This is the Royal Commission’s 54th Case Study. It follows the Royal Commission’s inquiry into the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watchtower Australia in Case Study 29. That case study concerned the responses of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watchtower Australia to allegations, reports and complaints of child sexual abuse within the organisation. Case Study 29 took place in July and August 2015. The report was tabled in Parliament on 28 November 2016.
Case Study 29 Review
Among other matters, Case Study 29 inquired into the experiences of some survivors of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness organisation. This involved examination of the systems, policies and procedures in place within the organisation for raising and responding to allegations of child sexual abuse and for the prevention of such abuse.
The Royal Commission found that the Jehovah’s Witnesses did not respond adequately to child sexual abuse and did not adequately protect children from the risk of sexual abuse. In particular, the Royal Commission found the following problematic policies and practices in their response to child sexual abuse:
- The organisation does not have a practice of reporting child sexual abuse to police or any other authority.
- Before 1998, a survivor of child sexual abuse was required to make her allegation in the presence of her abuser.
- If the accused does not confess, there is an inflexible requirement that there be at least two eye-witnesses to an incident of child sexual abuse, or two or more witnesses to a different incident of child sexual abuse, before the accused can be dealt with by their internal disciplinary system. This is referred to as “the two-witness rule”.
- Women are absent from the decision-making process of the internal disciplinary system.
- There is no clear provision for a survivor to be accompanied by a support person during the internal disciplinary process.
- The organisation has limited and ineffective risk management practices.
- The organisation has a policy and practice of socially shunning those who wish to leave the organisation, including survivors of child sexual abuse.
Senior Representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses gave a series of commitments in relation to proposed reforms to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ child protection polices and procedures. These included:
- Mandatory reporting
- Consolidation of multiple sources of policies and procedures into a user-friendly source, not only for elders, but also for survivors and parents
- Review the role of women in the investigation of child sexual abuse.
The above matters were explored during the course of Case Study 54. The hearing also examined the actions taken by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in response to the findings, recommendations and commitments made during Case Study 29.
Case Study 54 Inquiry
In Case Study 54, the Royal Commission inquired into:
- Current policies and procedures in relation to child protection and child safe standards, including responding to allegations of child sexual abuse
- Factors that may have affected the institutional response to child sexual abuse
- Responses of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watchtower Australia to Case Study 29 and other Royal Commission Reports
- How Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watchtower Australia have addressed, or propose to address, each of the elements the Royal Commission considers necessary in creating a child safe institution
- The issue of redress and the responses of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watchtower Australia to civil claims by survivors of child sexual abuse.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Representation At Case Study 54
The Royal Commission heard evidence from two senior members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This included testimony from Mr Terrence John O’Brien, a director of Watchtower Australia and the Coordinator of the Australian Branch Committee. And Mr Rodney Spinks, a senior Service Desk minister of Watchtower Australia.
The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is based in the United States of America. On that basis, the Royal Commission did not have the power to compel a member of the Governing Body to give evidence. Nevertheless, on 16 January 2017, the Royal Commission wrote to Watchtower Australia requesting that a member of the Governing Body be available to give evidence at the hearing, in person or via video link. On January 31, Watchtower Australia informed the Royal Commission that a Governing Body member would not be available to give evidence. This was a matter of considerable regret, given the degree to which Watchtower Australia is subject to the control of the Governing Body on matters of policy, procedure and practice.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Responses & Evidence
The Royal Commission heard that in response to Case Study 29, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reviewed, clarified, refined and consolidated their policies and procedures on child sexual abuse to ensure, as they put it, the safety of children of children as far as the Jehovah’s Witnesses are able to do so, consistent with their Bible-based beliefs.
The Royal Commission heard evidence that since Case Study 29, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have published two new documents. These new documents, together, outline how the organisation is safe:
- A Letter dated 1 August 2016 entitled “Protecting minors from Abuse” was sent to All Bodies of Elders worldwide. This letter is intended to assist elders to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse.
- Child Protection Guidelines for Branch Office Service Desks was sent to Branch Offices worldwide. This guideline document is to promote compliance with policies and procedures recorded in the letter of 1 August 2016.
In addition, the Royal Commission heard that the Jehovah’s Witnesses published and distributed articles and videos to educate parents and children about the dangers of child sexual abuse and to promote child safety. Watchtower Australia furnished the Royal Commission with a document titled “Child Safeguarding Policy of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia”. It is understood to be a recently adopted policy for distribution to congregations in Australia.
The Royal Commission examined the adequacies of these policies. They heard that there is a difference in the level of policy detail communicated to Service Desks and elders, as compared to the congregations.
Compliance Failures Highlighted in Case Study 54
The Royal Commission heard evidence that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe there are no impediments to developing and implementing responses to most of the concerns in Case Study 29. Despite such evidence, the Royal Commission heard that Jehovah’s Witnesses have failed to address many of those recommendations:
- Written policies should clearly state that a complainant of child sexual abuse is no longer required to confront the abuse and that members should be informed of this right.
- Although this policy has been amended accordingly, it has only been communicated to elders and not to general members of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses should revise and modify their application of the two-witness rule in cases involving complaints of child sexual abuse.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they are prohibited by scripture from altering their application of the two-witness rule.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses should explore ways to involve women in the investigation and assessment of the credibility of allegations of child sexual abuse.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to restrict the participation of women to presenting allegations to elders and supporting the complainant.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses should formally document their stated policy of allowing survivors to have a support person present during the internal disciplinary process.
- The new guidelines for Branch Service Desks provide that mature minors now have the right to have a non-parent adult present with them during an interview in the investigation of an allegation of child sexual abuse.
- The policies remain silent as to the provision of support to younger survivors, other than by a parent during the investigation stage.
- The policies remain silent as to the provision of support to any survivors appearing before a judicial hearing.
- Report to authorities all allegations of child sexual abuse where the complainant is a minor or there is an ongoing risk to children; and that they actively seek the consent of adult victims to report their alleged child sexual abuse to authorities.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses comply with mandatory reporting laws.
- Their policies now provide that the victim and her parents have the absolute right to report an allegation to the authorities.
- The Royal Commission found that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ practice of shunning members who disassociate from the organisation potentially puts survivors in an untenable position.
- While it is not the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policy to shun a victim of child sexual abuse, the organisation has failed to address the particularly devastating practice of shunning survivors who disassociate from the organisation because of their abuse.
The Child Safe Elements
In July 2016, the Royal Commission published 10 elements which should be present in a child safe organisation. Those elements are the following:
- Child safety is embedded in institutional leadership, governance and culture
- Children participate in decisions affecting them and are taken seriously
- Families and communities are informed and involved
- Equity is promoted and diversity respected
- People working with children are suitable and supported
- Processes to respond to complaints of child sexual abuse are child focused
- Staff are equipped with the knowledge, skills and awareness to keep children safe through continual education and training
- Physical and online environments minimize the opportunity for abuse to occur
- implementation of child safe standards is continuously reviewed and improved
- Policies and procedures document how the institution is child safe
Jehovah’s Witnesses consider many of the child safe elements to have limited application to their organisation because they do not operate or sponsor programs or activities which separate children from their families, nor does it have any positions that provide access to children without their parents. On that basis, they gave evidence that their organisation does not maintain or operate the institutional settings that present opportunities for predatory sexual behavior.
The child safe standards promoted and promulgated to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ community by the organization are derived from the Bible. The Royal Commission examined their level of compliance with the child safe elements.
Public Concerns Raised in Case Study 54
Since the Royal Commission’s commencement, 57 private sessions have been held with survivors of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness organization.
Since 2015, the Royal Commission has received more than 1165 items of correspondence in relation to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watchtower Australia. This correspondence has been received from all over the world, including from the United Kingdom, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain and the United States of America. The correspondence has been overwhelmingly critical of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ institutional response to child sexual abuse.
In November 2016, the Royal Commission called for submissions from individuals and institutions on the current child protection policies and procedures and child safe standards of a number of institutions, include the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watchtower Australia. A number of submissions were received. Nearly all the submissions called for major changes to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policies and procedures for responding to child sexual abuse.
Concerns were expressed over the institutional culture of not reporting allegations of child sexual abuse to secular authorities and instead having elders conduct internal investigations into those allegations.
The conduct of internal investigations was also a major issue of concern. In particular, the most problematic policies and procedures of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ internal disciplinary system were considered to be the following:
- Survivors being required to confront their abusers
- Application of the two-witness rule
- Women being absent from positions of authority
- absence of clear provision for a survivor to have a support person
The practice of shunning, including a victim of child sexual abuse, was considered to be one of the most damaging practices. Great concern was also expressed over the practice of reproval, which allows a repentant perpetrator to remain within a congregation and consequently at risk or re-offending.
Concerns were also raised over the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are yet to establish any redress scheme or communicate what processes and procedures apply to claims arising from child sexual abuse. In Case Study 29, Mr O’Brien gave evidence that Jehovah’s Witnesses did not have a redress scheme because the organisation had never received a redress claim. He did say that he would recommend that the Jehovah’s Witnesses implement their own redress scheme to care for victims of child sexual abuse. Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to handle redress for victims of child sexual abuse on a case-by-case basis. The Australia Branch Office would consider the details of any National Redress Scheme that the government may propose to enact.