Jehovah’s Witnesses have received global media attention for their child protection policies, which put children at risk and serve to protect pedophiles. It has been estimated that Watchtower policies are responsible for thousands of children being harmed. To protect these policies, and the image of the organization, Watchtower has been forced to pay out vast sums of money in settlements.
When a child reports a case of abuse, the correct response would be to report the accusation to the proper, trained authorities for them to investigate as a matter of urgency. However, the Watchtower instructs elders to handle such accusations internally wherever possible. There are several reasons behind this:
- The Watchtower instructs that guilt cannot be determined without two witnesses
- Mistrust of “worldly” professionals and authorities
- Avoidance of reproach on Jehovah’s Name
Of further concern is that all Jehovah’s Witnesses, including known pedophiles, are required to preach door-to-door despite the danger this presents to unsuspecting members of the public.
The “Two-Witness Rule”
The fundamental reason there is an issue with child abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses is the “two-witness rule,” which is based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15,16.
This Scripture prevents a Jehovah’s Witness being considered guilty of any misdemeanor without two people witnessing the action, unless the person confesses. In the case of child sex abuse, there is virtually never a second witness, and a predatory pedophile is unlikely to confess. This has allowed accused pedophiles to continue operating in a clandestine manner throughout congregations, exploiting Watchtower policies in their favor.
Put simply, Watchtower differentiates between a crime and a “scriptural sin.” Application of the two-witness rule means that even if a court finds a person guilty of abuse, the local congregation may not recognize that the perpetrator has done anything scripturally wrong.
Watchtower tries to shift responsibility for this dangerous policy to God and the Bible.
By legalistically applying the two-witness rule to child abuse, Watchtower is guilty of a gross misapplication of Bible guidance. Jesus applied this passage to adults – not children. The verse discusses a sin between “brothers.” The brothers involved were of an age where they could lay bare the fault “alone.” Watchtower’s insistence that child abuse is covered under this principle is incomprehensible considering that it leads to the ongoing endangerment of children.
While the two-witness rule is a sensible guideline in preventing the miscarriage of justice, it is open to abuse, and thus needs to be applied within reason. For instance, a guilty person can deny an accusation from a single witness and avoid punishment. Alternatively, two people can collude to claim an innocent person is guilty and have him or her unjustly punished. The rule was clearly designed to protect people in ancient times from false accusations, but modern criminal investigative techniques such as forensics have rendered this rule all but obsolete.
In the case of child abuse, an area in which elders are painfully under-qualified to act as judge, trained authorities and experts should always be involved. Child abuse is a crime. Even in states where there is no legal responsibility to report knowledge of child abuse to authorities, there is still an ethical responsibility. Elders should report all accusations to the police.
As late as the 1990s in Watchtower guidelines, two witnesses were required to be present at the same sexual encounter for the perpetrator to be considered as having committed a Scriptural offence.
Even after several children made an accusation against the same brother, the elders were to do nothing. Elders aware of serial child abusers could take no action within the congregation. It is incomprehensible that the Governing Body could sanction such a policy.The misguided application of the two-witness rule has allowed known pedophiles to not only remain in the congregation but also hold positions of authority. For instance, Rick McLean molested many Witness children over a twenty-year period, yet despite numerous children and their parents approaching congregational elders, they never took any action. The reason? There was never two witnesses to any single event.
In the case regarding James Henderson, Plaintiff Tim W. of Tehama County, California (in his Second Amended Complaint) alleged:
“Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. had actual knowledge that James Henderson was a sexual predator since at least 1964. Yet, for the better part of three decades, they appointed and re-appointed him to the positions of elder and ministerial servant.”
It wasn’t until 2002 that the Watchtower decided that two witnesses could be from separate incidents.
This change is still inadequate because it allows pedophiles to continue operating with impunity after the first case of abuse.
- The World
The reluctance Jehovah’s Witnesses have displayed in being forthcoming regarding accusations of abuse with police and psychiatrists relates to their distrust of “worldly people” and the “wisdom of the world.”
When describing people that are not Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Watchtower writes:
Attending a psychiatrist has been said to make people “worse off than they were before…” (Awake! 1975 Aug 22 p.25) Although recent information allows a Witness to visit a psychiatrist, concern is still expressed that these might undermine Watchtower’s belief system.
Quite conversely, Watchtower guidance on child abuse lags painfully behind that of “worldly wisdom.” This can be seen from the Watchtower’s:
- Insistence on requiring two-witnesses to establish guilt of child abuse
- Attempt to have the child face the Abuser (Shepherd the Flock of God – 2010 p.72)
- Policy that a child molester can still be considered for “privileges” if his actions are not widely known (Letter to Elders 2012 Oct 1), which disregards the fact that paedophilia is controllable but not curable
An indication of how grossly inadequate Watchtower guidance has been is the 1993 Telememo for reporting a child abuse accusation, which asks under question 9, “How many elders felt that the victim was somewhat at fault or willingly participated in the acts?”
- Reproach on Jehovah
Fear of bringing reproach on Jehovah’s name dissuades use of legal and court systems.
This is misguided advice, since it is not the name of Jehovah that is at risk, but the reputation of the Watchtower Organization. When it comes to child abuse within the congregations, the blame is not directed against Jehovah, but towards the perpetrator and, where applicable, the rules and regulations of the Watchtower Society.
The Working with Children requirements in Victoria, Australia, provides an example of the contempt that the Watchtower carries towards the legal system. The Working with Children Act 2005 outlined that people that work with children, including “ministers of religion,” need to register for a background criminal check. Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only religion in Victoria that refused to comply with the check when it became mandatory for “religious organisations” in July 2008. It was not until late 2011, after Steven Unthank brought the issue before the courts, that they issued a letter to elders that they were to comply and obtain Working with Children cards. (http://www.heraldsun.com.au/archive/news/former-witness-taking-on-watch-tower/story-fn7x8me2-1226036589078)
- Danger to the Congregation
To the extent possible, the Watchtower has avoided reporting cases of child abuse to authorities. A 1993 Telememo directed elders not to report abuse in States where there is no legal requirement. Where there was a legal requirement, reporting was to be done anonymously, from a phone booth. It stated, “If no one who has knowledge of the abuse is willing to make a report, two elders should make an anonymous phone report from a neutral location, such as a phone booth.”
An anonymous report is worthless as police are not able to act upon such information. This is a sad indication of the Watchtower’s lack of ethical integrity, whereby it attempts to circumvent legal requirements.
Until recently, the congregation was not protected either. When a known child abuser moved to a new congregation, a Letter to Elders 1997 March 14 instructed that the elders are to be informed, but warned not to alert the rest of the congregation, including families with children.
To this day, elders do not report an accusation of child abuse unless legally required as admitted in the Australian “Inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organizations.” (11 April 2013) (http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/images/stories/committees/fcdc/inquiries/57th/Child_Abuse_Inquiry/Transcripts/Watchtower_Bible_and_Tract_Society_Jehovahs_Witnesses_11-April-13.pdf)
- Danger to the Public
The unwillingness of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be forthcoming regarding accusations of child abuse should be of concern to all people.
For individuals to be considered Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in line for salvation, they are required to go preaching.
This even applies to pedophiles, who are still expected to preach from house to house, despite the danger this places upon unsuspecting householders and their children. The Letter to Elders 2012 Oct 1 p.4 advises a child molester “ … not to work alone in field service (hence, they should always be accompanied by another adult).” While affording some immediate protection, this still allows the pedophile opportunity to identify which houses have children present. The public has no way of knowing whether or not the Jehovah’s Witness standing at their door represents a danger to their children, either when they call or at a later opportune moment.
- 2012 Policy
In June 2012, a landmark case ruled against the Watchtower in Conti v Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. The Watchtower received a record judgement of $21 million for punitive damages (later reduced under appeal).
In apparent response to this conviction, a Letter to Elders was released and dated October 1, 2012 outlining updated policy. Although subtle improvements were noted, very little of the existing policy was actually changed. Most surprisingly, the Watchtower Legal Department has taken more responsibility upon themselves, insisting that all accusations must be reported to the Watchtower’s Legal Department as an immediate first step, with the Department offering advice on how to proceed.
Parts of the letter of particular interest include (1) reporting to authorities, (2) the continued insistence on the two-witness rule, (3) the issue of who determines whether an abuser is a predator, and (4) the opportunity for future privileges.
Reporting to Authorities
Reporting accusations to the police is still not encouraged. Rather than directing elders to report all accusations, an elder is to contact the Watchtower’s Legal Department, who then will advise if a report is required under the laws of that State.
- Two-Witness Rule
Disappointingly, the two-witness rule remains unchanged.
A person who “has sexually abused a child” may still be granted “privileges” within the congregation, such as serving as a pioneer, or an elder in a position of trust.
Of key import to the Society is how well “known” the person’s actions are by others in his community. This shows utter disregard for the victim since the concern of this criteria is the reputation of the pedophile and the congregation.
The Legal Department has assumed the responsibility to determine whether a child abuser is to be considered a “predator.” Only at their discretion is a brother to be classed as such, in which case parents in the congregation may be warned.
While it is commendable that parents may finally be warned that there is a pedophile in their midst, the Legal Department is not in the best position to be making such a determination, when it is two or three times removed from the pedophile, and potentially in a different country. Local law enforcement is in a far better position to make such an assessment.
If the child abuser is not deemed by the Legal Department to be a predator, then no warning is to be provided. The congregation simply hears that a brother or sister has been reproved, or “is no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” without any understanding as to why.
As of 2013, Watchtower policies are still woefully inadequate when it comes to protecting children. AAWA therefore makes the following recommendations toward further protecting the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses from pedophiles:
The two-witness rule must no longer apply to accusations of sexual molestation against children. There is no reason for Jehovah’s Witnesses to apply Matthew 18 to children. The Watchtower does not enforce this Scripture consistently, and it is reprehensible for them to stubbornly insist that this must form the basis of their policy on child abuse.
All accusations should be reported to the authorities, regardless of whether or not it is the legal obligation in that state or country. The organization should be leading the way in the protection of children, not lagging behind the world’s standards in an effort to protect their own reputation. Congregation elders are ill equipped to handle such accusations, and should welcome the assistance of trained professionals.
If the accused denies guilt but the police are investigating the matter, the accused should under no circumstances have unsupervised contact with a child in the congregation or be allowed to represent the congregation in field service until the matter is resolved by local law enforcement.
If convicted by the authorities, an abuser must never serve as an elder, ministerial servant, or pioneer or represent the congregation in field service. It is wholly unacceptable for him or her to receive a position of authority or responsibility, and Watchtower policy should always err on the side of caution for the sake of child safety.
The elders should alert all parents in the congregation of the conviction unless prevented from doing so by the authorities.
R I P
- REPORT – Child abuse is a crime, and accusations or confessions of child abuse should be reported to the police or law enforcement authorities immediately.
- INFORM – Elders should discreetly inform parents of a known pedophile in their congregation.
- PREVENT – Child molesters should be prevented from door to door preaching, serving in positions of trust in any congregation, or from enjoying privileges that would enable them to gain unsupervised access to children.