the one accused as an innocent person." The article suggested that  "The question of his guilt or innocence can be safely left in Jehovah's (God's) hands." Some victims ask for more.

At a recent trial in a Canadian court, a lawyer for the prosecution stated that the Witnesses imposes a three-year statute of limitations on behaviors like sexual abuse. Any charges brought to the elders of a congregation by an alleged victim must relate to recent abuse. 4

If abuse cannot be proven, the elders of the congregation "are expected to report the allegation to the branch office of the Jehovah's Witnesses in their country, if local privacy laws permit. Again, privacy laws permitting, a record is made a the branch office that the individual has been accused of child abuse....The aim is to balance the right to privacy of the individual with the overriding need to protect the safety of children." 5

Where child abuse can be proven, and the member is unrepentant, he or she is disfellowshipped. This involves being expelled from the organization. However, if they can convince elders that they have truly repented of their abusive behavior, they can be readmitted into the congregation. If repentant then she/he is not permitted to hold a responsible job in the congregation for at least twenty years. 5

The Jehovah's Witnesses has a dual policy concerning cases of child abuse which meet their standards of proof:

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Local elders are required by the WTS to alert police and/or child protection services only in those political jurisdictions which require religious institutions to report suspected cases of abuse. Some states in the U.S. do not have mandated reporting. Other require certain professionals like physicians, teachers, and social workers to report, but allow religious leaders to remain silent. Some states have no laws at all in this area.

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Where reporting is not mandated by the state, their policy is to keep keep the matter secret. Communications between elders and members are kept confidential. They generally do not report abuse but attempt to handle it within the organization. An abuser will often be encouraged to confess to authorities. A disciplinary hearing may be held. However, only elders can take notes, which are later collected and kept in a secure location. No tape recordings are permitted.

The Witnesses hold that the privilege of clergy confidentiality applies to any confidential communication among its members, including statements at disciplinary hearings which involve multiple elders and witnesses.

Some members in the organization suggest that the latter policies can put WTS members and the rest of the public at risk. Sometimes confessed molesters will be allowed to remain in the congregation, with disastrous results in the form of continued molestation. One responsibility expected of members is that they do door-to-door evangelizing. An abusive pedophile or hebephile could use this opportunity to recruit new victims.

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Some examples of continued abuse:

The WTS' policy of handling some suspected sexual abuse cases in secret has aroused a growing level of opposition inside and outside of the Jehovah's Witnesses. The main concern is that there is a very high probability that the abuse will continue. This is reduced by intensive counseling, but is never eliminated. There is a general consensus among mental health professionals that  pedophilia and or hebephilia (the sexual attraction to children) is unchangeable, much in the same way that one's sexual orientation is fixed. What may be changed is the perpetrator's actions. They can sometimes control their feelings and not act upon them. The average abusive pedophile or hebephile who is arrested has molested dozens of children. Counseling by WTS elders may or may not break this pattern of abuse, and may leave children vulnerable to molestation in the future.

Some instances that have resulted in court cases include:

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New Hampshire: A WTS member informed elders that her husband was physically abusing their children. They took no action. For years afterwards, the man sexually and physically abused children in his own family. He was finally caught, tried and given a 56 year prison sentence.

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Texas: In 1992, WTS elders ordered a teen-age boy to stop molesting his younger sister. The youth later sexually abused another sister. Police found out about the latter case when alerted by hospital staff after his victim attempted to commit suicide. In 1997, the perpetrator was given a 40-year prison term.

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Maine: WTS elders disciplined a member for child molesting. Later, the perpetrator molested a teen-age boy between 1989 and 1992. It was only after the second victim disclosed the abuse to a therapist that authorities were notified.

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References:

  1. Wisdom Martin, "Sexual abuse allegations within Jehovah's Witnesses denomination," WKRN Nashville, TN, at: http://www.wkrn.com/
  2. These policies are based on verses from the Bible:  Deuteronomy 19:15 and Matthew 18:15-17.
  3. Peter Smith, "Jehovah's Witnesses' policy on child molesters attacked - Church says it follows laws on reporting suspected abuse," Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY, 2001-FEB-4, http://www.courier-journal.com/
  4. "Colleagues concealed sex abuse to protect 'clean image' of Witnesses: elder," Canoe.ca, at: http://canoe.ca/
  5. Letter: J.R. Brown, Director, Office of Public Information, WTS, to Betsan Powys,  Panorama program, British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002-MAY-9.

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

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Copyright 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written on: 2002-SEP-3

Last updated on: 2011-SEP-20
Author: B.A. Robinson
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