BELGIUM: In recent months, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been shaken by a series of events in several countries. It is about how the organization has handled cases of sexual abuse against children internally.
Originally published on fvn.no and written by Tarjei Leer-Salvesen
In Belgium, the police have recently raided the regional office in search of archived material. The Flemish TV channel VRT has shown a critical documentary film and dozens of people have approached them for help dealing with what they have experienced.
Fædrelandsvennen’s articles are among the background material used by both the TV documentary and officials in a center dealing with CSA created by the Ministry of Justice.
Patrick Haeck, a former elder from the city of Ghent, meets Fædrelandsvennen to tell us a little. He is currently using his time to help victims of crime through the Reclaimed Voices organization.
Responsibility for the committee
“It started one day while I was out preaching from door to door with a young woman from our congregation. Suddenly she asked me if it was normal for older brothers to fondle the breasts of young girls. She told more, and it soon became clear that there was no question that this was not normal and accepted behavior. And it wasn’t just her. There were more girls, and they were very young, says Haeck, when we ask how he ended up where he is today, outside the organization that filled most of his life for 40 years.”
He immediately contacted his superior, saying he had reason to suspect that a man in the congregation was harming children.
In line with internal guidelines, an internal judicial committee was established to investigate the case. Patrik Haeck led the judicial committee, and brought along two other elders.
“He admitted to what had happened. The man had admitted abusing ten children. Still, I was told not to go to the police with the case,” he says.
But according to Haeck, the man contacted the branch office. He told me he was in a court of law and regretted his actions. Thus, an elder, with a higher rank than Haeck, contacted him and put pressure on the judicial committee.
Doesn’t tell it right
Fædrelandsvennen has talked to the elder at the branch office in Kraainem, who denies that such a conversation took place.
“Haeck doesn’t tell it right. We do not interfere with the local processes surrounding such judicial committees,” says the supervisor.
But Haeck is clear about what happened, even though it is ten years since he left the organization.
He has shown Fædrelandsvennen contents from the blue envelope with the conclusion from the judicial committee from that time.
Haeck’s story is also supported by one of the girls who was abused. She told her story to VRT. She has now also confirmed the story to Fædrelandsvennen.
“That’s right, unfortunately. I even met with this judicial committee and was told not to talk to the police about what happened. Nor should we girls talk to each other. It was difficult, both my friend and my sister were victims of the same man,” she says to Fædrelandsvennen.
“They wouldn’t let me report. But they said the same things to my two colleagues. We would lose all our privileges if we told the police. I ended up in the minority. The other two voted for the abuser to stay in the congregation,” says Patrick Haeck.
‘How did it end?’
“It took less than one month, then he repeated his crimes. This time the man was expelled.”
Haeck failed to go to the police with what he knew right away.
“I was in shock and failed to do anything. But this episode started a process in me that made me question how the organization I belonged to behaves.”
After 40 years as a member, 19 of them as an elder, Patrick Haeck finally came to a shocking realization. He had lost faith.
From there, it wasn’t a long road to expulsion, and he shared the information he had with the police in Belgium.
We meet Haeck with Pascal Mertens. He was also active in Jehovah’s Witnesses for many years. But he never allowed himself to be baptized, and therefore cannot be excluded in the same way as Haeck.
The two are both on the board of the Reclaimed Voices organization in Belgium.
In recent years, they have spent a lot of time helping victims of sexual assault, all of whom are Jehovah’s Witnesses based in Belgium.
There have been a number of issues popping up all the time, but the last few weeks the pressure has been intense, after the TV channel VRT screened a documentary about the problem in the transmitting area of Pano, reminiscent of NRK’s Brennpunkt in Norway.
In the Pano documentary, both Haeck and Mertens contribute. The film is based on many of the same documents that Fædrelandsvennen mentioned in the article “The blue envelopes”.
85 new inquiries
“We did a count before we were to meet you. There have been 85 inquiries from current and former members here in Belgium who need help. Just in the wake of this one movie,” Mertens says.
Not all 85 have experienced sexual abuse. Many of them have, while others have contacted for assistance in dealing with the effects of isolation resulting from being expelled from the religious community.
‘What are you doing about this?’
“We are not professionals. We listen to people and when someone needs it, we refer them to the health care system. And then we try to obtain consent to share the stories with the police and those who investigate such cases.
Investigate and give advice
A specialized center created by the Ministry of Justice in Belgium to advise on handling difficult issues in religious sects is called CIAOSN.
The center is close to the Ministry of Justice, in the heart of Brussels, and is run by Kerstine Vanderput.
“We gather information about these situations, and because of the seriousness of the reported cases, we have informed th Belgian authorities,” says Vanderput.
Over the past year, the center has been working extensively on cases of abuse within Jehovah’s Witnesses. A number of victims of crime have come to the center and told their stories.
“Our role is to hear what they have to say and to treat the information with great discretion. Some show signs of serious trauma when they tell us what they have experienced, and we have advised them to seek professional help from psychologists. Others may have stories that the prosecution should look into.”
A Hearing and police action.
Last December, CIAOSN sent a recommendation to Parliament to have a parliamentary hearing on this.
There has also been contact with the prosecuting authorities. And a few weeks ago, Belgian police took action against the regional office of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the outskirts of Brussels. There was, among other things, archival material seized.
What they found is not yet known.
“When it comes to what the police have found through their actions, we are not privy to that information. We will only give the authorities advice, and we do this on the basis of our own work,” says Vanderput.