In this post, I share an urgent warning to persons in Europe who may be affected by the upcoming General Data Protection Rules, or GDPR, which overhauls how companies can maintain and use someone’s private data. As discussed, if you exercise your “right to be forgotten” and ask Watchtower to destroy your records, this might hurt a liability claim you have against the religion for child sex abuse, as those records may be needed to support your case.
After I made the corresponding video for that post, it was suggested that individuals submit what is called a Subject Access Request, or SAR, to the Watchtower, to get a copy of information kept about them. I again wrote to U.S. attorney/UK lawyer Kathleen Hallisey to ask her advice, and she agreed that every survivor of child sex abuse, whether or not they are planning on filing a liability claim against the Watchtower at the moment, should consider making this request.
Obviously a child sex abuse survivor looking to file a claim against the Watchtower should speak to an attorney and follow their advice closely, to ensure you’re doing everything possible to protect your claim.
In the meantime, for information about your rights under the GDPR, please visit ico.org.uk.
Specific information about this SAR is on that site, under “For the public,” and “Request your personal information,” or ico.org.uk/for-the-public/personal-information/
Here is some information I found, and a few of my own personal recommendations and comments:
What Is SAR
According to that page, a Subject Access Request “…means that you can make a request under the Data Protection Act to any organisation processing your personal data. … You can ask the organisation you think is holding, using or sharing the personal information you want, to supply you with copies of both paper and computer records and related information.”
Note that an organization has 40 days from the day of receiving your request to provide you with this information, and can charge you up to £10 for each request.
How to Submit an SAR
It’s important that you submit this SAR in writing, and keep a copy of this letter for your own records.
Your letter should include your full name, address, and phone number; I would also recommend you include your date of baptism and current congregation’s name and address, in full.
To Whom It Should Be Submitted
This request should be sent to the Watchtower’s Legal Department, at the branch office.
To ensure you’re using the most current address of any branch office, use the Contact Us page at JW.org, and choose your country from their drop-down menu.
What to Ask For
The website above says that you should include the details of the records you are requesting.
Since it can be difficult to know exactly what records are on file for each congregant, my advice would be to simply ask for a copy of “any and all records, notes, files, and other information about me, whether kept electronically or as a hard copy, including but not limited to publisher records, elders’ notes (whether made in my presence or not) and any and all applications and agreements on file.”
If you have made an allegation of child molestation, this should also be specifically noted in your request, i.e., “Please also include any and all elders’ notes and records pertaining to allegations of child sex abuse, brought to the attention of [names of elders] in [congregation name] on or about [date].”
The website above also has a sample letter you might find helpful.
If They Resist
If the organization refuses to provide all the information you request, your first step is to speak with your attorney.
Otherwise, the website above says that an organization may withhold information if it relates to another person. If the Watchtower organization attempts to withhold information about child sex abuse allegations brought to their attention because that allegation involves another person, my personal advice is:
- If an elder(s) tells you this in person, note that your request was made in writing, so they should respond to you in writing. Tell him/them outright, “I have no record of this conversation ever occurring, so it may appear that the organization is simply not responding to my request.”
- If you receive this refusal in writing, obviously you need to keep that correspondence! Show this to your attorney when you’re ready to file a claim of liability.
- The website above says that you should still expect your requested information if “it is reasonable in all the circumstances to provide the information without permission” from the other party. My personal advice would be to write back to the Legal Department and note that, since you were the person making the allegation, it is reasonable to expect this information, even without the permission of the other person. (Make sure you keep a copy of your letter for your own records.)
There is no guarantee that the law will be on your side and that the organization will need to send a copy of your allegations to you, as it may eventually be determined that this information should remain confidential since it involves another person. However, there is no harm in doing everything you can to follow up with your request and, if the organization responds in writing, this may work as an acknowledgement that such an allegation was made.
If you want to know more about your legal rights and what to do if information is refused to you, and are not in contact with an attorney, the website above has an option for a live chat, and a phone number you can call to get further advice. There is also a tab for “Report a Concern” that has helpful information.
If They Threaten
On a personal note, I know that all of this may be easier said than done. Even though the organization and elders personally may face fines and other penalties for not complying with GDPR, this may not stop them from accusing you of “causing divisions,” “not being submissive,” or whatever other excuses they can think of that would allow them to punish you for pursuing a legal claim, even outright disfellowshipping you.
If the elders in your local congregation do seem to be threatening you with judicial action for requesting these records, and you aren’t currently in touch with an attorney, my best personal advice, apart from contacting someone through the website above, is to tell the elders that you will consider consulting with an attorney about any such actions. Point out to them the information found in their handbook, “Shepherd the Flock of God,” page 86, which says that they should suspend their proceedings and phone their branch for advice:
There is no guarantee that this will work and prevent the elders from retaliating, but I would hope the branch office would not allow elders to continue with judicial action, simply because you’re exercising your legal rights to request personal data.
My last bit of advice is to ensure everything is in writing, and to make careful notes of all conversations you might have with elders, if they approach you about your request. Even if they make a passing comment to you in the Kingdom Hall, write down the date and what was said, and by whom, and note anyone who may have overheard the comment.
Also, don’t delay in submitting this SAR, so the Watchtower has less of a chance to destroy your allegations under the pretense of protecting someone else’s information.
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