Concerns grow over Jehovah’s Witnesses Irish child sex abuse files
The Sunday Business Post (Ireland), Sunday, July 22, 2018 - page 11
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been urged to give the authorities potentially hundreds of documents related to child sex abuse in Ireland over fears the organisation could be forced to delete them after a recent European Court of Justice ruling on the religion’s data-handling practices.
This month, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses church was not exempt on any religious grounds from certain elements of the newly introduced GDPR data protection laws.
The Jehovah's Witnesses had argued that its practice of door-to-door preaching was covered by an exemption to the data protection law, but the court upheld an earlier decision by the Finnish supreme court.
It now leaves the religion's Irish and British headquarters - known at the Watch Tower - with a conundrum in relation to the potentially thousands of documents related to child abuse allegations in both countries, according to Jason Wynne, a former Jehovah's Witness who is now a campainger for awareness about instances of abuse within the religion.
Wynne told The Sunday Business Post that while the new law allows current and former Jehovah's Witnesses to request the deletion of files containing sensitive personal information, it could also "have a knock-on effect to their child abuse policies."
According to Wynne, the organisation currently retains data about child abusers and victimes as part of their own internal investigations into allegations of abuse.
These files may potentionally become material for Garda [police] investigations, and "if they delete the data because an alleged child abuser requests their data be deleted they [might inadvertently] commit a crime by deleting evidence of a possible crime, historic or recent."
Wynne has written to the Watch Tower's legal department asking them to hand over files related to alleged criminal activities to the appropriate authorities for further investigation.
Wynne's view is shared by Kathleen Hallisey, a solicitor at the London-based firm of Bolt Burdon Kemp, who is currently acting on behalf of 15 alleged victims in Britain.
"I was very concerned when GDPR was being introduced," Hallisey told The Sunday Business Post.
"We already know they have this database. We know it from the US from cases there and also from Australia from the Royal Commission.
"Watch Tower UK's child safeguarding policy covers Ireland so documentation related to allegations of sexual abuse in Ireland is likely to be held here in London," she said.
Hallisey pointed out that an ongoing child abuse inquiry in Britain has issued directions to religious institutions like the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Catholic Church and the Church of England ordering them not to destroy any documents related to ongoing inquiries into institutional child sexual abuse.
"I think the aim of GDPR was noble but I don't think the drafters took into account the kind of situations we're taling about."
Files related to a number of internal investigations carried out in Ireland - from child sexual abuse to domestic violence to 'disfellowshipping' members after perceived violations such as infidelity - are likely held both by the local congregation and by Watch Tower in London, according to Hallisey.
When asked by The Sunday Business Post what it intends to do with files related to child sexual abuse allegations - whether they are the sbject of police investigations or not - a spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses said: "The European Court of Justice has issued a judgment on what is a complex area of law. Jehovah's Witnesses will analyse the decision carefully and look as how governments within the European Union interpret that judgment."
The Jehovah's Witnesses religion has come under increasing critcism in Britain and Ireland for its handling of child abuse allegations.
Professor Geoffrey Shannon, Ireland's special rapporteur on child protection, told this newspaper n October last year that there was 'a growing concern internationally that within the hierarchy of the Jehovah's Witnesses, in some cases, there is a premium placed on the institution to the detriment of the welfare of children."