Originally written by Daniëlle Molenaar and published by Dagblad van het Noorden.
The board of Jehovah’s Witnesses will abide by a legal obligation to report child sexual abuse. That is what board member Michael van Ling said in an interview at the national head office in Emmen, the Netherlands.
Van Ling looks back on a stormy week in which the board tried in vain to prevent the investigation report on sexual abuse and willingness to report to be published within the Jehovah’s Witnesses community. The report, commissioned by Minister Sander Dekker, states that the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses does not act well when reporting sexual abuse in their own ranks. Victims are dissatisfied with the internal treatment.
You think the report should not have been published. It was not factual, not scientific and defamatory. Can you explain that?
“The judge in summary proceedings also said something about that. The verdict says that the report states that the investigation is not aimed at finding the truth, but is based on self-reports of sexual abuse and how they are dealt with within the Jehovah’s Witnesses community. The report also states that the representation of the findings needs to be investigated further and that the values on some variables are missing. According to three international sociologists that we consulted, what is also a major concern is that an anonymous online questionnaire has been used for the research. There are 751 respondents who report abuse of someone else or themselves. It has not been established whether they were unique persons or whether matters were reported twice. It has also not been determined whether the anonymous reporters are or have been members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Conclusions are drawn without finding truth. The image may therefore arise that sexual abuse is a greater problem with Jehovah’s Witnesses than with the rest of the population. But that shows nothing.”
On the basis of recommendations in the report, Minister of Justice Sander Dekker has asked you to set up an internal hotline for alleged victims of sexual abuse. There may be a legal obligation to declare. Are you against that?
“We will certainly comply with an obligation to report, but it must be aimed at all organizations and not just Jehovah’s Witnesses. If a required obligation comes then we will adhere to it. We are people who obey the law.”
The minister said that, to his displeasure, the board said in an interview that it would not set up an internal hotline for sexual abuse. You say every victim of abuse is one too many. Such a hotline can make it easier for victims to tell their story. Why are you against a reporting point?
“We have not spoken with the minister himself. Only with his highest representative. We said that we would like to talk to the minister himself. Then we will talk about what we think about a hotline. Not before.”
The investigators state that literature within the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses state that attention must be paid to victims, but that in practice much attention is paid to the alleged perpetrator. Everything is well organized on paper, but those rules are not observed. What do you think of that conclusion?
“That is absolutely incorrect. Our first concern is aimed at the victims. The researchers conclude on the basis of interviews of less than an hour with a few people that it is arranged well on paper but not in practice. That should then apply to 30,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Netherlands. But they have not spoken to them, except for a few. There are also victims who tell us that they have been treated well.”
Do you know how often the sexual abuse of children is reported within the community?
“We are part of society. It will happen no less or more often with us than in the rest of society. We do not keep victim records. We do keep track of which people are expelled for all kinds of sins mentioned in the Bible. Victims are never expelled.”
What do you do if you receive a report of sexual abuse?
“We first check whether the victim is safe. There is no reporting obligation in the Netherlands yet. But if the victim is still in danger, we go to the authorities to make a report. We want to protect the victim and other children. I don’t know how many times that has happened. The victim is free to make a report or seek professional help. An elder cannot offer this expert help. An elder is not a caregiver in health care, but can try to provide pastoral help and comfort by, for example, praying together or reading the Bible. In addition, it is examined whether an alleged perpetrator can still remain part of the organization. If someone does not repent, he or she is expelled. In exceptional cases, such as abuses from the distant past, a perpetrator can remain. That is determined by our judicial committee. Acts must show that someone really repents. “
According to several former members who were abused as children, they had to appear before the judicial committee together with the alleged perpetrator. Because of the closed culture, it is, according to the victims, extra difficult to talk about abuse. There is a fear of expulsion from the community and loss of contact with family and friends. Is that fear unjustified?
“A victim will never inadvertently be confronted with the perpetrator in the judicial committee. A victim may tell his or her story in his own way. In a personal conversation, but also by letter or by telephone. Again: a victim will never be excluded. “
Yet there are testimonies from people, victims, who say that they have been confronted with the perpetrator and that nothing has been done with their report about abuse. They are former members of your community who have been abused in the past and feel badly treated. Are you, as a board, prepared to say: We believe you and we are sorry that we did not receive you well at the time.
“Let me state first of all that it is disgusting if a child is abused. It’s a crime. We always try to see what we can do better. If people feel that they have not been treated well, that is annoying. Society as a whole has had to grow for years in raising awareness of the problem of child abuse and about the best care for victims. The non-scientific report is about how we now deal with victims of abuse.”
Do people still dare to say that they are members of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
“We are people who think and stand with both feet in society. We are very normal people. The only difference is that we have a Bible study meeting twice a week and do evangelism work a few hours a week. We are further squeezed in the corner by the research report. Jehovah’s Witnesses abroad are also confronted with negative reports as a result of the report. Something is being said about us that is not based on facts, but where firm conclusions are drawn. We try to live by high moral standards, abide by laws and lead a quiet and friendly life. ”