One of our case studies examined the responses of the Jehovah’s Witness organisation to allegations of child sexual abuse. We also held an institutional review hearing to provide an opportunity for the Jehovah’s Witness organisation to inform us of its current policies and procedures in relation to child protection and child safe standards, including responding to allegations of child sexual abuse.
As of 31 May 2017, of the 4,029 survivors who told us during private sessions about child sexual abuse in religious institutions, 70 survivors told us about abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of the victims we heard about, 80.0 per cent were female. The average age of victims at the time of first abuse was 8.4 years. Of the 53 survivors who told us about the age of the person who sexually abused them, 44 survivors (83.0 per cent) told us about abuse by an adult and 12 survivors (22.6 per cent) told us about abuse by a child. A small number of survivors told us about sexual abuse by an adult and by a child. The vast majority of survivors who told us about abuse by an adult perpetrator said they were abused by a male adult.
Of the 65 survivors who told us during private sessions about the role of a perpetrator, 26.2 per cent told us about child sexual abuse by family members. This was considered to be within our Terms of Reference when the sexual abuse was reported to and handled by the religious institution. We also heard from survivors about other perpetrators including volunteers (13.8 per cent), lay leaders (9.2 per cent) and other adults who attended the religious institution (9.2 per cent).
As part of our case study, the Jehovah’s Witness organisation provided us with files containing allegations, reports or complaints of child sexual abuse. They provided us with documents relating to at least 1,800 children and over 1,000 alleged perpetrators.
Institutional responses to child sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses
Our case study regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses showed that the organisation dealt with allegations of child sexual abuse in accordance with internal, scripturally based disciplinary policies and procedures. We found that at least until 1998, individuals making complaints of child sexual abuse were required to state their allegations in the presence of the person against whom the allegations were made. The ‘two-witness’ rule applied – that is, wrongdoing could only be established on the basis of testimony from two or more ‘credible’ eyewitnesses to the same incident (or strong circumstantial evidence testified to by at least two witnesses or testimony of two witnesses to the same kind of wrongdoing). Allegations were investigated by elders, all of whom were men and had no relevant training.
We found that in deciding the sanctions to impose and/or the precautions to take in relation to a known or suspected perpetrator of child sexual abuse, the Jehovah’s Witness organisation had inadequate regard for the risk that the person might reoffend. Alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse who were removed from their congregations as a result of allegations of child sexual abuse were frequently reinstated. We found no evidence of the Jehovah’s Witness organisation reporting allegations of child sexual abuse to police or other civil authorities.
During our case study we heard from survivors of child sexual abuse that they were not provided with adequate information by the Jehovah’s Witness organisation about the investigation of their allegations, felt unsupported by the elders who handled the allegations, and felt that the investigation process was a test of their credibility rather than that of the alleged perpetrator. We also heard that victims of child sexual abuse were told by congregational elders not to discuss the abuse with others, and that if they tried to leave the organisation, they were ‘shunned’ or ostracised from their religious community.
Contributing factors in the Jehovah’s Witnesses
We considered a number of factors that may have contributed to the occurrence of child sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses or to inadequate institutional responses to such abuse.
The Jehovah’s Witness organisation addresses child sexual abuse in accordance with scriptural direction, relying on a literal interpretation of the Bible and 1st century principles to set practice, policy and procedure. These include the ‘two-witness’ rule as discussed, as well as the principle of ‘male headship’ (that men hold positions of authority in congregations and headship in the family). Scripturally, only men can make decisions. Other scripture-based policies include the sanctions of reproval (a form of discipline that allows a perpetrator to remain in the congregation), disfellowshipping (exclusion or excommunication as a form of punishment for serious scriptural wrongdoing), and shunning (an instruction to the congregation not to associate with a disfellowshipped person). As long as the Jehovah’s Witness organisation continues to apply these practices in its response to allegations of child sexual abuse, it will remain an organisation that does not respond adequately to child sexual abuse and that fails to protect children.
We recommend that the Jehovah’s Witness organisation abandon its application of the two-witness rule in cases involving complaints of child sexual abuse (Recommendation 16.27), revise its policies so that women are involved in processes relating to investigating and determining allegations of child sexual abuse (Recommendation 16.28), and no longer require its members to shun those who disassociate from the organisation in cases where the reason for disassociation is related to a person being a victim of child sexual abuse (Recommendation 16.29).
We welcome the inclusion in the recently published Child safeguarding policy of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia of a requirement to report child sexual abuse to civil authorities in cases where elders consider that a child may still be at risk of harm. The Jehovah’s Witness organisation should also amend all of its policies and procedures relating to child sexual abuse to ensure that this requirement is included.