Jehovah’s Witnesses keep many of their policies and procedures secret from their rank-and-file members, including the procedure they follow when selecting men to be elders. These procedures are found in a book called “Shepherd the Flock of God,” a super-secret handbook meant for the eyes of elders only, a copy of which I have. Before appointing men to be elders, they ask them three questions, as shown below:
Note that these are the only questions they ask before making this appointment and announcing it to the congregation.
Just How Common Is This?
I find it interesting that they need to ask this question about child sexual molestation of any man who is an active, faithful member of the congregation in good standing. To me, this speaks volumes as to how common this type of behavior is, or else they wouldn’t need to ask about it in the first place!
Notice they don’t ask if the person has killed anyone, committed adultery, been in a mental hospital, has a secret love child or thinks he has been abducted by aliens. These scenarios are probably so rare that they don’t need to be brought up, and certainly not of every man being considered for appointment. Yet, child molestation must be mentioned and questioned before each and every appointment.
Checking Up on Sinfulness?
Some might immediately argue that the elders are simply asking a man about sinful behavior that would keep him from serving properly as an elder. I could understand that point, but notice that they don’t ask about any other sinful behavior, just child molestation. They do ask general, vague questions about the man’s past and his family life, but then a very pointed and direct question about child molestation in particular.
If the argument was going to be made that the elders are checking up on hidden or past sins, note that according to the “Shepherd” book a person can be disfellowshipped (excommunicated and subsequently shunned) for:
- persistent viewing of violent and abhorrent pornography
- homosexual acts
- persistent drunkenness
- manslaughter (the unintentional taking of a life due to negligence of some sort)
- willful association with non-relatives who are disfellowshipped
- misuse of addictive drugs
- gross physical uncleanness
- participating in interfaith activities
- spreading teachings contrary to those of Jehovah’s Witnesses
- refusal to support one’s family financially
- all forms of apostasy or “causing divisions”
Yet, elders do not ask a man about any of these other sins. They don’t ask if he watches pornography, smokes, takes drugs, goes to another church with his family, or steals from the office. Their only concern, when asking a pointed and direct question, is child molestation. I just can’t buy the argument that they’re concerned about a man’s sins in general when this is the only sin that is specifically mentioned. Why not question him about these other matters, many of which would be committed in secret and that don’t involve another person? I would think sins like smoking, lying, fraud, using drugs, and viewing pornography would be questioned, since these sins would be easier to hide from others.
Some might also argue that they’re simply talking about a terrible sin that is particularly hurtful to innocent children, but note that they don’t ask if the man beats his own children or abuses his wife in front of the children. When I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, domestic violence and child abuse were commonplace even with elders, and you can read more about that on this site. Child sexual assault is especially hurtful, yes, but again, if their concern was only for sins that are especially hurtful, why not ask if they beat their children with a belt or paddle, or punch their wives in the face while the children watch?
Lawsuits and Costs
I openly admit that I have no legitimate insight as to why this question is asked in particular, but I might speculate that it has something to do with liability, lawsuits, and costs associated with the crime of child molestation. There have been many news stories over the years of Jehovah’s Witnesses, even elders, being caught in cases of child molestation. These cases have cost their organization hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few decades because of the civil suits that were subsequently filed and that continue to be filed every year.
This is one thing that sets child molestation apart from these other sins mentioned. No one can sue the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society if an elder is caught smoking or committing homosexual acts, but they can certainly sue if they feel the organization has put children in harm’s way by giving a pedophile a position of authority over others and keeping their actions a secret. Again, it’s not up to me to say for sure, but when one specific question, and only this one specific question is asked, I immediately begin to think about what makes it so special and so different. Why is child sexual molestation different when it comes to appointing a man an elder than smoking or being gay or watching porn? The only answer I can think of is a row of dollar signs.
Where Are the Further Instructions?
What is also bothersome is their further instructions if a man were to say yes to any of the questions above:
This is their entire set of instructions on what to do if a man says that yes, he has been involved in child sexual molestation in the past. There is nothing about finding the victim and getting him or her psychiatric help, much less ensuring that the child is now safe (such as in the cases of a father or stepfather molesting their own child). There are no instructions that say a police report should be made, or at the very least that this person needs to show repentance, write a letter of apology, make amends, see a psychiatrist himself, face official reproof, and so on. They are not told to meet with this man sometime in the near future and get any further information from him. Their only instructions are to cancel his recommendation for being an elder.
I just cannot fathom a scenario where a man tells another group of men that yes, he has sexually molested a child in the past, and those men are then only concerned with their paperwork and nothing more. How do you walk away from that conversation without any followup, without any concern for who that victim is or was, without any concern for how long ago the incident occurred or if it’s still occurring, and without any concern for whether or not this person is still molesting that child?
It’s also worth noting that elders in the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses have almost absolute authority over their adherents, and if they were to tell a man that he needs to tell them the name of the child, apologize, go to the police, stay away from other children, get professional help, etc., that man would be very obligated to follow their instructions. It’s often stressed in the JW literature and in their public talks that congregants are to “be obedient” to elders, and yet they don’t use the authority and power they have over others for the good of an abused child, not in this scenario at least. A man can stand there and openly confess to having raped and molested an innocent baby, and the elders can just shrug their shoulders, fill out their forms, and walk away.
Seeing this question in print all by itself tells me that there is a horrific problem with child sexual abuse within the organization. Not seeing any further instructions about followup and subsequent handling of the matter to protect the children and enforce some type of punishment for the perpetrator tells me why.
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