On December 29th, 2017, Watchtower attorney Armin Pikl filed a lawsuit against Rowohlt Publishing Company, the highly regarded publishing house in Germany which produced the acclaimed book Goodbye Jehovah!, authored by former Jehovah’s Witness Misha Verollet. The autobiographical novel is subtitled “How I left the world’s most notorious cult.”
The suit followed a December cease and desist order from Watchtower which demanded the redaction of numerous passages along with the destruction of all current editions of the book in circulation. Rowohlt ignored Watchtower’s plea, resulting in legal action.
Goodbye Jehovah! was published in 2014 under the author’s pen name Misha Anouk, and was well received in Germany, reaching #22 on the German best-sellers list. Media attention was widespread across Germany, Switzerland and Austria, resulting in numerous television appearances, articles and radio interviews. While it was a clear winner in Europe, more than three years later the Jehovah’s Witness organization has opted to take issue with a book which is apparently having an effect on its German-speaking members.
While Jehovah’s Witnesses are not permitted to read “apostate” books or any materials critical of their religion, Verollet believes some German-speaking JWs are reading his book. During an interview with JW Survey he stated:
The average E-book share of book sales is 5 percent. With my book, over 20 percent were sold as E-books. This is an absolute outlier for the industry
Because hardcopy books are easily found and confiscated, Verollet believes a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses are reading his book by downloading it to their tablets and phones. Witnesses are less likely to be caught with the electronic version of a book.
Why the Lawsuit?
Given the hundreds – perhaps thousands – of books written by former Jehovah’s Witnesses, and readily available online, the question is raised as to why the JW legal department in Germany has suddenly launched an attack on this one book, more than three years after its release.
The Watchtower organization failed to take any action when it was first published, but according to German publishing laws, they could have stopped the circulation of the book with a temporary injunction. However, the statute of limitations on the injunction expired, leaving Watchtower with just two options: Let the book run its course, or file a lawsuit.
In an unprecedented move, Watchtower has taken legal action. This might seem surprising to some, given the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses were virtually silent when Governing Body member Raymond Franz wrote an epic exposé of the inner workings of Watchtower, titled Crisis of Conscience.
Franz published his book in 1983, just three years after being formally disfellowshipped by the organization he helped build. At the time, Jehovah’s Witnesses were largely controlled by a very tight network of Governing Body members, District and Circuit Overseers, and local elders who, in the end, were the men that ejected Franz from the religion.
While an armful of books written by ex-members had been written and published prior to Franz’ excommunication, few Witnesses dared to read such apostate material for fear of being caught with these books and disfellowshipped themselves. For most, the risk was simply too great.
It seems that the passage of thirty years, coupled with the internet and the availability of volumes of reading material produced by former Jehovah’s Witnesses has threatened to stem the growth of the organization which used to call itself the fastest growing religion in the world. According to the research site jwfacts.com, Germany is among the countries where Witnesses have been experiencing a steady decline in recent years. In an updated report, the site stated:
On the other hand, developed countries with the highest level of wealth, education and internet access to information regarding Watchtower have little to no growth. In 2016, many of these countries reported less publishers than previous year peaks, including Britain, Australia, Germany, Italy, USA, Canada and Japan.
Despite the declining number of Witnesses in Germany, their organization gained a notable victory in January of 2017, when they were granted Public Law Status as a major religion, after 26 years of legal wrangling. This decision allows Jehovah’s Witnesses in all 16 states to function as a single religious entity – reducing tax filings, government fees, and paperwork.
But, according to the organization itself, there was an additional reason to celebrate
In October 2017, the JW.org website postulated that the granting of Public Law Status in Germany had stemmed the tide of “defamatory” statements about the religion.
. Armin Pikl, an attorney for the national headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany, observed: “During the more than 26 years of legal efforts to obtain the status as a corporation of public law, the media published hundreds of untrue and defamatory statements about our religion, sometimes almost weekly. Now the flood of untrue and defamatory statements has subsided.”
It is noteworthy that less than 2 months after this article was released, Watchtower attorney Armin Pikl launched an attack on the publisher of Goodbye Jehova!
Pikl suggests that the January 2017 ruling which consolidated Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany has led to reduced defamatory statements about Jehovah’s Witnesses in the media. But according to Misha Verollet, there was no significant reduction in media reports related to the Witnesses in the months leading up to the change. Pikl’s comments appear to be an attempt to attribute reduced media attention to Watchtower’s changed status.
Watchtower’s Demands and Charges
The lawsuit, filed in the State Court of Hamburg Germany seeks to mimic the demands made in Watchtower’s cease and desist order, namely the redaction of all statements found defamatory to Jehovah’s Witnesses and the addition of an errata page with all Watchtower-approved corrections. Lastly, Watchtower is demanding the removal and destruction of all copies of Goodbye Jehova! from circulation.
It seems Watchtower is now in the business of editing apostate books.
While Goodbye Jehova! was written from the perspective of its author, Misha Verollet, Watchtower has taken issue with his autobiographical novel and wants to make sure the public is treated to a sanitized revisionist version of the experiences and events which characterized Misha’s life as a Jehovah’s Witness.
For example, in the seven distinct charges levied against the book, two deal directly with privacy issues involving the collection of information about Witnesses and non-Witnesses. Misha describes the process by which Witnesses recorded personal information about bible students on a printed form until the year 1990 in Germany. The form included the full name and address of the non-JW Bible student, and was turned in to congregation elders at the end of each month, without the knowledge of the Bible student.
Watchtower likewise takes issue with the portrayal of the data collection methods used on Witnesses themselves, specifically the mandatory requirement of each Witness to turn in their “hours” spent in the ministry every month, along with the numbers of books and magazines “placed” with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Watchtower claims that contrary to Misha’s statements, these hours, placements and other data are not monitored and used by their representatives. However, twice a year Circuit Overseers, who are representatives of the Governing Body, review such statistics with congregation elders to determine the condition of the “flock” and use them as one of the criteria for appointing men as ministerial servants and elders.
Another claim strongly opposed by Watchtower is the book’s portrayal of the Governing Body as having control over the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and other affiliated corporations. The lawsuit claims that there is no connection between the Governing Body and its corporations, despite the fact that every single member of any Watchtower entity is a baptized Jehovah’s Witness, and is bound by the dogma, decisions and determinations of the eight members of this Governing Body. Watchtower’s argument has been used in an effort to shield governing body members from giving depositions or testimony in child abuse and other court cases worldwide.
One particularly volatile item in the lawsuit is Misha’s reference to the research by Marvin Shilmer that suggests that at least 50,000 people have died as a direct result of Watchtower’s ban on the transfusion of blood or whole blood components. The book holds the Governing Body responsible for such policies and the resultant deaths.
I find it interesting that Watchtower’s attorneys are suing the publisher for statements made regarding the Governing Body, when Watchtower itself has stated that the Governing Body has no connection to these corporations. If the Governing Body is really not connected to Watchtower’s legal corporations, why should Watchtower file a lawsuit such as this one on their behalf?
The German Watchtower legal department has also attacked statements made suggesting that Jehovah’s Witnesses control the kind of music which is approved for Christians. While there is no officially published “blacklist” of banned music and songs, for years Watchtower has singled out songs and artists in the pages of their magazines, and employ a very strict censorship policy within all worldwide Branch Office locations. Housekeepers at these locations are instructed to alert headquarters staff the moment any “questionable” music is found among the belongings of Watchtower workers.
Watchtower is strongly objecting to one of the more satirical parts of Goodbye Jehova!, a chapter which includes a humorous description of the anonymous testimonials used in Watchtower literature. These testimonials are usually called “experiences” and are impossible to fact-check. Witnesses are expected to believe every word without question, and relate these to others as fact. The truth is, embellishment of stories in Watchtower literature and during public assemblies is a commonplace occurrence.
I can recall many cases of this from my own Witness upbringing. One JW friend was forced to delete and re-phrase part of her assembly testimonial, eliminating all reference to the fact that she attended a University and received a degree. The Circuit Overseer wanted to quash any mention of higher education to be sure the youths in attendance would not be influenced to advance their schooling.
Watchtower Selective in Claims
According to Verollet, Watchtower has been extremely careful in its selection of the seven deadly “sins” of Goodbye Jehova! There is an abundance of material in his book which deals with subject matter that might be considered even more damaging to Watchtower, but which their legal team chooses not to address.
For example, the book chronicles rampant sexism and homophobia within the Witness religion, but those claims are left undisputed. Further unchallenged is Misha’s explanation of how the organization fosters fear through the spectre of Satan, the demons and the occult. Also included is the subject of undue influence, and cult expert Steven Hassan’s BITE model, which explains how organizations like Jehovah’s Witnesses control the Behavior, Information, Thoughts, and Emotions of members.
As Verollet told JWsurvey, Watchtower passed over some of the most damning information about the Jehovah’s Witness organization – what he calls the “juicy bits” – and settled for seemingly mundane details they feel will give them the best chance for winning their case.
The privacy concerns are foremost among those statements which Watchtower feels should be addressed, and suppressed. The reason for this is quickly becoming clear. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Europe are fighting for the right to record data obtained by members who are preaching to the public.
In Finland, the Data Protection Commission has found Witnesses in violation of data privacy laws after it was discovered that members were recording personal information about non-Witnesses without their permission. Watchtower filed a lawsuit in its defense, but the suit was rejected. The organization is now appealing to the European Union, which maintains a strict privacy directive. Verollet’s book strikes a tender nerve with Watchtower and offers a very plausible explanation for why Goodbye Jehova! is the subject of such an aggressive lawsuit.
Rowohlt Publishing and Verollet are preparing to submit their defense to the Hamburg Court by the end of February. Watchtower will respond to the defense, and both sides will be given the opportunity to reach a mutual settlement. If an agreement is not made, the case will proceed to trial before a judge. It may be several months before a decision is reached.
Meanwhile, according to Verollet, the response from German-speaking former Jehovah’s Witnesses has been overwhelming. He said: “I am really touched, actually, how they’ve all rallied to my side and are offering moral support.”
Notes: JW Survey contributor Libby Partridge reviewed Goodbye Jehova! in January 2015
Click Here For Misha’s own blog – in German – describing the saga of Goodbye Jehova!