Jehovah’s Witness Elder sentenced to nine years in prison for sexual abuse
Jehovah’s Witness Elder, Clifford Whiteley, has been sentenced to nine years in prison at the Birmingham Crown Court for sexual abuse offences he committed against a child member of the congregation over ten years ago.
Mr Whiteley initially denied the offences to the police, despite the fact that he had admitted his guilt during an internal investigation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During court proceedings, Mr Whiteley’s defence counsel, Sharon Bailey, stated that the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to disclose the details of his confession to the police. They claimed that this was for data protection reasons. The prosecution counsel, Kathryn Orchard, also stated the same.
Mr Whiteley subsequently pleading guilty to sexual assault of a child and three other serious sexual offences. The conviction was secured, unfortunately, without the assistance of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This case raises some concerning issues about organisational co-operation with the police in the course of an investigation and how this interacts with religious freedoms.
The Jehovah’s Witness organisation conducts its own scriptural investigations in accordance with bible based instruction. This is effectively done to determine whether a sin has been committed in the eyes of the religion. This investigation can include questioning the offender and obtaining his/her version of events. No doubt, this is important and useful information to investigating officers.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have argued in the past, unsuccessfully, that the duty of religious confidentiality prevents them from disclosing this information. This is not the case.
Mrs Justice Lieven DBE in a 2020 decision, Lancashire County Council v E & F & Ors, rightly held that this duty, whether arising under the common law or the ECHR, is qualified by the interests of public safety, the protection of health and morals, and the protection of the rights and freedom of others.
Put simply, if a child is in danger or the public interest demands the information be disclosed so a child sex offender can be properly investigated, the duty can be eschewed.
So too is this the case with data protection. There are exceptions to the obligations under, formally, the Data Protection Act and currently, the GDPR which would permit such disclosures. A case involving an investigation into allegations against a person in a position of trust and authority within the religious organisation (as the offender was here) ought to oblige the co-operation of that organisation.
Given the seriousness of the offending and the position of power, trust and authority the offender held within the Jehovah’s Witness congregation where he was an elder, why is it the case that the Jehovah’s Witnesses still refused to assist the authorities?
This is a question which the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse must address in the current hearings into Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings. The Jehovah’s Witnesses say they abhor child abuse and take child protection seriously but the mere fact the elders in this congregation failed to assist the police with inquiries says otherwise.
Mrs Justice Lieven said in the Lancashire case that the “evidence points inexorably to [the elders] having protected their and the [abuser’s] religious beliefs at the expense of the protection of the child.”
If the Jehovah’s Witness organisation is to demonstrate that it prioritises child protection then some significant changes have to be made internally so the organisation is seen to be transparent and cooperative with the police, rather than hiding behind technicalities to protect members who may have harmed a child.