Marci Hamilton and ChildUSA.org have released a new paper, to be published as a chapter in the Sage Handbook of Domestic Violence, identifying five religious organizations whose practices contribute to cultures that cover-up ongoing child sex abuse—the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
In it she notes that “while it occurs under a diverse range of conditions, the phenomenon of covering up child sex abuse has a set of consistent characteristics: the protection of adult offenders through internal processes, the prioritization of the organization’s reputation at all costs, and the ignorance of red flags and conditions that endanger children.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have various policies that maintain the strict internal handling of child sex abuse issues and restrict the willingness of the church to recognize abuse claims.
- Elders and Judicial Committees refer first to the Watchtower Legal Dept, regardless or whether obvious criminal laws have been broken.
“Rather than report the crime to police, elders are told to form
judicial committees and “avoid entanglement with the secular authorities.”
- The Two Witness Rule :
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ strict following of the ‘two-witness rule’ in child sex abuse
cases further facilitates the cover-up of abuse within the church. The rule requires two
eyewitnesses to an alleged crime for it to be recognized by the church, meaning that, in the case of child sexual abuse, the victim’s account is not enough on its own. Barring a confession or a second adult witness, accused predators effectively prove their innocence.
- Legal Opportunities for Redress and Compensation
In the legal arena, many Jehovah’s Witness abuse cases that did make their way to secular authorities have prevailed in court.105 Moreover, recent statute of limitation reform has opened the door for adult survivors to bring previously expired claims forward. Adult victims Heather Steele and John Michael Ewing filed claims in 2019 after the Child Victims Act went into effect in New York.106 Increasing statute of limitation reform across the country will open the door for more adult victims like these to bring their claims to court, but “because of what critics have described as the [Jehovah’s] Witnesses’ unique penchant for burying allegations of sexual misconduct, and their insular culture, many survivors may decline to pursue justice.”
While legal opportunities to pursue claims continue to emerge, the Jehovah’s Witness practices that prevent the reporting of abuse allegations remain a barrier to justice.