By Michael Paddock
In November 2016, I made a life-altering decision. After 47 years of association with Jehovah’s Witnesses, many of those spent as an elder in the congregation, I chose to leave. Although there were many reasons for this decision, it was the issue of how child sexual abuse has been mishandled that pushed me to this choice.
Since I had served as an elder, I knew the organization’s policies well. But, I had never had to handle a case of child sexual abuse directly. Once I saw how these practices were applied and how damaging they are, I could no longer support them. When I saw the extent that the organization would go to in order to defend their position and the abusers themselves, I knew I couldn’t stay.
As more people become aware of the problem with child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness organization, it might be helpful to understand the full scope of the issue. Having been trained in these policies, I would like to make things clearer by presenting a typical scenario of child sexual abuse and how the organization directs it to be handled.
- A minor tells her parent that someone in the organization has molested her. Due to the training that Jehovah’s Witnesses receive, the parent’s first instinct would be to call one of the congregation elders to report the situation instead of calling the proper legal authorities.
- After hearing this report, the elder would contact the Coordinator of the Body of Elders for his congregation. The Coordinator would arrange for a meeting of the Body of Elders to determine who on the local body of elders should investigate this claim. Again, the proper legal authorities would not be contacted.
- Two elders would be assigned to talk to the victim and her parent to gather details. If they determine that the child is giving a truthful account, they would report back to the Coordinator about their findings. The proper legal authorities would still not be notified.
- Their next step would be to call the Legal Department of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTBS) in New York. The Legal Department would then direct them as to whether or not they are legally obligated to contact the proper legal authorities to report the case. The default stance taken is that, unless there is a specific state law directing them to do so, the authorities need not be notified.
- The elders then determine if there will need to be an internal judicial hearing about the accusation. If there is only one witness to the abuse, as is the case in almost every instance of sexual abuse, they will not pursue it further. If there are two witnesses to that specific instance or if there are multiple reports from different children that this has happened at the hands of the same person, they will form a judicial committee to determine whether the offender is repentant. This committee will decide whether the offender can remain a member of the congregation or will be excommunicated, or disfellowshipped according to Jehovah’s Witness nomenclature.
- If the offender is not disfellowshipped, other members are not informed about the situation. At the most, an announcement might be made that the offender was “reproved” but displayed repentance. No mention of the type of crime will be divulged to the congregation. Parents will be unaware that a sexual offender is in their midst. They will continue to socialize and trust that their children are safe even in the presence of the offender.
- In addition to having access to children within the congregation, the offender will also go door to door in the public ministry. Jehovah’s Witnesses view their public evangelizing work as an obligation that every member must fulfill. So, even the offender will be expected to go from door to door or engage in other forms of public ministry. This gives the offender direct access to children that are not in the congregation.
- If the judicial committee had determined that the offender should be disfellowshipped, he would still be allowed to attend meetings at the Kingdom Hall (church), but he would not be allowed to go in the public ministry. After a time, he can petition the elders to be reinstated into the congregation. If they agree, he will once again be a full member and be able to socialize with and be close to all members of the congregation. He will also be expected to engage in the public ministry again, going from door to door to all houses in his area.
- At no time in this process will the elders warn parents about the predator in their midst. They may monitor his behavior but will not attempt to keep parents informed about his crime. Since they are unable to watch the offender’s actions all the time, there is ample opportunity for the predator to have access to children.
- Elders are not trained in how to deal with and assist the victims of abuse. No psychological or emotional support will be provided other than sharing some scriptures that are deemed relevant. Elders will also not encourage victims or parents to seek outside counseling as this is considered “worldly” and potentially dangerous to their spirituality.
There are multiple problems in each step of this process. The facts that authorities are not called unless required (even then it is long after the abuse), no warning is given to parents, no psychological assistance is available to parents or victim, and that the predator has access to children make this a system fraught with danger.
SCAARS is making efforts to effect a change in legislation so that these dangers can be eliminated. When considering your personal stance on this issue, please consider the positive impact of mandating all reports of child sexual abuse, expanding the statute of limitations for this crime, and helping victims find the mental and emotional support they need.