No right of nondisclosure for Jehovah’s Witness elders

Elders must disclose child abuse to the authorities in the Netherlands

There is no right of nondisclosure for elders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who are members of a judicial committee of that community. They are not spiritual counselors during those sessions. This is the opinion of the court in Overijssel, Netherlands, in their case ruling in which the Jehovah’s Witnesses and five elders objected to the seizure of documents during criminal investigations into sexual abuse.

Originally published in dutch at de Rechtspraak on 08 May 2020.

Research into child sexual abuse

In November 2018, the Public Prosecution Service conducted searches at the headquarters of the Christian Congregation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands, in the homes of a number of complainants, and at the Kingdom Halls in Assen and Dordrecht. The prosecution sought documents from judicial committees that the Jehovah’s elders form if a member is accused of child sexual abuse.

The elders in this complaint procedure are not suspects in those criminal investigations, but may have been part of the judicial committees or know where the committees’ summaries were stored.

No confidentiality obligation

The court ruled that the elders and the Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot invoke the right of non-disclosure. In this case, there is no confidentiality obligation that is part of the relationship of trust that mental health care providers and care providers have with the person asking for help.

The information shared within the judicial committee is not entrusted to the elders in their role as counselors, but in their role as members of the judicial committee. Thus, when reporting sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, elders, regardless of who makes the report, are not spiritual counselors who assist others.

Moreover, it cannot be said that the secrets that help seekers confide in the elders are not shared with others within the community. An elder’s duty of confidentiality is not absolute, as evidenced by the statutes of the denomination.

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