Netherlands Investigation into consequences of shunning former Jehovah's Witnesses
Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses in Den Helder.
Photo Olaf Kraak

NETHERLANDS: Investigation into consequences of shunning former Jehovah’s Witnesses

Insular religious communities who shun former members is not a criminal offence. However, the House of Representatives calls it “medieval” and “psychological abuse”.

Originally published May 17, 2022 in Dutch by Thomas Borst on NRC.

The cabinet is investigating the consequences of shunning former members by closed religious groups. The reason is because the policy of Jehovah’s Witnesses regards those who leave or expelled as apostates with whom contact must be severed.

The Scientific Research and Documentation Center is now going to find out how big this problem is. That is what Minister Franc Weerwind (Legal Protection, D66) wrote to the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

The ministry will talk to the victims before the summer, Weerwind writes. According to the minister, shunning in the current legislation “as such, is not a punishable phenomenon”. He does say that “certain harmful practices” can take their course through civil or criminal law, but that it is up to the judge to determine that.

Apart from the investigation announced by Weerwind, a foundation of former members want to take the Jehovah’s Witnesses to court in a civil case. They also hope that justice will prosecute the community. Victims claim to have been ‘declared socially dead’ after their departure; all contact with friends, family and acquaintances is severed. The former members hope that the judiciary will prosecute the Jehovah’s Witnesses and force the judge to adjust the regulations.

A similar case played out in Belgium last year. There, Jehovah’s Witnesses were convicted of inciting discrimination. The community appealed, in which the judge will rule at the end of May.

Medieval

The VVD, PvdA and SP have been arguing for some time for an investigation into criminalization of the shunning policy. A Member of Parliament for the VVD, Ulysse Ellian, speaks of “impermissible practices”. Caroline van der Plas (BoerBurgerBeweging) describes the shunning as ‘medieval situations’. Songül Mutluer (PvdA) calls the shunning regime “discriminatory”, SP’er Michiel van Nispen believes that this is “mental abuse”.

Should the judiciary in the Netherlands proceed with an investigation, then according to professor of law and religion, Paul van Sasse van IJsselt of the University of Groningen, this will be unique. “It would be the first time that a denomination or faith community has risked prosecution based on undesirable practices.”

Van Sasse van IJsselt states that religious organizations are not excluded from criminal or civil liability. He considers a civil case to be the most promising, because prosecution is ‘very complex and sensitive’.

Biblical Standards

In their own words, the Dutch Jehovah’s Witnesses have more than 29,000 members, spread over 353 congregations. The Orthodox community lives according to a strict interpretation of the Bible and tests it against their own legal system.

In response to criticism, board member Michael van Ling states that the community only shuns baptized members if they make a habit of “breaking biblical standards and being unwilling to change. This is based on biblical principles. All Jehovah’s Witnesses agree to live by those standards when they choose to be baptized.”

In 2020, the community came into the limelight for an investigation into the handling of sexual abuse complaints. According to the researchers, three quarters of the victims of incest, assault, rape or sexual harassment were dissatisfied with their handling of complaints. Only 27 percent reported the incident to the police. An investigation is now underway into the possibilities of a statutory obligation to report.