Someone suggested I would address a letter not only to Mr. Angus Stewart, but also to the Royal Commission as well. So here it is. It merges the two subjects on the same letter (inactive status and shunning; two witness rule), and adds some things more that what I said to Mr. Stewart. It's a bit long, please bear with me.
To whom it may concern:
I was a member of the Jehovah's Witnesess for nearly 40 years of my life, since early childhood when my mother converted from Roman Catholic to Jehovah's Witness in 1978. I served as a church officer for some time (Ministerial Servant and Elder) in a congregation in Portugal, Europe. I am no longer a member. I haven't been a victim of sexual child abuse, and never dealt directly with any such case as a church officer. I do, however have a friend who has suffered sexual abuse in South Africa at the hands of a church officer, and the congregation did nothing for her because the abuser never confessed and there were no "two witnesses". To this day she bears the psychological scarrs of such abuse.
I have been following with interest the findings and interviews of the Australian Royal Comission on child abuse regarding the case of Jehovah's Witnesses. I have felt very uncomfortable watching the questioning of Governing Body member Mr. Geoffrey Jackson and more recently prominent members of the branch Office of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Australia, because I know, from my past experience as a church officer, and as an ex-member, that these men are hiding the truth from the Royal Comission and their real concern isn't for the victims of sexual child abuse, nor is their real concern the protection of the congregation or the community at large from sexual predators. Their sole concern is to protect the reputation and the assets of the Organization.
Some facts about the so-called "inactive" status:
I would like to contribute with some observations, that I hope may be of interest to the Royal Comission. The first set of observations regards their claim that a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses who wishes to cease association with the Organization only has to become "inactive" in order to avoid shunning. That is factually a lie.
I have seen that lately it seems to be a strategy of the Jehovah's Witnesses leadership to argue that a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses can chose to become inactive, rather then formally disassociate from the cult; this way they give the impression that it's a matter of choice that former members get shunned. More revolting even - it is suggested that it is the disassociated member who has chosen to shun the Jehovah's Witnesses (!!), thus reversing the burden of blame upon the victim of shunning. Those who leave may indeed want nothing to do with the religion, but in most cases, certainly they don't want to sever ties with their friends and relatives who chose to remain as members. Those are two entirely different things, but dishonestly the leadership of the Jehovah's Witnesses attempts to conflate them.
The leadership of the Jehovah's Witnesses fosters a culture where those who become inactive are very poorly regarded, ranging from 'spiritually weak' to 'hypocrites who are too coward to take a stand'. In a training school for church officers years ago I heard a remark from a highly ranked overseer saying that "an inactive Jehovah's Witness is an oxymoron", meaning that, only those who regularly engage in the public ministry of proselityzing are deemed worthy of being considered part of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Often, it is told to the flock that those who have fell into inactivity must be urged to return to the active flock, or else they will perish during Armageddon. Based on Bible passages such as Ezekiel 3:18-21, the Witnesses are told that unless they are active preachers of the message of the Jehovah's Witnesses, they will be guilty before God and they shall perish. Thus, very much like in the case of an army in a war situation, inactive ones are often seen as cowards and deserters.
Technically speaking, a baptized Jehovah's Witness who hasn't filled in a monthly report slip with at least one hour of activity in the public ministry service - proselytism work in some form - after six continuous months will be considered "inactive". (Some exceptions are made to allow for ailing, elderly Jehovah's Witnesses to report fractions of one hour and thus still be considered "active", but these are exceptions, not the norm). It should be noted that "inactivity" has to do with the individual's participation in the public ministry service and not other engagements with the congregation, such as attendence to their gatherings. Someone can attend the meetings regularly and yet be considered "inactive", if he or she haven't reported any participation in the public ministry work for over six consecutive months. I have seen a handful of such cases.
The culture fostered by the Governing Body is two-folded: On publications that are meant for an audience that include the congregation members at large and outsiders, the general message is: inactives are in a temporary state of spiritual weakness, we must reach out for them and try that they may be rekindled with the flock, treated with kindness and mercy because they are precious in the eyes of God, just like the prodigal son of the parable told by Jesus in Luke 15:11-24. However, the tone is considerably different in the instructions that are meant for the inner circle of the church officers. Here, the congregation Elders are instructed to protect the flock from the negative influence of the inactives. They are portrayed as weaklings, fearful, cowards, materialistic people, a bad influence and a bad example. To protect their spirituallity, active Jehovah's Witnesses are encouraged by the Elders to avoid "bad associations" even within the congregation. Among these are the "inactives". The message is sometimes very subtle, but it is clearly understood. For example, here is something that can typically be said by an Elder from the platform:
"We should seek association with those who encourage us to be zealous in our ministry. The Bible cautions us that "bad associations ruin good habits". If someone doesn't preach, doesn't like to go out in the ministry service, is that person really a good association for us? Clearly not, and we should be alert against such bad influences, even from someone who claims to be a brother or a sister."
The message to the congregation is clear: Beware of association with inactives, even if they are your relatives or close friends. The inactives become the subject of what can be described as "soft shunning" - they are progressively left out of all social interaction with other congregation members. The congregation members who seek regular association with inactives are often privately counseled by the Elders to discretely veer from them, at least until they become active in the ministry again.
What happens, then, if a Jehovah's Witness who suffered sexual child abuse wishes to no longer be a member of the church? Is it true, as claimed by the leadership of the Jehovah's Witnesses, that such person has a real choice between formally disassociating (and be shunned) and becoming inactive (and thus avoid shunning)? No, that's not a real choice.
As stated above, inactive members are subject to an informal form of soft shunning. When I myself was inactive, some Jehovah's Witnesses ostensively avoided me, and some even refused to greet me - I was told later that there were rumours circulating about me that I had been disfellowshipped; those rumors were untrue, but there was nothing I could do to stop them, and no one approached me to ask if they were true or not. The aversion to disfellowshipped or disassociated individuals is such, that they are immediatly dropped as if they contrated leprosy.
Because someone is only considered "inactive" after six months of not reporting any public ministry service, what happens between the time the person decides to no longer be in association with the congregation, with immediate effect, and the moment when such person is deemed "inactive"? That person is effectively in a limbo. No provision is made for someone in that situation. Six months of harassement from the congregation Elders, and other Jehovah's Witnesses who constantly try to get the member back into the active fold, who must be very careful to not betray his / her intention to fade from the congregation, for risk of being forcibly disassociated from the congregation, and thus shunned.
Once someone is deemed "inactive", is that person now truly free from its ties with the Organization? Absolutely not! Herein lies another falsehood told to the ARC. Aside some exceptions, inactive members are still under the disciplinary jurisdiction of the congregation Elders. They are still considered "members", therefore, if it is brought to the attention of the Elders that an inactive Jehovah's Witness has engaged in some forbidden activity, that person will be subject to disciplinary action from the congregation. The justification? The active fold must be protected from spiritual contamination.
According to the Watchtower literature - especially that whose audience is comprised of church officers - if someone doesn't take action to formally disassociate from the Jehovah's Witnesses, but it has come to the attention of the Elders that such person said in a casual conversation with friends or at the workplace that he / she no longer considers himself a Jehovah's Witness, then such person is deemed by the elders as having disassociated himself from the Jehovah's Witnesses, and an announcement is then made to the congregation stating that "X is no longer a Jehovah's Witness", without any further explanations, leaving thus room for all sorts of speculations and rumors. Subsequently, that person is thenceforth shunned. This is also the case when an inactive member accepts a blood transfusion; or attends meetings of another religious group; or joins a political party; or runs for a political office; or joins the military or serves the compulsory military service; or publicly voices criticism towards the Organization, its Governing Body, its policies or doctrine. In all these cases, the Elders need not form a judicial committee to make a judgement: by its actions the person is considered to have disassociated himself / herself from the congregation, and thus shunned. Naturally, this is a legalistic nuance, because it is simply an attempt to shield the Organization from being accused of persecuting its members for simply obeying the law or exercizing their rights and duties as citizens. As you can imagine, the silent threat of being forcibily disassociated is a powerful form of coersion upon those who just wish to fade into inactivity.
Also, if it comes to the attention of the Elders that an inactive Jehovah's Witness has taken on behaviors that are forbidden by the church - such as having pre-marital sex, homosexual relationships, adultery, smoking, drug use, gambling, buying a lottery ticket, joining a charity run by another church, apostasy against the Watchtower, among other "sins", that inactive Witness will most likely be confronted with investigative actions from the Elders (that may include spying on that person to try to find evidence of those trespasses), and may face a judicial committee. Whether the person still acknowleges the spiritual authority of the congregation or not, such judicial committee will be formed, and Elders may determine that such person must be disfellowshipped. An announcement is thus made to the congregation: "X is no longer a Jehovah's Witness". Again, no explanations are given, and speculation and rumors of all sorts are common. In any case, shunning ensues.
Either by means of forceful disassociation, or by disfellowshipping, the inactive is still under the disciplinary jurisdiction of the congregation. The only exception, which is highly discretionary, is when someone has been inactive for so long, that hardly anyone in the community and in the congregation remembers that person was once a Jehovah's Witness. This may take many years, and usually requires a change of address, of town. Only in a case like this may the Elders decide to not take disciplinary action against the "impenitent sinner". As a general rule, an "inactive" usually has the worst of both worlds: he / she is still shunned, and doesn't have the freedom from the religion that an ex-member has. In order to attain that freedom, he is forced to chose to lose his family and friends.
Allow me to report an experience from my own household in Portugal:
My son, who was baptized as a Jehovah's Witness at age 11, became inactive at age 15, and stopped going to the religious meetings and report ministry service hours. More than two years later, he was summoned for the National Defense Day (NDD), which is of mandatory attendance for all citizens. It is customary that Jehovah's Witnesses' apply for Conscientious Objector status to avoid attending that one-day event, given their objections to participate in warfare, military service and their claims of neutrality in political affairs. However, in Portugal, failing to attend that event precludes someone for applying for a job as a civil servant later in life. So, my son decided he shouldn't give up that option, and he attended the NDD. In a letter written previously to the congregation body of elders, it was stated that he felt that he was simply complying with the secular law and that by complying with the law of the country he absolutely meant in no way to disassociate from the Jehovah's Witnesses. A couple of weeks following the NDD, two elders from the congregation came to our door, to inform us that our son had disassociated himself from the congregation by attending the NDD. The announcement was made to the congregation later that week, and he has been shunned ever since, including by members of his own family. Consequently, both me and my wife - who were inactive already and subject to soft shunning - wrote letters of disassociation from the congregation of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and we are now shunned by the congregation members, some of them being our close family.
It is therefore a falsehood the claim that a Jehovah's Witness who was a victim of sexual child abuse and no longer wishes to remain part of the congregation has a choice in order to avoid being shunned. The fallacy of shifting the blame to the victim is nothing but appaling in this case. The inactives are subject to soft shunning, and more so if they ever denounce publicly that they were sexually abused within the congregation of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Church officers serving in any capacity are directly threatened to lose their positions should they ever associate with former members of the congregation, even if they are close relatives not living under their roof. I know cases of Jehovah's Witnesses parents throwing their own children away from home and shunning them just because they didn't want to be members of the congregation anymore. In some cases, children who suffered sexual abuse from a Jehovah's Witness parent were reproached by the congregation for bringing forth such allegations and susequently expelled from home (while still minors) by their own parents. The status of "inactive" does NOT grant the victim the liberty to act and speak freely without the fear of becoming subject to disciplinary jurisdiction of the body of elders of the congregation which, depending on the "sin", may either disfellowship (even in absentia) or decide unilaterally that the inactive member has disassociated himself. The result, in either case, is shunning.
In their publications aimed at the public audience, the Jehovah's Witnesses make gradiose statements about freedom of belief such as this, found in the July 2007 edition of their Awake! magazine (p.29): "No one should be forced to worship in a way that he finds unacceptable or be made to choose between his beliefs and his family." Nice words, but the reallity shows otherwise. Often, the victim of sexual child abuse finds himself in an untenable situation where he / she must chose between staying in a religion that facilitated the abuse and whose doctrines are no longer held as belief, and losing all his social network, including the closest family and friends. It's sometimes too cruel to bear.
Please take the above into consideration the next time a leader of the Jehovah's Witnesses attempts to disingenuously claim before the ARC that a victim can simply chose to become inactive to avoid being shunned. It is a flat-out lie.
"Two-witness rule" cannot be changed?
Something else that I would like to draw your attention to is the allegation from the leadership of the Jehovah's Witnesses that the so-called "two witness rule" to evaluate the credibility of alegations of sexual child abuse cannot be changed because it's so clearly laid out in the Bible, that it's not even subject to interpretation.
I will disagree with that assertion. Clearly, the leadership of the Jehovah's Witnesses obfuscates the fact that sexual abuse of a child is no mere moral sin. It's a public crime. While the "two witness rule" may have some usefulness in passing moral judgements within the congregation - and even then, it may well be detrimental to the well-being of the victim, as it has been evident - it does nothing to help the judicial, secular authorities, the only ones that are competent to deal with crime, in order to protect the victim and protect others in the congregation and in the community at large. In fact it has more often been a factor of obstruction to justice being made, much to distress of the victims.
Allow me to draw your attention to LEVITICUS 5:1
"If someone sins because he has heard a public call to testify and he is a witness or has seen or learned about it and he does not report it, then he will answer for his error."
(New World Translation)
"If anyone sins because they do not speak up when they hear a public charge to testify regarding something they have seen or learned about, they will be held responsible."
(New International Version)
This passage is often used in the Watchtower publications to remind the Jehovah's Witnesses that they have the moral obligation to report to the elders of the congregation if they become privy to some misconduct from another member of the congregation, even if that person is a close family member. Failing to do so is a serious sin and may bring the person before a judicial committee.
Notice from the Bible passage that the person who has become privy to the information needed not two witnesses in order to report to the authorities what he came to know; nor was he required to establish the credibility of the information before reporting it; nor should he seek a confession from the accused before reporting it; nor should he inquiry if it was mandatory in his town to report it.
Accordingly, if an Elder in a congregation of the Jehovah's Witnesses is informed of an allegation of sexual child abuse in the congregation, he should report it to the proper authorities without attempting to establish the credibility of the allegations, or seek a confession from the accused, or waiting for two witnesses of the incident to come forth and bear witness, or even inquiry if reporting is mandatory in his territory. The Bible is clear: report it to the authorities!
Who are the "authorities" here? Well, since sexual child abuse is both a sin AND a public crime, it stands to reason that the sin is to be dealt by the religious authority and the crime is to be dealt by the judicial authorities.
However, the leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses speak from both sides of their mouths in these matters. On one hand, they are flexible enough to consider that the "two witness rule" may mean that two separate witnesses to an incident of the same type in two different occasions can constitute "two witnesses"; or that two witnesses of a circumstancial situation (but not of the actual sin) may constitute credible evidence. Since none of these situations is clearly described in the Bible, it stands to reason that they are extrapolative interpretations of the text. Why, then, can't the the decision of the court, or forensic evidence uncovered by the investigation police be considered a credible "second witness" in support of the testimony of the abused child?
The Elders should not wait for instructions from the legal department from the Branch Office and abstain from taking action to protect the victim and the congregation if they can't establish guilt. Even from the Bible standpoint, it would be extremely easy for the Governing Body of the Jehovah's Witness to look at Leviticus 5:1 and tell the Elders: "Sexual child abuse is a CRIME and in the spirit of Leviticus 5:1, the Elders who become privy to such allegations must immediatly report them to the police and let justice take its course. Only then they can take steps to deal with the sin." How hard would that be, after all? It wouldn't even be against what the Bible says.
It seems obvious even to the most casual observer, that the main concern of the leadership of the Watchtower Society isn't to protect the children and support the victims, but solely to protect its reputation and its own assets. Such an organization doe not deserve to keep its charity status before the Australian Government.
Please consider that in your recommendations. Keep on your good work! The world is watching, I assure you.
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