On September 4, 2017, it was reported that Watchtower Australia had released new instructions for how elders in the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in that country are to handle child sex abuse cases. This was reported as being for the country of Australia only, as the letter sent to elders was on the letterhead of the Australian branch.
However, it has been revealed that this same letter is being sent to all elders worldwide, but is originating from different branches around the world, as opposed to one letter coming from the religion’s world headquarters in New York, and then being distributed worldwide.
These new instructions are to replace the instructions sent in the August 1, 2016, letter to all elders; let’s first review the significant changes between these two letters, and then discuss why this letter is being sent from branch offices and not the world headquarters.
First note this paragraph from the 2016 letter:
Now compare this information from the new, 2017 letter:
In the 2016 version, it was stated that victims and their families have the right to report to authorities, but in the 2017 letter, instruction is given to elders to proactively inform them that they have this right to report their case to the police.
This is no doubt in response to the Australian Royal Commission Inquiry (ARC) in 2015, when elders were asked if they had ever told the victims who testified, both young women at the time of reporting their sexual assaults to those elders, that they should contact the police. Not only did elders never make this suggestion to those women, but they also seemed to have trouble understanding that sexually assaulting those young women was actually a crime (see this post).
Handling the Victims Judicially
When an allegation of wrongdoing is brought to the elders in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they may conduct what is called a judicial committee hearing; this is a committee of at least three elders (all men) who hear allegations and investigate the matter. Elders may then decide that there is no proof of the allegation, find the person guilty of the accusation but simply “reprove” them, or find that person guilty and disfellowship [excommunicate] them, which then means subsequent shunning from everyone in the congregation, including family members.
When it comes to child sex abuse allegations, first note the instructions from the 2016 letter:
Now compare the instructions in the new, 2017 letter:
It’s very interesting that the elders in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses need to be told outright that they should not handle the victims of child sex abuse judicially, as if those victims did anything wrong in being assaulted and molested. Interesting, but not surprising, as it has been brought out during the ARC, and other such investigations around the world, that JW elders often ask the victims in these cases some very accusatory, downright obscene questions when investigating their allegations, including whether or not they enjoyed it or did anything to encourage their abuse.
Worldwide, But From Individual Branches
An interesting twist in this letter is that it originated on letterhead from different branches, as said. This is new to me; typically a letter to all elders worldwide comes from the New York headquarters itself and is then distributed through branch offices, but isn’t on branch letterhead.
I have no way of saying exactly why things were done this way, but I would surmise that it’s the governing body’s way of distancing themselves even more from liability cases that arise from these instructions. If the instructions are on the letterhead from the branch, then the branch takes the fall, so to speak, in courts of law for how elders handle child sex abuse cases in their respective countries. Whatever the reason, it’s obvious that the religion’s governing body is trying some form of damage control that is the result of the hard work of activists worldwide, but no doubt mostly in Australia, where the religion’s failings are now under the microscope and the hot lights of an ARC, for the world to see.
In any case, these instructions are nowhere near enough to protect children, anywhere. They still allow a confessed pedophile to say that he or she is “sorry,” and then remain in the congregation. Their announcement of this reproof doesn’t include information about what that person confessed to, so parents may be downright clueless about the danger these persons pose to children.
Also note that elders are told to instruct victims and families that they have the right to inform secular authorities, and should not criticize those who do, but when parents or victims ask for counsel and advice on whether or not they should inform authorities, then what? Do elders tell them to do the right thing and report to police to protect children, or will they counsel them to avoid “bringing reproach” on the congregation by keeping matters quiet?
Given the track record of how elders manhandle the victims in these cases, it would seem obvious that this letter, and their apparent need to distance themselves from responsibility for their own practices, is nowhere near enough to protect victims.