In a letter dated September 1, 2017, the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses approved the release of a new Body of Elders letter in the United States, Australia, the U.K., Ghana, and across the globe.
This letter is intended to refine and clarify the language and procedures used by all elders when they encounter an allegation of child sexual abuse. It is a revision of the August 1, 2016 letter to elders, which was a revision of the October 1st 2012 letter.
The latest directive is in no way regional in nature, but is a global response to the growing publicity and civil lawsuits being filed in the United States, Canada, the U.K. and elsewhere.
While the table of contents of the 2017 and 2016 letters are identical, there are minor differences in a few of the 27 sections of each letter which reflect the ongoing efforts of the Jehovah’s Witness organization (A.K.A. the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses) to deflect attention from their long-standing policy of handling allegations of abuse internally, with the protection of the organization’s reputation of prime concern. Victims and their families are placed in the awkward position of facing intense pressure to let the elders handle matters “Jehovah’s way.”
The Jehovah’s Witness organization has been very careful to avoid writing statements such as “Never tell a victim to go immediately to the police” – instead they have deceptively created a double negative expression inside their secretive Shepherd the Flock of God elder’s manual, which states:
“Never suggest to anyone that they should not report an allegation
of child abuse to the police or other authorities.” – (Bold from Watchtower manual)
According to this latest September 1st letter, the above statement must be immediately deleted from the Elders manual, along with the 2 subsequent paragraphs which were already excluded per instructions from the 2016 Body of Elders letter.
Why? It is obvious to anyone of intelligence that not telling someone not to report a crime is clearly the absence of action rather than a directive to take positive action. Poorly educated elders generally have a difficult time interpreting such ambiguous language, and the organization is beginning to understand this.
Secondly, It’s no secret that the Governing Body is closely monitoring “apostate” posts and web sites, which have shed a considerably bright spotlight upon the unsavory and ambiguous doublespeak, which has become a hallmark of the Jehovah’s Witness writing department.
For example, The Governing Body dispatched a July 2016 memo marked APPROVED in response to Australian Branch Coordinator Terry O’Brien’s plea to the Governing Body, which included the following statement:
“No doubt it will be much better if the [Australian Royal Commission receives this information from the branch, rather than from apostate opposers.” – Terry O’Brien
The Governing Body has lost control of its once tightly monitored network of elders and circuit overseers, and other key members of this religious institution. The letters referenced in this article were actually leaked days in advance of the September 1st release date, a fact that has sent the Watchtower legal department in search of the sources of these leaks.
The most immediate and apparent compromise which appears in the September 1st 2017 revised letter involves what appears to be a directive to clearly inform a victim or her parents that they have the right to inform the “secular authorities” when an abuse allegation takes place. The added sentences read:
“The congregation’s handling of an accusation of child sexual abuse is not intended to replace the secular authority’s handling of the matter. Therefore, the victim, her parents, or anyone else who reports such an allegation to the elders should be clearly informed that they have the right to report the matter to the secular authorities. Elders do not criticize anyone who chooses to make such a report”
These words, while on face value might appear to offer some improvement to the abominable failure of Jehovah’s Witness elders and parents to inform the police and Child Protection Authorities of an allegation of abuse, they are designed to protect the organization rather than the victim. One must conclude that these are once again passive words, and are not instructions to immediately contact the police or CPA. If they were, the statement would read:
“The victim, her parents, or anyone else aware of an abuse allegation should immediately report such allegations to the police and CPA, and follow the directions of the authorities who are fully trained to handle such cases”
The reality is, what is placed in print and what is practiced in reality are two entirely different things. Watchtower is in an awkward defensive position right now, and is struggling to find a balance between obeying “Caesar’s law” and maintaining their internal system of justice, based upon an interpretation of Biblical verses which serves to elevate their own hierarchy above that of the laws which govern every nation.
During the February 2017 public jury trial of Fessler v Watchtower, attorneys for abuse victim Stephanie Fessler subpoenaed a former elder from Pennsylvania, who was scheduled to testify under oath on the matter of whether reporting child abuse was permitted or encouraged.
In pre-trial motions, Fessler’s attorney advised Justice Mary Collins:
“That this man will come in and say, hey, I was told do not report this to the police or to authorities. So that’s what I’m saying. It’s both notice and the fact that there are instructions given to elders and circuit overseers not to report abuse”
The judge responded:
“Will he testify as to who told him this?”
Attorney for Stephanie Fessler answered:
“Well, it’s firsthand. He has contacted Watchtower headquarters.”
Despite vehement objections from Watchtower’s team of defense attorneys, the judge overruled the objection to this testimony. Before this former elder had the opportunity to testify, Watchtower agreed to a substantial settlement with victim Stephanie Fessler following four days of trial.
“Child Abuse is a Crime”
Another key difference between the 2016 and 2017 letter to elders is found in section 5, titled “Legal Considerations.” Note the 2016 letter:
“Legal Considerations: In some jurisdictions, individuals who learn of an allegation of child abuse may be obligated by law to report the allegation to the secular authorities. In all cases, the victim and her parents have the absolute right to report an allegation to the authorities.”
Compare this to the 2017 letter:
“Legal Considerations: Child abuse is a crime. In some jurisdictions, individuals who learn of an allegation of child abuse may be obligated by law to report the allegation to the secular authorities.”
Watchtower has faced intense scrutiny for failing to emphasize the criminal nature of child abuse. It has first and foremost categorized child abuse as a sin, which is the reason Witness elders find themselves involved in abuse cases where they have no training or expertise. Such matters should always be referred to law enforcement and child protection agencies. The revised wording of the 2017 letter is purely intended to create the illusion that Jehovah’s Witnesses identify child abuse foremost as a crime. They don’t.
Also very noteworthy is the elimination of the phrase “absolute right” – a term which Watchtower has used repeatedly in multiple abuse cases worldwide as a legal method of placing the burden of reporting abuse upon victims and their families, deflecting attention from the obligation of the Jehovah’s Witness clergy (the elders) to report abuse. For a detailed analysis of this term “absolute right” – see my 2016 JW Survey article summarizing the 2016 elder’s letter pertaining to abuse.
The Judicial Committee
Further emphasizing the importance placed upon internal investigations by Jehovah’s Witness elders are statements made in paragraph 14 of the updated 2017 letter to elders. Nowhere do we find any mention of legal guilt or criminal prosecution as the impetus for judicial action within a Witness congregation. Based upon this principle, a Jehovah’s Witness convicted of murder in a court of law would evade disfellowshipping for lack of two baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses who could establish guilt under their notorious “Two Witness” rule. Note the intentional ambiguity embedded within the Shepherd the Flock elders manual, 2010 edition:
“Manslaughter: Aside from deliberate murder, bloodguilt may be incurred if a person causes loss of Life through carelessness or because of violating a
traffic law or other safety law of Caesar. The elders should investigate and if warranted appoint a judicial committee to hear the matter. The committee should base its decision on clearly established facts, not simply on a decision that may have been made by secular authorities.”. – Shepherd the Flock manual, chapter 5, section 3.
What exactly are “clearly established facts” – and who supply these facts? Congregation elders are advised to “not simply” base their decisions upon the professional authorities whose sole occupation is that of determining and judging the facts of any given case. While the justice systems of most countries are imperfect and flawed, they are clearly superior to the decisions rendered by men who wash windows, clean toilets, or work as tradesmen for a living.
When we examine the procedures followed by Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is an implied superiority of their “Theocratic” methods which always trumps the civil authorities in our society. They strictly adhere to the philosophy that “We must obey God as ruler rather than men” – a quote from Acts 5:29. This Biblical reference is frequently used to draw a line in the sand when a JW policy conflicts with a legal requirement of any given country.
A second issue with paragraph 14 of the revised letter is the following statement, which also appears in the 2016 letter:
“If wrongdoing is established and the wrongdoer is not repentant, he should be disfellowshipped. (ks10 chap. 7 par. 26) On the other hand, if the wrongdoer is repentant and is reproved, the reproof should be announced to the congregation. (ks10 chap. 7 pars. 20-21) This announcement will
serve as a protection for the congregation”
While disfellowshipping might appear to be an appropriate measure to protect Jehovah’s Witness children, what of those who are not Witnesses? Criminal courts frequently enforce restrictions on child molesters, including such actions as requiring them to register as sex offenders, which effectively notifies residents in various communities that an offender is in their midst. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is effectively nothing stopping an individual from moving to another state under an assumed name, and molesting a child before anyone finds out who this criminal really is. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not required to show proof of identification when attending a congregation, and there are a multitude of ways to bypass the measures which would inform a congregation that a convicted felon is in their midst.
Of greater concern is the fact that a JW judicial committee is given the authority to judge an abuser as “repentant” – as seen above. For those of us who study child abuse very closely, an abuser rarely if ever is “repentant.” Child abuse is a sickness which must be dealt with by the police and trained mental health counselors. The mere consideration that a perpetrator might be simply “reproved” instead of disfellowshipped is at best a slap in the face to an abuse victim, and at worse a free pass for an abuser to continue seeking potential victims.
The statement that “This announcement will serve as a protection to the congregation” is a toothless claim which Jehovah’s Witness elders have no real authority to support or enforce. I remember a few years back, while serving as a Ministerial Servant, I was assigned to conduct a one hour “bookstudy” each week at my local Kingdom Hall. One elder informed me that a female Witness was under “reproof” for a serious infraction, but did not reveal the nature of her “sin.” She was allowed to come to the meeting and associate freely with everyone, her only restriction being that she was barred from “commenting” – which means to raise one’s hand and offer a testimonial or comment on the discussion.
A few months ago I was contacted following one of my JW Survey articles on the Fessler v Watchtower case, by a female victim of the reproved woman. I was literally sick when I discovered that she had sexually assaulted the victim in the women’s room of my own Kingdom Hall, in a way that disturbs me more than you can imagine. The elders were aware of the incident – as were the parents of the victim, but following the customary practice engineered by the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, neither the police nor CPA authorities were notified. It appears that “reproof” was their solution to this sexual attack on a female victim who was four years old at the time.
Thanks to the bravery of Stephanie Fessler and her willingness to take her case to trial, many victims have come forward and are seeking the professional help they deserve. For now, the perpetrator of this horrific abuse roams freely among several congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This case is currently under investigation by multiple competent detectives in the Child Sex Crimes unit where the offense occurred.
Finally, we come to one further statement in Paragraph 14 of the 2017 BOE letter:
“Victims of child sexual abuse are not handled judicially. However, if the body of elders believes that congregation action may be warranted in the case of a mature minor who was a willing participant in wrongdoing, two elders should call the Service Department before proceeding.”
Again we encounter a disturbing policy which on the surface appears to be an improvement in policy. However the first sentence is immediately undermined by the ambiguity of the term “mature minor” – and suggests that an abuse victim could indeed be treated to a hostile judicial committee if they are judged by Jehovah’s Witness elders to be a mature minor, and a willing participant.
It seems that if there is any doubt whether a victim is a mature minor, the answer is to be supplied by the Service Department of Jehovah’s Witnesses, located in New York. But don’t lose sight of the fact that it is the local body of elders who choose to “believe” whether congregation action is warranted.
Once again, the statement that “Victims of child sexual abuse are not handled judicially” is merely an empty promise which serves only as an attempt to placate the civil authorities worldwide who are ramping up their criticism of organizations who place children in harm’s way – all the while receiving tax-exempt status as a “charitable” organization.
What’s the Bottom Line?
The reality is that nothing has changed. A few words here and there, drafted only to protect the organization, and not the victims of abuse.
The final paragraph of the latest letter states:
“It is imperative to adhere to the direction in this letter each time a matter involving child abuse comes to your attention. This will serve to uphold the sanctity of Jehovah’s name and to protect minors. (1 Pet. 2:12) Your full cooperation with this direction is appreciated.”
Notice the sequence of importance in this statement:
- Adhere to the Governing Body’s direction
- Uphold the sanctity of Jehovah’s Name (meaning the organization)
- Protect minors
- See number 1 (FULL cooperation with this direction)
Nothing has changed. Nowhere have the elders been instructed to comply with mandatory reporting of child abuse, without first consulting with the Watchtower legal department in Patterson New York. There is never a reason for an abuse allegation to not be reported to the police; clergymen, teachers, guidance counselors, medical professionals and others are generally required to contact the authorities when an allegation comes to light. Elders do not need a legal department or a “Service” Department to do the right thing, nor should they fear reprisals for immediately contacting the police and CPA when they learn of an abuse allegation.
In fairness, I will say that there are individual Jehovah’s Witness elders who do not agree with the policies they are required to enforce. The JW religion is by no means an a-la-carte system of beliefs. It is all or nothing, and for most Witnesses, “nothing” is an impossible alternative. Objecting to and speaking against any one policy of the Governing Body will result in the most severe penalty of all – complete ostracism from friends and family, which for most is a price to high to pay.
But times are changing, and an increasing number of Jehovah’s Witness elders and circuit overseers have seen fit to declare themselves “PIMO” – or Physically In, Mentally Out. While change happens systematically, in a subtle but positive way, we can be thankful for the widespread courage of survivors of abuse, advocates for change, and countless other supporters of victims.
Given the widespread and ongoing civil cases filed against the Watchtower organization on behalf of abuse survivors in multiple countries, it is still sobering that the Governing Body refuses to back down and permit the elders to immediately report allegations of abuse to the police and child protection agencies. In many cases, time is of the essence when abuse occurs, and the intervention of the legal and service department of Jehovah’s Witnesses represents an extraordinarily self-serving position.
I urge everyone who may read this, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Governing Body, to eliminate the bureaucracy which has caused undue pain and suffering for decades to countless victims of abuse. To Jehovah’s Witnesses I say: Please stand up for the what is right, what is fair, what is just, and what is kind. Your children are at risk, and we want them to grow up in a safe environment where they can choose the life they wish to live, safe from predators from within and outside of the Jehovah’s Witness religion.
We know that you abhor child abuse, but that is not the issue. The concern is how allegations of abuse are handled. They must be treated as the most serious of all allegations, as the consequences of failing to report such matters to the police and CPA will last a lifetime, both for your children and those of other victims of the same predators.
With kind regards, and love for your children and your entire family,