Evidence points towards a sexual abuse scandal in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation on a scale which may be comparable to the Catholic Church, Savile or the Football Association, yet they refuse properly to acknowledge it or make effective changes to their safeguarding policies.
This is not a new issue. In 2002, the BBC Panorama programme Suffer the little children focused on allegations of sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Former members of the religion claimed that the organisation maintained a database of alleged paedophiles, ie a list of names against whom complaints of sexual abuse had been made. Survivors from the US and UK were interviewed. Their stories were tragic in the way that all such stories are. But the details about how the organisation is alleged to have dealt with their claims were particularly disturbing. After summoning the courage to report the abuse to the leaders of their congregations, they claim they were only asked if there was a second witness to the abuse, and it appears none of their complaints were reported to the police by the organisation.
Members are encouraged to avoid contact with secular authorities, including the police and legal system
Little has changed since 2002. The Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to operate what is commonly referred to as the two-witness rule: for any sin committed, there must be two witnesses to the sin in order for the elders to take the matter forward and discipline the member. It matters not that the member has admitted to the same type of wrongdoing in the past. These general policies are outlined in the organisation’s in-house manual Shepherd the Flock of God. In cases of sexual abuse, there is seldom, if ever, a witness. For survivors of sexual abuse who finally find the courage to come forward, in my experience as a solicitor acting on behalf of claimants in sexual abuse cases, the application of these policies means that their complaints are usually dismissed unless the perpetrator admits the abuse, which is rare.
The most recent child safeguarding policy of the organisation directs elders to contact headquarters about allegations of abuse, rather than informing the police. Members are encouraged to avoid contact with secular authorities, including the police and legal system. In most cases they are prohibited from taking a fellow Jehovah’s Witness to court, as to do so could lead to their expulsion from the religion, known as disfellowshipping. A disfellowshipped person is shunned entirely, including by immediate family members, even if living in the same household. Those who smoke, play the lottery, or report abuse may therefore effectively face the same fate — a chillingly powerful and effective deterrent against disclosure.
A worldwide religious organisation that seems to refuse to recognise how its policies protect alleged abusers and put children at risk is frustrating, but not hopeless. Steps can be taken to force the organisation to protect vulnerable members. First, the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse should investigate the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as its Australian counterpart, the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, has already done. In its report last year the royal commission said: “We do not consider the Jehovah’s Witness organisation to be an organisation which responds adequately to child sexual abuse.”
It also found that “[T]he organisation’s retention and continued application of policies such as the two witness rule in cases of child sexual abuse shows a serious lack of understanding of the nature of child sexual abuse.” Second, mandatory reporting proposals should be expanded to include all voluntary and religious organisations. The Charity Commission is also currently investigating safeguarding at the religion’s main UK charity.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses will not be the first or the last organisation which appears to turn a blind eye to the child abuse scandal in its ranks, but by drawing the government’s attention to the problem and requiring all organisations, voluntary and religious, to report allegations of abuse, we can make progress toward safeguarding children.
A spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witness has previously said: “Anyone who commits the sin of child abuse faces expulsion from the congregation . . . Any suggestion that Jehovah’s Witnesses cover up child abuse is absolutely false. Congregation elders do not discourage [reports to the authorities] or shield abusers from the authorities or from the consequences of their actions.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses have also previously said in a statement: “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse, a crime that sadly occurs in all sectors of society . . . We are committed to doing all we can to prevent child abuse and to provide spiritual comfort to any who have suffered from this terrible sin and crime.”
Kathleen Hallisey is a senior solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp, specialising in child abuse. She acted on behalf of the claimant in the landmark case of A v Watchtower  EWHC 1722 (QB), the first judgment against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK for historical sexual abuse.