As many residents of the UK and surrounding areas know, European data protection laws will soon be changing, and the General Data Protection Rules, or GDPR, will overhaul how organizations can handle a person’s private data. GDPR applies to charities, so the Watch Tower Corporation, listed as a charitable organization in the UK, will need to comply with these new laws.
One aspect of these rules is what’s called the “right to erasure,” or “right to be forgotten,” meaning that you can request a company delete your personal information from their records, if there is no legitimate reason for them to keep any data about you. A company that keeps and uses your records unnecessarily, especially after you have made a request for erasure, might face some very stiff fines and penalties.
Faded and Inactive Jehovah’s Witnesses
Many former Jehovah’s Witnesses have questioned if these new laws mean that they can exercise this “right to erasure” with their former congregations, telling elders that they no longer want their personal information kept on file. The assumption is that this would prevent an announcement being made that a person is disfellowshipped [excommunicated]; without this announcement, a former Witness might not face the subsequent shunning that follows, or so many ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses are thinking.
This is a huge presumption to make, as the right to erasure does not mean that an organization is no longer allowed to acknowledge your existence; according to this website, the right to erasure does not apply to, among other things:
- “…the right of freedom of expression and information;”
- “for the performance of a task carried out in the public interest or in the exercise of official authority;”
Could a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses make the argument that they have the right to “freedom of information” by announcing that you are no longer associated with their congregation, and to act within the authority of a religion to which you once belonged? Since I’m not an attorney, I can’t answer that question, which means it might be good for a person to speak with an attorney and find out that answer before they communicate with a former congregation in any way!
It’s never good to make assumptions about how the law works; always be safe rather than sorry, and get proper legal advice before doing anything that is affected by the law. Remember, the GDPR is a set of laws, not an internal congregation policy or practice, so it’s vital to get advice from someone credentialed in law before doing anything affected by this GDPR, especially before you put something in writing.
As many people know, Jehovah’s Witnesses are now asking congregants who are affected by this GDPR to sign the NOTICE AND CONSENT FOR USE OF PERSONAL DATA form, allowing their personal data to be kept by the congregation.
When I heard of this situation, my first concern was how it might affect the records that Jehovah’s Witnesses keep when it comes to allegations of child molestation in the congregations. If an alleged molester does not consent to their personal data being on file, would information about those allegations be destroyed? Would this cause a problem for liability attorneys who file suit against the Watchtower for how the religion mishandles these cases?
Again, not being an attorney, I have no credentialed answer to offer, so I wrote to Kathleen Hallisey, a UK attorney who is currently handling many such liability cases against the organization. Kathleen kindly wrote back with her own concerns regarding these new laws, and wanted this information to be shared:
“The new GDPR requirements are going to create a bit of minefield for abuse lawyers. I think the critical issue in respect of child molestation allegations is for the abused to consent to their data being kept by Watch Tower, so that even if the abuser doesn’t consent, the victim/survivor has and there should be some information about the allegation on file. I have seen some posts online about people planning to ask Watch Tower to delete their personal information. This is obviously a very personal decision, but in the context of abuse, it could be a disaster. As we know, Watch Tower is notorious for saying they don’t hold information and then miraculously producing it and/or being found to actually have the information. If the victim/survivor doesn’t consent to their information being held or writes to Watch Tower to ask that their information is deleted, Watch Tower can legitimately say that they have complied with GPDR and do not have the information.”
In short, she is saying that a child sex abuse victim who exercises this right to erasure may be hurting any potential liability case of theirs, by outright asking the Watch Tower to pretend they never existed. (If the Watch Tower has no legal record of that person even being a congregant, how can the victim file a claim against them?) It may also be advisable, according to her, for a victim to actually consent to data being kept, so that Watch Tower has fewer arguments or claims for destroying any such records.
Obviously no one can predict the future or know how these laws will affect any congregant or claim against the Watch Tower, but as I said above, it’s best to always err on the side of caution when handling matters of law, and especially new laws that have not been tested and tried as to their everyday application. No doubt there will soon be court cases filed between individuals and organizations keeping their data, with judges deciding what rights those organizations have, versus the rights of the individual. I imagine precedents will be set that will help shed light on how the laws will then apply to the Watch Tower, to inactive Jehovah’s Witnesses, and to those looking to file claims against the religion.
In the meantime, I cannot stress enough the importance of getting sound legal advice, from a real attorney (or barrister or solicitor or whatever they’re called in Celsius) before requesting the destruction of personal records being kept by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and especially if you’re a child sex abuse survivor who might have a liability claim against the religion. Obviously it’s your decision to make, but ensure you make an informed decision, and not an emotional and presumptuous one! Just as preserving physical evidence is needed for a criminal trial, preserving paperwork and records is often vital for a civil trial, so be very cautious before you decide to ask the religion to destroy yours.
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