A High Court child abuse case in the UK against Watchtower could set a precedent for further cases. This could be a landmark victory for the victim if she wins her £500,000 compensation claim against the organization.
The Judge has retired to consider his verdict in the case being heard at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. According to a story published today in The Sunday Times, if successful this case could pave the way for many more victims of Watchtower to file cases against the organization.
Most of us will be aware of the civil suits that have already been won in the USA against the organization, such as that of Candace Conti and Jose Lopez, but so far there have been no similar victories in the UK.
The victim, who has been referred to as Abigail (not her real name), has spoken to The Sunday Times. She tells of the sexual abuse she suffered growing up in Leicestershire at the hands of a ministerial servant named Peter Stewart.
The abuse, which included alleged rape, started when Abigail was as young as four and continued for five years until she was nine. She told the court she was abused by Stewart in her home, his home, in a shed, and in cars.
Now 29 and no longer a Witness, Abigail told the Sunday Times: “I brought this case because I wanted them to be sorry and I wanted them to change… They are a very insular organisation. Any change to children’s lives is going to have to come from outside pressure. I tried for years to get an apology. It was degrading having to beg for an apology, but I did not get one..”
Abigail related how Stewart gave her chocolates and led her to believe that when Armageddon came she would not be saved as she had committed fornication. In 1995 Stewart was convicted of assaulting another child and sent to prison for 5 years. When he was released, Abigail was terrified the abuse might resume, so she told police about her own ordeal. Stewart was arrested and charged with the offences, but he died in 2001 before the case could be heard in court.
When Abigail reported the abuse to her elders, she says they told her Stewart would be reinstated as a ministerial servant “because there was not a second witness to the abuse.”
Abigail finally confided in her husband who urged her to take legal action. She told Sian Griffiths of The Sunday Times: “I want them to change and to change some of their practices too. I would never have gone to court if I had had an apology.”
“Victims of abuse are made to confront their perpetrators. I don’t understand how this organisation can organise meetings between perpetrators and victims. It is criminal that that is being done. That should stop. They also have a rule that there have to be two witnesses to abuse and they must be of good character. Abuse is regarded as a sin not a crime. I want this to change to protect other children in the future.”
Lawyers in the case, who have been working closely with Candace Conti’s legal team in the USA, say: “We expect this case to open the floodgates to dozens, if not hundreds, more cases.” AO Advocates, the firm handling Abigail’s case, already has six other clients who are waiting for the outcome of this case before considering their own legal action.
Abigail has found it difficult to hold down a job having not completed her university education, and suffers from a post traumatic stress disorder. “It has affected me in every way. It has changed who I would have been,” she says. Abigail has already attempted suicide and reportedly told her lawyers that she doesn’t expect to live beyond 30.
Watchtower has issued a statement to The Sunday Times saying: “While deeply sympathising with any victims of abuse, we do not consider it appropriate to comment on a case where a ruling by the judge is still pending. Jehovah’s Witnesses have an absolute and unequivocal abhorrence of child abuse. The care and safeguarding of children is extremely important to us. For decades we have published material to help parents and children to be protected from abuse.”
A few weeks ago I spent a day at the Royal Courts of Justice so I could meet the victim and observe how the case was progressing. One of the first things I was struck by was how many elders were in attendance.
In child abuse cases, elders have been known to refuse to make statements to help police, and they certainly don’t have a reputation for attending court to support the victim. Yet in this case, with Watchtower under the spotlight, the elders were out in force.
On the day I attended, Watchtower produced a witness who was an expert in his field of working with children. He began by trying not to answer direct questions put to him by the Barrister. Eventually, the Judge intervened and told him he had to answer the questions directly.
He was asked if saying sorry and showing repentance was good enough when it comes to child abusers. He gave an honest answer and explained that pedophiles are like alcoholics and drug addicts. Once they offend it is very unlikely that they will ever stop.
The defence Watchtower was using was that Stewart was removed as a ministerial servant and this was announced from the platform. A few weeks later a talk was given from the platform concerning improper behaviour. Watchtower felt this was enough of a warning to the congregation as it should have been obvious this talk was being given about Stewart.
Watchtower’s own expert was questioned on this, and asked whether this was indeed sufficient action. Of course, he had to answer honestly and say, “no.”
There are so many similarities between this case and the case I am involved in. I actually requested an apology from my local body of elders and didn’t even get a response. I just wanted them to say sorry for sitting me in front of my abuser and making me say what he had done to me.
I then tried to get an apology from London Bethel instead, and I was flatly told that Bethel doesn’t apologise! I find this quite bizarre since Jehovah’s Witnesses are encouraged to say sorry and repent when they make mistakes. If I had received an apology and assurance that steps would be taken to ensure children would be more protected in future, I too would never have considered taking legal action.
My final words are directed towards the victim in this case: No matter what the outcome of this case is, you have shown strength, determination and incredible bravery to take on the organization. I applaud you for that, and I want you to know you are not alone in your fight.