by Michael Paddock
For many years, I ministered as an elder in a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs). Looking back, I can say one thing for certain – we were not adequately trained to deal with complex issues. There were schools and letters specifically created by those guiding the religion that I was raised in to help elders manage complicated situations. Nonetheless, the instructions were focused on organizational policy, not how to assist people with serious psychological issues as a result of child sexual abuse or other severe mistreatment.
For instance, survivors of child sexual abuse need ongoing support and help to recover from this most devastating attack on their innocence. Although this appears like an obvious statement, too many individuals in today’s world ignore this stark reality and do not back or assist efforts to provide appropriate care.
JWs are a prime example of their leaders not meeting the challenge of assisting those who are suffering from the many debilitating effects due to child sexual abuse. This is because within this religion, there aren’t any trained and paid clergy. Elders [only males] are “volunteers” who are taught how to spiritually “care for the flock” and instructed in how to perform mundane tasks aimed at operating a place of worship.
The psychological effects of child sexual abuse include lower levels of self-esteem, higher rates of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-mutilation, and suicide. Each of these categories requires a specialized level of training for anyone hoping to adequately address these issues. The effects are life-altering and can devastate the victims for decades.
The focus of the training elders receive about abuse issues is merely on the internal procedures developed by JW leaders of what to do when a JW accuses another JW of sexual abuse. These procedures include elders:
- talking to the victim to hear the “accusation” of abuse.
- calling JWs Legal Department, which represents their legal corporation, the Watchtower, to see if the “accusation” should be reported to the authorities.
- assessing whether the “accused” should face an internal judicial committee made up of three JW elders.
In the past, a JW victim of child sexual abuse tragically had to face and accuse their JW abuser of wrongdoing face to face. Although this practice recently changed, it demonstrates the lack of understanding and assistance common in their internal policies.
Reporting a case of child sexual abuse to JW elders is still a needlessly stressful event for victims since they are expected to recount their abuse in front of at least two male elders. Often, the elders ask very uncomfortable, and sometimes inappropriate questions to determine whether sexual abuse occurred, the frequency of the act and whether the victim was a willing participant.
Furthermore, since JWs are trained to view all outside organizations as being part of
“Satan’s world,” they will not encourage a victim to seek professional counseling. This lack of training and support leaves victims in an impossibly difficult position.
SCAARS believes that anyone who volunteers for a position of authority in an institutional setting that might include hearing reports of child sexual abuse, must receive suitable training to understand how to properly support the abused; and volunteers must insist that the victim or caregiver report the abuse to the authorities.
Victims need a safe environment as described in the document, “Child Safe Organizational Cultures” (https://scaarscaorg.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/child-safe-organizational-cultures-revised.pdf).
If individuals truly want to help victims of child abuse survive and thrive beyond their
abuse, they should be thoroughly and properly instructed as to how to meet the challenge.