Elders of Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot invoke the right of non-disclosure in the Assen sexual abuse case

Essen Headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses raided by the Netherlands police

Elders of Jehovah’s Witnesses from the Northern Netherlands cannot invoke their right of non-disclosure as clergy in the criminal investigation of sexual abuse by a Jehovah’s member from Assen. That was determined by the court in Zwolle on Friday.

Originally published in Dutch by Danielle Molenaar on Dagblad van het Noorden on May 8, 2020

The national headquarters of the faith society in Emmen and homes of elders in Assen and Hoogezand were investigated by the police in November 2018 on behalf of the Public Prosecution Service in the context of investigations into alleged sexual abuse by a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Assen.

Last month, a complaint from the Jehovah’s administration against the seizure of pastoral records in those raids was handled in the court in Zwolle. According to the lawyer of Jehovah’s Witnesses Netherlands, the searches and seizures were unlawful because the elders, as religious servants, could invoke their right of non-disclosure. The court in Zwolle delivered its judgment on Friday. In its opinion, the right of non-disclosure does not apply in this case.

No confidentiality obligation

According to the court, 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 at that time. ,, In this case, there is no confidentiality obligation that is part of the relationship of trust that mental health 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. ”

Investigation into abuse is still ongoing

Moreover, according to the court, 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.” Thus, any evidence collected during the raids can be used in the case against the Assen suspected Jehovah-member of sexual abuse. The criminal investigation against the Assenaar is done by the Public Prosecution Service in Overijssel, because the man works for the district public prosecutor’s office in the Northern Netherlands. The investigation is still ongoing.

Michael van Ling, a board member of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands, sent a written response on Friday to the judgment of the court in Overijssel about the complaint. “This statement is very disturbing. We expect the government to respect the privilege of non-disclosure of religious ministers. We will review our legal options for appeals.”

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