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The “perfect storm” - Child abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses

The things that most people know about the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) are fairly well documented - they refuse blood transfusions, don’t believe in birthdays or Christmas, and like to preach on your door step.

But there are rules and laws within this secretive faith that create a “perfect storm” for child abuse that would shock many in the community.

It was insulting to survivors of Jehovah's Witness abuse to hear at the Royal Commission from Australian leaders who claimed they're prohibited by the Bible from changing one of the worst laws contributing to paedophile cover ups: the “two witness” rule.

"No one understands what that institution is like"

The very first Jehovah’s Witnesses client to come to me seeking help told me: “no one understands what that institution is like, and unless you have grown up inside the JW’s, you have no idea what it takes to come forward to tell someone about the sexual abuse you suffered as a child."

My client was right. In my years in the field of institutional abuse law, this is an organisation like no other. Powerful. Terrifying. All controlling and seemingly without remorse.

After being brave enough at just ten years-old to report shocking sexual abuse by a church Elder, my client was forced to confront the perpetrator in front of another three male Elders and explain what happened.

The perpetrator simply denied the abuse. Because the rules state there must be two “witnesses” to the incident, the complaint was not substantiated. After making another attempt to have the truth come out at 16 years of age, she was shunned by the community and thrown out of home. The JW institution turned its back on her, she lost all of her friends and the only way of life she knew. She was left on the streets, homeless and without hope.

I have since acted for a number of people who have grown up in the JW institution and suffered sexual abuse.

I understand a fair bit more now about how much courage it takes for these victims and survivors of abuse to come forward. I understand how people within the institution are so entrenched and committed to their beliefs and policies that they shun and disfellow victims of abuse who speak out. I understand the great cost to a survivor that taking a stand against child abuse causes – families, friends, faith – all lost to them, at a time when they desperately need all the support and love possible.

Being a Jehovah’s Witness is a way of life. The teaching of “keeping separate from the world” encourages members not to associate with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses. Survivors report a fear of outsiders and those within the faith are taught to be obedient and submissive to the Elders who are all men. Women are expected to defer to the authority of their husbands and children must obey their parents.

This secrecy, the controlling behaviours of Elders and subjugation of women, the “witness” rule and the threat of excommunication is incredibly powerful. It creates conditions ripe for child abuse to occur. The Royal Commission has established that it does, on a massive scale.

There have been alarming reports of abuse within the organisation.

WatchTower Australia produced 5,000 documents with files relating to more than 1,000 alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse dating back to the 1950s. The Commission found these allegations related to at least 1,800 victims of child sexual abuse. There were 579 people who actually confessed to the allegations of abuse. Only 401 were “disfellowshipped” and more than half of those were reinstated.

Despite these thousands of reports, not one single Elder or member of the congregation has ever been reported to police or to any kind of authority outside the faith. Many eventually came to the attention of police and were charged but it wasn’t the organisation handing them over.

International eyes are now on Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse as it investigates the local arm of the religion. This isn’t even on the radar in places like the United States, Europe or England. We really are at the forefront of the fight against abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

We understand that the JW policies and procedures actively and sometimes forcefully discourage victims from reporting the abuse and seeking outside help. We understand that their “two witness” rules allows paedophiles to continue to operate in the organisation and the wider community – abusing kids over and over again.

What I don’t understand is why this institution fails to acknowledge these outdated, uncaring, dangerous policies and why they fail to make the changes necessary because it is coming at the expense of their own children.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: March 9, 2017.

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