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Watch Tower’s legal challenges have held up UK investigation into alleged sexual abuse for more than two years
The charity commission is investigating claims that Jehovah’s Witnesses abuse survivors were forced to face their attackers.
The UK’s main Jehovah’s Witnesses charity has dropped efforts to block an investigation into how it handled allegations of sexual abuse, including of children, after a legal fight lasting more than two years.
The Charity Commission launched an inquiry into safeguarding at the religion’s main UK charity in May 2014 after receiving allegations that survivors of rape and sexual abuse, including people abused as children, were forced to face their attackers in “judicial committees”.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, resisted the investigation into the Watch Tower Bible Tract Society of Great Britain (WTBTS), which oversees the UK’s 1,500 congregations and is believed to play a key role in deciding how claims of abuse are handled.
The WTBTS, which had a turnover of more than £80m last year, launched a series of legal challenges to the inquiry. These included an attempt to challenge in the supreme court the commission’s decision to start an investigation. The charity also fought in the lower courts against production orders that would oblige it to give the commission access to records showing how it handled the allegations.
The commission announced last week that, more than two and a half years after the investigation was launched, the WTBTS had shared some of the documents it had been seeking and the commission had since cancelled the production order. The charity had also dropped the last of its legal cases against the inquiry, the supreme court having refused to hear that particular case in July.
Although charities do sometimes challenge the commission’s decisions in court, the extent and length of the Jehovah’s Witnesses litigation were unprecedented in recent times, a commission spokesman told the Guardian last year.
A spokesman for the WTBTS said: “In light of the progress of the inquiry and the information obtained by the commission from Watch Tower and other sources, the commission has agreed to revoke the production order. Watch Tower has therefore agreed to withdraw its application for judicial review of the production order and a consent order has been filed with the high court to conclude the proceedings.
“Watch Tower will now work with the commission to explore the issues that are the subject of the statutory inquiry and to address the commission’s regulatory concerns.”
The commission is conducting a separate investigation into the Manchester New Moston congregation, where three adult survivors of child sex abuse were allegedly brought face-to-face with their abuser shortly after he was released from prison after being jailed for attacking them.
He was later “disfellowshipped”, or expelled, from the church. But two women in separate cases told the Guardian last year that although the church can disfellowship people from the tight-knit congregations for minor offences, such as gambling, their abusers had been allowed to remain in the church. One, who was raped as an adult, said she had been urged by senior congregation members, known as elders, to face her rapist at a private hearing, leaving her “completely traumatised” and leading to the breakup of her marriage.
A spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses said last year: “We are in no position to, and neither would we wish to, force any victim of abuse to confront their attacker.”
Thomas Beale, of AO Advocates, who last year won a civil case that found the Jehovah’s Witnesses had failed to protect a woman from sexual abuse that began when she was four, said the commission’s decision to drop its production order could allow the charity to withhold further information.
“Of course we welcome the ongoing statutory inquiry into Jehovah’s Witnesses’ safeguarding policies and look forward to reviewing its findings,” he said.
“However, given our experience with Jehovah’s Witnesses in litigation, we struggle to see how a thorough and robust investigation can occur now that the Charity Commission has decided to revoke its production order. We think the chance of full disclosure now by the Jehovah’s Witnesses is very small.”
The organisation has faced similar claims overseas. Last year an inquiry in Australia found the organisation failed to protect children from sexual abuse, and that its weak internal procedures left abusers at large. Similar claims have emerged in Canada.
A spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses told the Guardian last year: “Congregation elders do not discourage [reports to the authorities] or shield abusers from the authorities or from the consequences of their actions.”
Fay Maxted, the chief executive of the Survivors Trust, said the WTBTS should apologise to those affected for the “appalling delays” caused by its litigation.
“Faith groups need to really take on board the huge damage and pain caused to victims and survivors when appeal after appeal is pursued in an attempt to prevent them from having to share information,” she said. “It is very difficult in such circumstances to believe that the best interests of the victim or survivor are in any way being considered.”
Maxted said she hoped the decision to share information with the commission signalled a change in their approach to the needs of victims and survivors.