Originally published on Danish Media, TV2 by Jonas HR Moestrup
An Australian commission found in 2016 that the internal rules of Jehovah’s Witnesses were problematic in child abuse cases. A Danish expert agrees.
In 2014, a so-called elder from Jehovah’s Witnesses failed to notify the authorities of a suspected assault on a 14-year-old child from Naestved, even though under Danish law it should have been reported.
The case, however, is far from unique to the religious organization, with its 8.5 million members having branches in much of the world.
In the United States and Australia, for example, the authorities had found that in many cases, Jehovah’s Witnesses failed to notify authorities of suspected cases of child abuse.
The case in Australia drew headlines around the world in 2015 when an investigation commission found, that since 1950, the religious organization failed to report 1006 people for suspected child sexual abuse.
Commission: Two-witness rule is problematic
In the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ internal rules, which are described in the Elder Handbook, it appears, among other things, that the elders must investigate cases such as murder and child sexual abuse.
In Australia, the authorities believed the internal rules were the reason why children in Jehovah’s Witnesses were not adequately protected from pedophiles.
– We do not consider the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be an organization sufficiently responsive to child sexual abuse,” the Commission wrote in its report.
The Commission found, among other things, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ two-witness rule meant that two or more witnesses were required before the elders could determine a crime, which led to sex offenders having free reign.
– One who complains about sexual abuse of children, but whose claim has not been confirmed by their offender’s confession or another “credible” eyewitness, is in practice powerless and will be subjected to continued traumatization, the Commission wrote.
Must pay $35 million to victims
Also, in the United States, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been accused of not notifying the authorities of child abuse.
In September 2018, a US state judge ruled in Montana that Jehovah’s Witnesses should pay $35 million in compensation to a woman who accused the organization of concealing the abuses she was facing as a child.
A similar case came before a San Diego judge in 2014. There, Jehovah’s Witnesses were sentenced to pay $13.5 million to a man because high-ranking members of Jehovah’s Witnesses wrongly dealt with the abuse of the man. The case ended in 2018 with a settlement between the victim and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the decision.
In England and Canada there have been similar cases against congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Also, in Norway, in recent years, several media outlets have described how Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t do enough to protect children from sexual abuse.
For example, the newspaper Fædrelandsvennen, which had spoken to several former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported that they had been subjected to abuses that were not properly handled by the elders of the congregations.
Expert criticizes the internal laws of Jehovah’s Witnesses
A contributing factor to the many cases in Jehovah’s Witnesses is first and foremost, according to Lisbet Christoffersen, Professor of Religious Law at Roskilde University, that the organization is a very closed environment.
– This has also been the case in the Catholic Church, where there have been many cases of child abuse that the authorities were not informed about, she says.
In addition, she believes that Jehovah’s Witnesses have established an internal justice system in which the balance of power benefits those who commit the crime. She does not believe that the rights of the weaker party in a case of, for example, child abuse, are sufficiently secured.
– With the two-witness rule, the weaker party is not ensured. If there have not been two witnesses, then no one can be accused of committing the crime. In Denmark we have deliberately abolished this rule long ago, because jurisprudence should ensure the weakest party as much as possible, says Lisbet Christoffersen.
Expert: Religious communities must always go to the authorities first
In addition to the two-witness rule, Lisbet Christoffersen also believes that the internal rules of Jehovah’s Witnesses in several areas neglect the rights that citizens should be afforded by rule of law.
– The victim and the accused, for example, are not assured of a lawyer who can speak on their behalf, just as the public does not have access to evidence in a trial, she says.
Lisbet Christoffersen points out that many other faiths live up to the standards of jurisprudence, as is the case too with other associations and organizations such as the European Football Association, UEFA’s sports body.
– This is how it should be in Jehovah’s Witnesses, she says.
Lisbet Christoffersen emphasizes that Jehovah’s Witnesses and other faiths have the right to investigate and assess rights of membership as opposed to criminal proceedings.
– Criminal cases must be assessed by society’s secular authorities, which means that all criminal charges must first be examined by the authorities. Based on such a review, the faith can then decide on membership and dignity internally, she says.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters apologizes
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Scandinavian branch office in Holbæk did not want to be interviewed by TV 2.
In a mail, the branch office wrote that since 2003, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Denmark have consistently “advised the elders that all child abuse charges should be reported to the authorities”.
In the same mail, the organization apologized if any former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that abuses have not been reported to the authorities. – If so, we apologize. However, we will mention that the victims can still report this to the authorities. If the authorities then conclude that we have acted incorrectly, we will naturally take care of it. As an organization we are constantly looking to do things better, it says in the mail.