A Psychologist Weighs In On Jehovah’s Witnesses and Child Sex Abuse
The following contribution is authored by Karuna Light. Karuna, a Sanskrit word meaning any action taken to diminish the suffering of others, is the pen name of a former Jehovah’s Witness originally from Poland and now living in Ireland. Karuna received her Master’s degree in psychology while one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but left the organization after learning of their devastating “two witness” rule and other policies that put children in harm’s way. She is currently looking to continue her higher education and use her learning to help children who have been victims of abuse. JWvictims is deeply grateful for her contributions.
I want to talk about child victimisation in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation, the results of the abuse that the child struggles with, and the conditions enabling the abuse. I will discuss the efficacy or effectiveness of the current internal policies and preventive measures implemented in the congregations. I will offer a few suggestions about activism informed by this knowledge. Even though I’m not in a position to answer comments or to work therapeutically with abuse survivors, I hope that this column will help the victims to process at least a small portion of what they are dealing with as a result of their abuse.
Watchtower corporation in its cartoon meant to educate about sexual abuse focuses on the abuse perpetrated by strangers. In reality, most children are abused by people they know: family friends, family members, pillars of the community and people who work for the organisations we trust.
In the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations, children are also abused by other members of the congregation, including elders and ministerial servants. The Watchtower doesn’t publish data on the prevalence of the child sexual abuse, but thanks to the investigation of the Australian Royal Commission, we know that there were 1006 alleged perpetrators of paedophilia in that country, known to the local branch committee and quite likely also to the Governing Body, from 1950 until now. Not one was ever reported to the police by the elders. This is an astounding negligence because the perpetrator will never be able to “pray” himself or herself out of their attraction to children, and current treatments aim to enable someone to resist acting on his sexual urges by combining psychotherapy and medication.
The abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation: grooming and victims’ compliance
Among Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is quite easy for a man who is sexually attracted to children to move upwards in the ranks of authority until he gains a position of power and an easy access to children. There is no vetting process in place to prevent such an outcome. Congregation members are told to view themselves as the sheep and the elders as the shepherds, to trust the congregation elders with their spiritual life and to follow an elder’s instructions.
“Obedience to those who today are taking the lead among us is vital.”
~ November 15, 2015, Watchtower
An elder who is also a paedophile has an easy task of grooming the whole congregation and gaining trust of already-trusting parents and guardians. Such a person can become a father-figure to a fatherless boy or a girl, providing children with attention, care and activities, and sexually assaulting them at the same time. He would be the last person others would consider being a danger to children; he is nice, smiling, kind and helpful, and a good friend to other elders in his congregation. These behaviours create a hiding in plain sight.
The grooming of the victim takes the form of progressive violations of boundaries. Offenders repeatedly touch children in a way that makes them uncomfortable until children stop objecting. The touch gradually becomes sexualised. This is a systematic process aimed at confusing a child’s sense of what is, and what is not, appropriate.
Children become compliant with their victimisation because they are developmentally immature and are manipulated into entering into a relationship where they are ready to put up with their victimisation because they are getting some of their needs met. Compliance may also be secured by threatening the child that the perpetrator will harm or shame the child or their family. Victims get abused spiritually; children are told that they should obey the servants of god and are regularly told that speaking up against an elder equals rebelling against god.
“Because of his position as an elder, I felt that I couldn’t tell anyone about what he was doing to me.”
~ Testimony of “BCG”, Australian Royal Commission Inquiry
It usually takes years for an abused person to come forward and talk about what happened to them. If the abuse is done by a man against a boy, the probability of the child reporting is especially low. Boys don’t talk about their experience out of shame, guilt, embarrassment or feelings of being undermined as sexual beings.
Children who are targeted have a poor self image, personality difficulties, physical and intellectual disabilities, lack secure attachments, come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and dysfunctional families.¹
Parents need to be aware that respectable and caring adults in their congregation, elders included, can sexually assault children. Don’t let anybody use an excuse of the congregation activities such as preaching or bible studies to spend time with your child unchecked. Always ask questions and find out more about the situation before you agree. The truth is that if there is a paedophile in your congregation, the chances are that you don’t know about it because the elders are not required to always reveal that information to parents. Trust your gut feeling and react if you notice anything that looks or feels odd or concerning. Children will tell their parents that something is wrong if they have absolute trust that parents will always love, support them and be there, no matter what. Making sex a topic of age appropriate conversations at home will prepare children to say “No” if someone, anyone, is stepping over their boundaries.
If the abuse is perpetrated, children feel betrayed, stigmatised, powerless and traumatically sexualised
Every victim will experience the results of their abuse in different ways, but it has been observed that many struggle with similar problems:
With traumatic sexualisation, children adopt the perpetrator’s norms about sexual behaviour and morality. The victim might become confused and think that sex has to do with receiving care or gifts. On the other hand, the victim might associate sex with threats, violence or manipulation. The victim might become confused about their own sexuality or sexual identity, overly sexualised or completely avoidant of anything to do with sex.
From the website Everyday Health: “The damage extends to the sexual abuse survivor’s sense of their own sexuality. Many survivors also have trouble pursuing adult relationships and enjoying sex as an adult. The abuse can color a person’s sexuality, preventing the survivor from pursuing a healthy sex life with a loving partner.”
~ Pat F. Bass, III, MD, MPH
Stigmatisation occurs when victims absorb the negative comments made by the perpetrator or when the family or broader group blames the child for their victimisation. The child might even think that there is something wrong with them, otherwise they wouldn’t be abused. The victim may avoid intimate relationships and engage in drug or alcohol abuse, self-harm or even suicide.²
The victims feel betrayed by their abusers and the adults who did not protect them against the abuse and might believe that others are not trustworthy. This loss of sense of trust in others may result in relationship problems, anger and sadness.³
Children who have been groomed to their victimisation feel powerless. They develop a sense of generalised personal ineffectiveness. This belief can lead to depression, anxiety and somatic [physical] problems.
Circumstances enabling abuse
There has been some research pointing towards conditions enabling abuse, and a broader cultural context which supports these conditions. This has been discussed during the Australian Royal Commission hearing on Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In his Four Preconditions of Abuse model, Simon David Finkelhor, a sociologist known for his research into child sexual abuse, outlines the four conditions which are necessarily present for a sexual offence to take place. The first three have to do with the abuser: thinking about the possibility of abusing children and how this could be done, giving himself permission to implement his plan, and creating an opportunity to abuse. The last step involves overcoming the victim’s resistance.
The perpetrator’s actions don’t take place in some sort of social or cultural vacuum. Doctor Monica Applewhite, who was giving the evidence as a witness for the Watchtower during the Australian Royal Commission hearing, agreed that social and cultural factors supporting three of the four mentioned preconditions exist within the Jehovah’s Witness organisation (see this site), and they are:
- Repressive norms about masturbation and extramarital sex
- Weak criminal sanctions (in circumstances where mandatory reporting obligations do not apply and the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not report to authorities)
- Ideology of patriarchal prerogatives for fathers, at least in the sense of it being a patriarchal organisation
- Barriers to women’s equality
- Strong ideology of family sanctity
The efficacy of preventive measures
Not only do the social and cultural factors permeating the atmosphere of each congregation support the child abuse; there is a heartbreaking lack of preventive measures addressing the risk of sexual abuse of children in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation as a whole. The final report presenting ideas on the prevention of child sexual abuse, “Conceptualising the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse: Final Report”, on the Australian Royal Commission website in the Exhibits folder, highlights the preventive measures which set a standard in reducing the risk of child sexual victimisation. The Governing Body is failing their followers in making sure that the child abuse doesn’t happen among Jehovah’s Witnesses by not having those measures currently implemented. Note a few of those outstanding factors:
The organisation is not implementing effective protocols and policies to respond appropriately to disclosures of abuse. Current policies and protocols result in fact in further traumatisation of a victimised child because the victim is required to make their allegations in the presence of their abuser, and if the victim is a girl or a woman, she doesn’t have a choice but to have her case heard by men. And why victims should go through a process called a “judicial process” anyway, they should be made feel supported and cared for, not judged.
Victims are warned against disclosing details about their abusers in any group treatment:
In the congregation there is no procedure preventing a repentant abuser, who admits to abusing his or her family, from continuing abusing once their plea of repentance is accepted:
If a woman who has no witnesses to her abuse wishes to remain in the congregation, she would be required to interact with the perpetrator.
The Watchtower corporation doesn’t provide counselling or compensation for the victims.
Furthermore, it is not unheard of to have a victim, who approached the elders because of the belief that keeping quiet about a sin defiles a congregation to be later disfellowshipped and suffer shunning and abandonment by the family and congregation. The judicial process in itself is an insult to the victims. Let the data from the Summary of Watchtower Australia Case File Analysis, published here on the Australian Royal Commission Website in the Exhibit file, illustrate the point:
- In Australia from 1950, an incredible number of 108 alleged perpetrators were elders or ministerial servants at the time of the first alleged incident of abuse.
- Application of the two-witness rule prevented 125 allegations of child sexual abuse form proceeding to a judicial committee.
- Of 401 alleged perpetrators disfellowhipped in relation to an allegation of child sexual abuse, 230 were later reinstated.
- Thirty-five (35) alleged perpetrators who were difellowshipped on more than one occasion in relation to allegations of child sexual abuse were reinstated on more than one occasion.
- Twenty-eight (28) alleged perpetrators were appointed as an elder or ministerial servant after having been the subject of an allegation of child sexual abuse.
We know that the children sexually victimised almost never lie about it.* If a victim has witness such a miscarriage of duty of care on the part of the elders in charge of their abuse allegation case, it is only understandable to see why many victims would feel maltreated by the process. Speaking against the Governing Body, which is setting the policies resulting in such outcomes, is viewed as a rebellious act which is punishable by disfellowshipping and shunning.
Elders have no training in treating disclosures of crime and the victims correctly. The training they have is ineffective and traumatising.
The physical and emotional abuses are rampant among Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, women who are physically assaulted at home, are not made aware of the importance of protecting their children from the effect of witnessing and experiencing such violence (see this post). To the contrary, filing for a divorce in those circumstances is viewed as a sin. Children are routinely spanked in the bathrooms at the meetings (see this post), kept up into the late hours on the meeting evenings, taken in service while they should play or engage in extracurricular activities and fed terrifying stories from the bible.
The Watchtower opposes higher education, which results in the income inequality of the Jehovah’s Witnesses group as a whole and advocates the policy of shunning which corrodes family cohesion and promotes insecure attachments. (See the Shunning category for more information.)
Congregation members are not warned about the risk of abuse at the hands of elders or ministerial servants.
All those circumstances enable child sexual victimisation, but there is more. The report highlights children’s inequality built into the structure of any given organisation which results in the increase of children’s vulnerability to sexual abuse. Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations everywhere present all listed factors: a belief that adults are superior and have a natural authority over children, a belief that children should not challenge adults, or that challenge is deliberately provocative and, thirdly, an attitude to diminish children’s views and self-expression about events, feelings and relationships.
“Above all, Jehovah, the Originator of the family, tells you that you should listen to your parents’ direction. (Ephesians 3:15) Since God has appointed your parents to take care of you, he gives you this counsel: “Children, the right thing for you to do is to obey your parents as those whom the Lord has set over you.” (Ephesians 6:1-3, Phillips; Psalm 78:5) While you may now be in your teenage years, your parents still have the responsibility to guide you, and you have the obligation to take notice. When the apostle Paul wrote that children should obey their parents, he used a Greek word that can apply to children of any age.”
~ October 15, 2004, Watchtower
I think that the last point is well illustrated by the indoctrination material presented to the audiences of the 2016 summer convention, where a little gifted boy is forbidden by his parents to follow his dream of becoming a violin player (see this post). The boy clearly explained his feelings but he was in effect told to listen and obey his parents, his dreams crushed. If children are encouraged to speak, this is done only so the indoctrination process can go deeper. The precedence is always given to the doctrine over the child’s views.
Kingdom Halls everywhere can easily become, and on many occasions have tragically already become, a hunting ground for paedophiles who can play the game of real authority and fake spirituality. Children are placed in a very dangerous situation with a few, if any, protective measures against sexual abuse if the circumstances in their homes and Kingdom Halls catch them in a perfect storm of risk of abuse.
The vile abuse of children in the organisation of Jehovah’s Witnesses has to stop. The investigation of the Australian Royal Commission has uncovered the depths of its failure to protect children from abuse and a history of pervasive cover-up. The Commission has undertaken a task of bringing a legislative change in how the protective measures are implemented in the Australian congregations.
It is certain that the Governing Body is not going to willingly cooperate with the judicial and legislative systems to address the culture, policies and practises enabling child sexual abuse worldwide. It has already become apparent that for the Governing Body, the safety of children matters less than the interpretation of some bible verses. For example, during the Australian Royal Commission hearing we have all witnessed a stubborn refusal of the elders to even consider engaging women in open and egalitarian** decision-making process, which would address one of the preconditions enabling sexual victimisation of children.
Hopefully, the current and future inquiries into charitable status of Jehovah’s Witnesses and governmental inquires will give the voice to the victims, and lead to the change in the charitable status and internal policies of the Watchtower. They deserve as much of our assistance as possible.
As a community of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses we need to be mindful that each and every one of us have been personally hurt by the Governing Body. This is true for past and active members of the congregation alike. Having left the cult, we are likely experiencing a lot of anger, sadness and fear and it is our right to express those feelings. We have a right to take action and make sure that the abuse ends. When we are interacting with active or past members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult, let us remember that their hearts beat in the same place of the chest as ours. No one deserves to feel dehumanised, devalued or defamed as a result of dealing with us.
If you have been victimised as a child, know that you didn’t have a choice. It might have felt like you went along with it, like you liked the attention or that you didn’t do enough to stop it. There is only so much that a child or adolescent can do. You actually couldn’t stop the abuse. You tried, and it didn’t work. You were smaller and weaker. You were manipulated and betrayed. Abuse was never your fault. You did your best to grow up, see if now you can look for help and support that you feel you need so you can put the shame on the perpetrator and feel worthy and whole again. If you look for a therapist, give yourself some time to find the person that is right for you. Find out about the types of therapy and pick one that speaks to you. Make contact with as many therapists as you can until hopefully you find someone you are comfortable with. Find out if they know anything about the effects of belonging to a high control group or are ready to learn about that so they can work with you. Reach out to others. Allow yourself to heal. There are people who will help you and who can feel your pain. You are not on your own.
¹Australian Institute of Family Studies, NCPC Issues No. 33 – December 2010; “Children are also at risk of sexual abuse from extra-familial perpetrators, especially when the child is at risk of supervisory neglect.” See this link. Also, National Association of Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse; “Children from broken homes and troubled families are easy targets. The more unlovable the child feels and appears, the less likely the child is to tell on someone who displays love and the less likely anyone is to believe the child if the child ever tells.” See this link.
²Please see https://www.rainn.org/articles/adult-survivors-childhood-sexual-abuse for more information.
³Please see http://www.loyola.edu/department/counseling-center/students/concerns/abuse for more information.
*”Contrary to the popular misconception that children are prone to exaggerate sexual abuse, research shows that children often minimize and deny, rather than embellish what has happened to them.” The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence; this site.
**Egalitarian: The belief that all persons are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.
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