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

Why I am a SCAARS Supporter (M.P.)

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:

  1. talking to the victim to hear the “accusation” of abuse.
  2. calling JWs Legal Department, which represents their legal corporation, the Watchtower, to see if the “accusation” should be reported to the authorities.
  3. 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.

Why I am a SCAARS Supporter (B.P.)

by B.P. in Illinois

My father was a man of great integrity who abhorred religious hypocrisy. In his youth, he boldly marched in front of churches in Brooklyn, NY, with a sign that read, “Religion is a Snare and a Racket.” He never backed down from speaking against the piousness of the clergy or the sins they committed in God’s name. As a matter of fact, it was his favorite subject!

Therefore, I was raised with the conviction that devotion to God and to truth was to be first in my life. Whenever I had any questions, Dad would always tell me to do the research. He was convinced that he had found “the truth” and it could stand up to any scrutiny. “Don’t take my word for it – look it up.” he’d say.

Sadly, my father died in 1988, before the Internet made it so easy to do research. If alive today, I think he’d be appalled to learn that child sex abuse had infiltrated powerful religious institutions. I can just imagine his anger to find out how religious leaders covered-up this crime, and that perpetrators were protected by using spin and legal posturing.

Like my father advised, “Do the research to find the truth,” that’s what I did when I began to question the structure of religion; claims of ecclesiastical privilege, along with what I saw as an immense misuse of power.

After discovering that many religions were founded not on candor with transparency, but largely on “malfeasance of office” and sanctimoniousness, I realized that a secret and dangerous culture developed over the centuries. This has culminated in some of the most scandalous cover-ups we’ve ever seen in our time.

Events of the past have proven that appealing to the clergy’s moral principles and humanity has not worked in changing their culture. Therefore, it is our belief that the best way to end sexual and spiritual abuse is by effective action to change secular laws. For instance, if Grand Juries were convened in the 50-states, (similar to the Australian Royal Commission), more crimes would be uncovered which would force institutions into supporting the weak and taking humane actions toward the injured. It is only then that healing of the innocents can begin.

As I became acquainted with the founders of the SCAARS group (Stop Child Abuse – Advocates for Reform and Safety), I realized that we were kindred spirits. Years before the #MeToo Movement began, these courageous people showed their devotion to justice in behalf of those less fortunate, by exhibiting a spirit of activism both in word and deed. Like my colleagues, I have never been sexually abused, but feel the need to speak out with them on behalf of those who have.

As a Victim’s Advocate and a Mandated Reporter, I’m committed to the cause of helping individuals crushed by religious institutions that abuse power. And I am honored to champion truth-telling and to help bring about cultural change with my friends at SCAARS. If my Dad was still alive, he surely would be proud of all of us who are determined defenders of truth and advocates for reform.

An Insider’s Account about How a Report of Child Sex Abuse Is Handled

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.

Should Confessions to Clergy Be Exempted from Mandatory Reporting of Child Sex Abuse?

By Michael Walter Finkbeiner

The history of confession, along with the penance and absolution it achieves in the mind of the believer, is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Exodus chapter 21, which immediately follows the Ten Commandments, gives priests authority to adjudicate cases of wrongful death, with the power to set a compensation price on the value of a life. In this tribal desert setting, the priesthood held the rights and duties of the State’s interest in administration of law over life and death matters, inheritance, crimes and punishments.

By the Christian era, the Roman authority and law code had become the State’s interest, with permission given to local religious bodies for adjudication of cases, but not capital punishment or judgments against Roman citizens. However, the path to absolution from sin, redemption and salvation in the Christian faith was through open confession and penance as evidence for repentance. The early congregations had religious authority to expel members from the congregation for gross sins (1 Cor 5) or to re-instate them on the basis of being “grieved into repentance.”1

By the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, Canon 13 gave priests of the church the power to absolve sins at a death-bed confession and change the penitent’s outcome from damnation to salvation. In 459 AD Pope Leo’s “Magna indignatione” gave priests sufficient power to determine penance to be rendered for sins privately confessed, according to the conscience solely of the priest, who kept the sins secret. Over the next 1000 years, this arrangement lead to corruptions of indulgences by payment, which enriched the clergy, since priests had power to convert damnation into salvation for land, money, jewels or other valued possessions, which would be useless for the penitent in the fires of hell.

Following the Norman conquest of Britain the Roman Church exercised control over civil powers of Europe, with bishops manning the King’s courts.2 Following the Reformation, civil governments began to take back the power of the clergy and to limit the authority of the church. After 1750 the Jesuits were expelled from many European countries and civil authorities took control of most aspect of organized society. For example, The British Parliament passed the “Murder Act” in 1752 with specifications for adjudication. The “Offences Against the Person Act” of 1828 codified somewhat earlier laws on sexual assault. Penetration of a girl under the age of 10 was punishable by death, whereas age 10 to 12 specified a misdemeanor with a term of hard labor. Proof of ejaculation was replaced by proof of penetration, making convictions easier for the victims. Thus civil authority dealt increasingly with crimes of sexual abuse, while clergy were limited to spiritual steps to absolution for the perpetrators.

Which Clergy or Religions are included?

In the United States, the first Amendment to the Constitution protected religious rights of belief and largely of practice. In 1813, Catholic priests were exempted from compelled testimony on their knowledge of confessed crimes, thus establishing the legal precedent for an exception privilege to reporting.3 In 1817, the compulsory and sacramental nature of confession in the Catholic religion was granted the privilege by reference, but denied to the Protestant churches, where confession is not a sacrament and the minister is merely a spiritual advisor, with optional confession of sin without the power to absolve guilt by a specification of penance.4

Granting the privilege on the basis of Catholic affiliation alone was gradually replaced by legislation in every state broadening the exception to clergy of any religion, with certain underlying circumstances.5 States vary in their specifications for the relationship. Some make the sacramental nature of confession necessary, whereas others allow a broader relationship to clergy as merely a spiritual advisor.

In California, the Evidence Code specifies that, “penitential communication means a communication made in confidence, in the presence of no third person so far as the penitent is aware, to a member of the clergy who, in the course of the discipline or practice of the clergy member’s church, denomination, or organization, is authorized or accustomed to hear those communications and, under the discipline or tenets of his or her church, denomination, or organization, has a duty to keep those communications secret.”6 Therefore, ecclesiastical bodies that conduct internal judicial hearings that receive evidence by committee violate this one-to-one secret confession, which must not be divulged to others.

One suggestion for reform to narrow the California privilege is to “Limit penitent communication to confidential communication in accordance with the tenets, customs, or practices of a church, religious denomination that make it non-optional, and that is only between a penitent and a clergy member who has a duty to the penitent to keep all communications secret.”7

Further, the over-riding interest of the State should be to protect victims from risk of further abuse, or to designate the abuser as a danger to children. One practice implemented in Victoria Province of Australia, following the December 2017, “Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse”8 is to require all persons working with children in an institutional setting to receive training, a police background check, and card-carrying certification for “Working with Children.”9

Since 2011, a Federal standard for mandatory reporting of child sex abuse has been embodied in Senator Robert Casey’s “Speak Up” Act for child protection10 and would include as mandatory reporters, “Clergy, including Christian Science practitioners, except where prohibited on account of clergy-penitent privilege.” This privilege needs a better, narrowed specification by law.

Conclusion: History and current law embed a privileged exception for a type of confidential confession, exercising the believer’s right in a pathway to redemption and absolution of the sin of child sex abuse. This right and Canon Law should be respected, but only if the victim is safe from further abuse, and the abuser is tracked and restricted in access to new victim populations. The crime of abuse belongs to the state, while absolution from sin is part of protected religious belief. The nature of sex abuse is that perpetrators train and groom new child victims through protections obtained from an institutional structure. Reform for Child Safety to Stop Abuse must narrow and limit the clergy-penitent privilege of exclusion from mandatory reporting to child protection authorities.

Michael Walter Finkbeiner
Oct 8, 2018

1 Byington Translation 2 Cor 7:9
2 Tiemann & Bush, “The Right to Silence: Privileged Clergy Communication and the Law (1983) Note 7 pp. 109-110
3 https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/746/people-v-phillips
4 http://www.gspalaw.com/the-clergy-penitent-privilege-an-overview/
5 R. Michael Cassidy, Sharing Shared Secrets: Is It (Past) Time for a Dangerous Person Exception to the Clergy Penitent
Privilege, 44 Wm. & Mary Law. Review. 1627, 1638 (2003).
6 Evidence Code – EVID DIVISION 8. PRIVILEGES [900 – 1070] (Division 8 enacted by Stats. 1965, Ch. 299.)
CHAPTER 4. Particular Privileges [930 – 1063] (Chapter 4 enacted by Stats. 1965, Ch. 299.) ARTICLE 8. Clergy Penitent Privileges [1030 – 1034] (Heading of Article 8 amended by Stats. 2002, Ch. 806, Sec. 18.)
7 See SCAARS website for further examples of State Statute Reforms.
8 https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/
9 http://www.workingwithchildren.vic.gov.au/
10 Senate Bill #982 — 115th Congress (2017-2018) Presently in the Health and Education Committee

PDF version