The book, “Shepherd the Flock of God In Your Care,” released in 2010, is a confidential handbook that elders in the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses use when investigating allegations of sinful conduct among congregants. This book includes instructions for how to arrange what is called a judicial committee hearing; this is a committee of at least three elders, who hear allegations of misconduct and responses from the accused. This would include allegations of child sexual abuse.
In chapter seven of the book, “Judicial Hearing Procedure,” elders are told that they should hear relevant testimony from witnesses, but are also told that, “observers should not be present for moral support.”
This begs the question, why would they not allow someone to be present in order to offer moral support to a victim of any type of misconduct, or to offer support to an accused person?
Goading or Coercing
Someone might argue that this person could be there to actually goad or pressure the accuser into saying something they’d rather not; for example, a woman accusing her husband of adultery might be goaded into making this accusation by a family member who never liked her husband.
I would counter-argue that allegations are further investigated through this judicial process, and a decision about guilt or innocence doesn’t rest solely on the accusation itself. Elders in the congregations are told that two witnesses are needed to establish guilt if the accused person doesn’t confess, so it makes no difference if the accuser is being goaded or pressured into making their accusation; they can say whatever they want, for whatever reasons, and the elders will still need those other witnesses, or a confession.
I would also point out that the rare chance of this person being there to actually coerce or somehow pressure the accuser doesn’t outweigh the good this support can do for others, who are not being coerced. That’s like arguing against opening a food bank in your neighborhood because there may be that one person who doesn’t really need the food and who takes advantage of the arrangement; why penalize those with a sincere need because of the one rare “bad apple”?
Someone might say that this arrangement is to preserve the confidentiality of the judicial process. However, an adult, mature member of the congregation should be able to keep such confidences; after all, elders are entrusted with these confidential matters. What makes them so different than anyone else in the congregation?
Also, consider that this instruction would apply to moral support for the accused person, not just their accuser. If the accused person is perfectly fine with their spouse or parent or sibling hearing those accusations, why would the elders insist on confidentiality?
One point I find very significant is that the book doesn’t say that outsiders shouldn’t be there “in order to preserve confidentiality,” or to avoid tainting an accusation; it also doesn’t simply say that observers should not be present, period.
Instead, the book specifically says that observers should not be present “for moral support.” The elders are specifically told to withhold moral support from those making an accusation, and from the accused.
I openly admit that I have no insight as to why they would do this; I will, however, hazard a guess. My guess is that Jehovah’s Witnesses specifically withhold moral support from the accuser in the subtle hope that they will cave from the pressure and stress of going through this process, and simply give up. The more persons they can pressure into dropping allegations of any sinful conduct or victimization, the more they can maintain their facade of happy congregants in happy marriages, who would never do anything as awful as molest a child.
I might also guess that this is a means of testing the one making the allegations, and the accused person as well. In the minds of Witnesses, they may assume that someone making truthful allegations won’t need moral support, and that someone with a legitimate defense against such allegations won’t need that support either.
To which I say, hogwash. A person can be telling the truth about any matter, but may be very fearful of the person who has wronged them, especially if it’s their father, husband, or an elder in the congregation. They may also be intimidated by the elders themselves, or simply of the entire process overall.
This is true of both adults and children; some people simply hate confrontation or aren’t very skilled in standing up for themselves. It’s also easy to feel as if the elders and the accused or accuser are “ganging up on” a person, who may need the reassurance and calm provided by someone on their side. All of this has nothing to do with the truthfulness of their statements.
A letter was sent to all bodies of elders worldwide on September 1, 2017, that slightly modified and clarified how elders were to handle allegations of child sexual abuse. First, this letter does mention that, when “shepherding” child abuse victims, elders should not meet alone with a minor, but should include another elder and another adult:
However, keep in mind that this is specifically addressing “shepherding” a child abuse victim; this “shepherding” refers to followup visits that are meant to provide comfort and concern for that victim. This “shepherding” does not refer to the judicial committee process mentioned in the “Shepherd the Flock of God” book above.
Paragraph 13 of that 2017 letter said that accusers were not required to make their allegations in the presence of the accused:
This change still doesn’t address the instructions of actually withholding moral support during this judicial process. Even if the child sex abuse victim is not sitting in front of their abuser when they make their allegations, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll now be comfortable doing this on their own. That victim could still be making an allegation against their father, or another elder in the congregation who is friends with the elders listening to their allegations. Females, especially those who are still relatively young, may also find it very disturbing to make allegations of a sexual nature to a panel of all men, without any other women there for support.
Consider, too, that these changes are in a letter that is specifically addressing the sexual abuse of minors. Persons making allegations of any other nature, and those facing such allegations, would not be affected by this letter.
In turn, a woman would still need to make allegations of adultery against her husband, alone, to a panel of all male elders, some of whom may be friends with her husband. A woman may also need to face such allegations from her own husband or from someone else in the congregation, in front of a panel of male elders, without any needed moral support, and the list goes on.
It seems very contradictory that Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be a religion based on love, while they also specifically and purposely withhold needed moral support to persons in their congregation for any reason, at any time. If anything, I would think a loving religion would instruct elders to ensure that anyone involved in their judicial processes would have all the moral support needed.
Purposely and specifically taking away moral support means purposely and specifically taking away comfort and protection for everyone, including victims of child sexual abuse. What reason would anyone have to do this, to anyone, but especially to children, and especially those who are making claims of being sexually abused?
I have no explanation to offer, and I would be willing to hazard another guess that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t either.
Editor’s Note: The 2017 letter quoted above says, in the opening paragraph, “While the following information refers to an accused in the masculine gender and to the victim in the feminine gender, it applies equally regardless of the gender of the accused or the gender of the victim.”
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