Many survivors of sexual abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses opt to sue the Watchtower Society and the congregation where the abuse happened. This is a very difficult and trying decision to make and subsequent action to take.
These kinds of lawsuits are not tried in a criminal courtroom, although at one level I think they should be. These kinds of cases are filed as civil law suits against agencies that not only hid the abuse but threatened the victims and their families with disfellowshipping if they reported the abuse to the police or others in the congregation. Many of them were told that if they reported the abuse they would cause divisions within the congregation and would not be submissive.
This effectively acted as a gag order. Victims and their parents are not even permitted to tell extended family members about the abuse, leaving the abuser free to find other victims. When the abuser is a direct family member, who lives with the victim, the child often winds up being further abused and knows that going to the elders will not stop the abuse; it might make it worse. So there is no protection, not for them and not for others.
Most victims who finally break their silence do so because they have left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and now feel free to talk about the abuse. They are now free to tell the police and to get the needed help that was denied them due to the restrictive orders by the elders.
Witnesses and the public are told that victims are free to talk to the police. What they often don’t understand is that not taking your brother to court, which comes from 1 Cor. 6:1, is taken very seriously among JWs and why Witnesses are willing to listen to the elders advice.
Most JWs are told by their elders that by making the abuse public knowledge, it will bring shame on the congregation, the Watchtower Society and ultimately their God, Jehovah. Watchtower publications continually warn about bringing reproach on God’s name by letting the non-JW world know that sexual abuses, among other crimes, exists within the congregations. And THAT doing so would make one an “enemy of God”. Added to this are experiences where elders have expressly forbidden an entire congregation from talking about a CONVICTION of an abuser, stating that even if you are telling the truth, it is wrong if it brings “reproach on Jehovah”.
So where does this leave the victim? He or she loses his or her voice because they have been ordered not to talk about it; not to other Witnesses and definitely not to anyone outside of the Witnesses. This also means that seeking counseling is out of the question. Eventually the question would arise regarding how the victim knew the abuser and that would mean explaining the connection to the Witnesses.
The lack of counseling at the time to the victim often results in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which if left untreated can affect every aspect of the person’s life, which includes their own self-worth and all relationships, whether that is family, friends, fellow workers and even their relationship with God.
Without a voice, victims loses their ability to get any sense of protection or justice. As humans, we have a sense of what is right and wrong, and wrong should have consequences. Even young children understand this. Within the Jehovah’s Witnesses there is no justice for the clear majority of victims. A serious wrong was done to them and there needed to be some sense of justice, of resolution. As children, they needed to have the abuse stopped. They needed to know other children would be safe. They needed to know the abuser would be disciplined in some serious way to make up for their actions. Many victims would have done much better with a sincere apology and promise to not do it again. So it should be no surprise that many years later, when victims have left the Witnesses, that many of them seek out some degree of justice.
I was watching a movie about restorative justice. In the film the mother needed some sense of justice, for her voice to be heard. The man who killed her son was caught and convicted and was about to be killed for the various crimes he committed, including the death of this young boy. The mother didn’t really know why she had to be there but she knew she had to go. In a discussion about the film in the Special Features, the writer and the director spoke about how the legal justice system often leaves the victims and their families out of the judicial process. They said that often during the process the family of the slain are secondary victims. They have lost a loved one. They carry that loss with them every day for the rest of their lives. But they don’t have a voice in the judicial system, although courts are just now permitting victim statements to be read before sentencing. They get a voice.
Witness victims may get to tell the elders, but if the accused denies everything, it ends there. And then the victim is silenced. So after a couple of decades many of these victims can finally get their voices heard. For many that is what they really want. They want to stand up in a court and say this is what happened to me and they want to know they have been heard. Every word gets recorded and included in the transcript of the trial. It becomes part of a permanent record. And maybe there is some justice.
Many ex-Witnesses have chosen to go to the courts to have their voices heard and to get some justice just to know that the courts agree that they were wronged. Awards and financial restitution are a bonus. But these court cases are wearing on victims, who must dredge up some of the most horrific and traumatic experiences of their young lives. Very often the Watchtower Society, more concerned with their image and “name” rather than with the wrong done to the victim, will offer out-of-court settlements simply to make the case go away. By doing so, they are in effect admitting guilt on the part of elders who prevented them from going to the police. Faced with long-drawn out court battles against a billion-dollar company many victims choose to accept the settlement.
No one will step up and say the words, “We were wrong”, but the implication is there. Sadly, the condition placed on the settlement is a non-disclosure order. This serves again to protect the abuser and those responsible for covering up the abuse. The victims have finally been heard by the courts, but sadly not by other Witnesses who need to know that danger lurks within the congregation and that the elders are tasked with keeping it a secret.
The Watchtower Society needs to listen to the rants in the past that they made about the Catholic Church, about how terrible the Catholic Church was to keep sexual abuse by priests a secret. Watchtower has written many articles saying that the Church needed to clean up its act and to get those priests out of the Church. By hiding the abuse, they were bringing further shame on the Church. Well, now might be a good time to take those words and direct them at themselves.