The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) has published its report on child protection in religious and organised settings. It rightly draws attention to the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation, according to Alan Collins, one of the best known and experienced abuse lawyers.
IICSA found children are not adequately protected from the risk of child sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witness organisation and the evidence demonstrates that it fails to adequately address child sex abuse allegations.
Commenting on today’s report, Alan Collins, Head of the Hugh James Abuse team said:
The Jehovah’s Witness organisation relies on outdated policies and practices to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse which were not subject to ongoing and continuous review and are compromised by attempting to ensure that all that it does is rooted to scripture and bible interpretations.
What is of concern is the organisation’s retention and continued application of policies, such as the two-witness rule in cases of child sexual abuse – which must be considered as showing a serious lack of understanding of the nature of child sexual abuse.
The report also highlights the Jehovah’s Witness organisation’s internal disciplinary system for addressing complaints of child sexual abuse is not child or survivor focused. Survivors are offered little or no choice in how their complaint is addressed. Sanctions are inadequate, with little regard to the risk of the perpetrator re-offending. Matters are compounded by these who do complain being “shunned” by their community and this can include family.
The evidence points to a policy failure within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation, which impedes the timely reporting on abuse allegations and fails to provide for the safety and protection of children. It further demonstrates why the UK Parliament needs to legislate for mandatory reporting for child sexual abuse.
A group, who gave evidence to IICSA under the name: Ex-JW Advocacy, has also commented today:
As a group, we have devoted much time and effort to our participation in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). We recognise that other core participants, the Inquiry panel, those serving as counsel for the Inquiry and many working behind the scenes to support them have done the same.
We are pleased that our combined effort has come to fruition in the form of the report released today. During the Inquiry it seemed clear to us that a fundamental issue underlying the problem of child sexual abuse is that religious institutions are inclined to handle matters internally, following procedures that are often influenced by the desire for the institution to protect its reputation and avoid liability, as well as being skewed by the view of the perpetrator as a potentially repentant sinner rather than a criminal threat. To maintain a public image individual members of a religion are kept ignorant of the true scale of the problem.
The conflict of interest is well illustrated by the public-facing message published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. In their Awake! magazine, 8th April 1999 issue, they state, “It would be good for you as a parent to ask yourself, ‘Does my church tolerate or cover up child abuse? Is my religion holding firmly to high moral principles?’ Answers to such questions could help you to make wise choices in protecting your children.
While this appears at first reading to be common sense advice, there is no way for a Jehovah’s Witness to meaningfully answer the question. While cases are handled internally it is not possible to distinguish between a church that does not tolerate child abuse and one that is proficient at covering up.
Although Jehovah’s Witnesses did reveal to the Inquiry a fraction of the cases that have been reported to their UK headquarters, most members of the religion remain unaware of the facts and would be shocked to learn that more than 100 men in positions of responsibility in their congregations in England and Wales were accused of child abuse in reports received over the course of a decade.
Internally, they are presented with the message that the potential perpetrators are “Wicked men and imposters” who have found their way into congregations or that “some professing to be a part of the congregation have succumbed to perverted fleshly desires and have sexually abused children” (The Watchtower, May 2019).
An obvious solution would be to enforce mandatory reporting to secular authorities so that cases could be handled in a way that gives priority to the protection and support of victims. An independent auditing body would provide transparency. We believe that religious institutions and those who have positions of responsibility within them would also benefit from such an arrangement as it would bring clarity regarding procedure and alleviate the burden of attempting to handle matters for which they have little or no training.
Today’s report follows public hearings in 2019 which examined the experience of survivors of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness organisation, as well as the systems, policies, and procedures in place within it for raising, responding to, and preventing child sexual abuse.
IICSA also took evidence from representatives of the organisation and from survivors of child sexual abuse committed by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses take issue with the content of the blog being of the opinion that it does not accurately reflect the findings and observations made by IICSA.