Legislative Pressure and Culture Change among Jehovah’s Witnesses

by Harvinder Singh, University of Birmingham, UK

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, or as they are more commonly known as Jehovah’s Witnesses have been criticised by the Australian Royal Commission in 2015 for their handling and practices of child safeguarding. This centralised international religious organisation defends its practices with first-century biblical principles, claiming that it possesses spiritual truth. My study tests the hypothesis of whether this religious organisation adjusts to local variations of child safeguarding laws in the United States of America, England and Australia. This organisation’s local adaptations to child safeguarding laws in these three countries are a challenge to their universal truth.

The methodology of my enquiry includes an analysis of textual sources ranging from WatchTower’s child safeguarding policy, letters, magazines and civil court cases concerning child abuse, in addition to the findings of the Australian Royal Commission and the response submitted on behalf of WatchTower. My exploration of civil court cases and the elder’s correspondence documents in section 5, offers an insight into where WatchTower has adapted their previous doctrinal practices of requiring a victim of child sexual abuse to confront their abusers.

My study finds that WatchTower has adapted its child safeguarding practices by introducing new methods which no longer requires victims of child sexual abuse to make an allegation by having to confront their perpetrators. In addition to this, victims of abuse can now be accompanied by a support person of any gender to make an allegation against a perpetrator of abuse to an elder. Thus, the analysis of this enquiry has established areas of WatchTower’s theocratic position which has been adjusted due to local legal pressures in these three countries. The legal framework of this dissertation has demonstrated that the elders responsibility to safeguard children vary due to the local legal requirements.Thus, states in America and particular provinces in Australia require different responsibilities from elders, in the form of acquiring background checks and adhering to mandatory reporting legislation. Of which, WatchTower confirms that they are willing to comply with. This study finds through the double hypothesis that if there are local variations from the global Jehovah’s Witnesses’ instructions, there are local legal requirements in these three countries. Where there are no local legal requirements, this study also finds that there are no local variations in Jehovah’s Witnesses’ documents and practices. This thesis finds that this religious organisation does not respond or adjust its doctrinal practices of child safeguarding in the face of criticism and recommendations of scholars, the mass media and the secular courts unless legislation requires it. The findings of my study therefore urge legislators to set clearer legal expectations for clergy penitent privilege. I argue that a Jehovah’s Witness elder and the penitent child abuser should both enjoy the privilege of confidentiality. However, on the contrary, any other elder who becomes aware of such abuse outside of that privilege, should be required mandatorily by law to report it to the authorities to ensure that children are protected from sexual abuse.

[Editors: Note Harvinder Singh’s Academic Paper on Jehovah’s Witnesses, PDF 76 pages]

Harvinder Singh, (BA, MA)

School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion

Department of Theology and Religion,University of Birmingham

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