On Wednesday September 13th, in a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Sydney Australia, a Ministerial Servant was appointed. According to a verified source present at this meeting, this announcement had been previously delayed because of the revised Working with Children Act policy, which mandates that persons who have positions which place them in direct contact with children must first apply for and obtain a special card before being appointed.
The announcement made by the Coordinator of the Body of Elders stated:
“We’ve just got one announcement. As we’ve mentioned before we had our Circuit Overseer’s visit and we don’t always get to announce all of the appointments straight away because we sometimes have to wait for the brothers to be able to get their Working With Children Check from the Government. So now, we just want to let the congregation know that Brother [REDACTED] has been appointed as a Ministerial Servant in the congregation.”
As this Sydney congregation is located in the state of New South Wales (NSW), the Watchtower’s congregations, together with individual Elders and Ministerial Servants will now be forced to comply with the NSW revisions to the Working with Children Act of 2012.
“The general practice of the Jehovah’s Witness organisation of not reporting child sexual abuse to the authorities unless required to do so by law undermines the efficacy of the Working with Children Check system in relation to Jehovah’s Witnesses” – [Section 7.1 page 62]
On 1 August 2017, a number of important amendments to the Working with Children Check Act 2005 (the Act) came into effect.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse made several recommendations aimed at strengthening the protection children receive through Working with Children Checks. The following amendments to the Act implement these recommendations:
Expand the definition of ‘direct contact’ in the Act. The definition of direct contact now includes oral, written or electronic communication as well as face-to-face and physical contact. The Act will continue to provide that a Check is not required in circumstances where the contact with a child is occasional and incidental to the work.
Remove references to ‘supervision’ from the Act. This means that even if a person’s contact with children as part of their child-related work is supervised by another person, they will still need to apply for a Check.
Create a new occupational category of ‘child-related work’, known as ‘kinship care’. Family members or other persons of significance caring for a placed by Child Protection under the Youth and Families Act 2005 are required to obtain a Check.
Ensure that non-conviction charges (charges that have been finally dealt with other than by a conviction or finding of guilt) for serious sexual, violent or drug offences are considered as part of a Check assessment or re-assessment.
Enable the Secretary to the Department of Justice and Regulation to compel the production of certain information for the purposes of compliance monitoring.
In addition, various other miscellaneous and technical amendments have been made to improve the Act’s operation and administration.
For Australian congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the process for appointing an Elder or Ministerial Servant is now a bit more complex than before. In the past, Witness males were recommended for their positions based strictly upon their “spiritual qualifications” – a subjective decision which allowed anyone to rise within the organization with little or no real knowledge of whether they have a criminal background, or if they are a sexual predator. Criminal background checks are non-existent, and the only question posed to a prospective Ministerial Servant or Elder moments before they are appointed is:
“Have you ever been involved at any time in the past with child sexual molestation?” – [Elder’s Manual 2010, Chapter 3 Section 13]
The answer to this question has always been based on the “honor system” – and you can be certain that a child molester would never answer such a question in the affirmative.
During the 2015 Royal Commission investigation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia, counsel assisting the Royal Commission, Angus Stewart QC, queried Watchtower Service Department chief Rodney Spinks, who admitted that the Watchtower organization had been completely disinterested in cooperating with the “Working with Children Check.” This check would violate none of their religious principles, yet the organization was unwilling to implement any of their reasonable suggestions.
STEWART: “Can I just get you to address your mind to a situation which I’m suggesting of a person who has said “Yes” to that question that they have engaged in child sexual molestation; they are also saying that they are now of good moral standing and habits; and I understand that there is a process with head office. But would you, in that circumstance, seek any external tests for that, such as a criminal records history?”
SPINKS: I think we’ve ‐‐
STEWART: Is the answer no?
SPINKS: The answer is no.
STEWART: All right. In that circumstance, would you require a person to provide a Working With Children Check?
As a result of the adamant defiance of Jehovah’s Witnesses to cooperate with the simplest of safeguards for children and the congregations across the nation, they now face mandatory cooperation with state regulations which now require anyone with religious authority to be vetted by each state, or face severe penalties for failure to do so. The reality is that for prospective elders and ministerial servants with clean records, this theoretically should not present a hardship, as the process is free of charge for members of clergy who are unpaid volunteers. For Victorian citizens,the process starts with a quick visit to this web site, where all questions are answered with well-worded simplicity.
For the Rest of Australia
I have commented on New South Wales and Victoria, but recall that for now, each state will mandate the specific policies and procedures related to the now-mandatory requirement for elders and ministerial servants to obtain their working with children card. For those interested in the remaining states as well as the ACT, please visit this web site:
Having spoken at length with the government of Victoria, I can verify a few basic facts:
For volunteer or unpaid ministers, the process to acquire the card is free of charge
While the government has mandated this new policy revision, there is no official policing of the policy – however while the “honor system” is in place, any minister or organization caught violating this policy and practicing as a ministerial servant or elder without a valid card will be subject to extreme penalties and possible jail time. For example, in Victoria, penalties are measured in “Units”, where one unit equals $158.57 Australian dollars.
As the non-compliance chart above demonstrates, the maximum penalty for working without a card is 240 Penalty Units, or $38,057 Australian dollars, plus the possibility of two years imprisonment. It stands to reason that Jehovah’s Witnesses will not be taking the risk of evading this mandatory requirement, as the fine for both individuals and the congregations under state jurisdiction is simply too great a financial risk to take.
It is of interest how suddenly when a monetary penalty and/or a prison sentence enters the picture, the Jehovah’s Witness organization seems all too willing to cooperate. Prior to this new mandate (as with the United States and elsewhere) -the punishment for non-cooperation with the authorities has been less than a slap on the wrist, and unless civil action is taken in trial courts, Watchtower, their congregations, and individual elders have walked away from thousands of abuse cases, with complete disregard for the feelings and rights of the most vulnerable members of our society – children.
Is This Policy Retroactive?
Yes. All persons who work with children according to the newly expanded regulations in Australia will be required to obtain their Working with Children Card regardless of past experience or appointments as Elders or Ministerial Servants. This protective measure is designed to ensure that any who fall under one of three primary categories of prior or current offenses will be placed under special scrutiny before receiving their card. For a comprehensive list of Category A, B and C offenses under Victorian Law, please refer to this detailed reference sheet. The most serious offenses (such as A and B level offenses) will most often result in the denial of the card to these applicants.
This raises an interesting question – how will Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia handle an Elder or Ministerial Servant who has failed to obtain his Working with Children Card in Australia, but would otherwise “qualify” to serve in this position in other countries? The forthcoming clash between “Caesar’s Law” and the religiously insular organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses might just drive a crack in the otherwise unified Governing Body guidelines for operation of all branches.
As reported by JW Survey on September 6th, the latest Body of Elders letter to all global congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses does little to protect victims, and is nothing more than a protective measure for the organization itself. Sadly, we are still left with the infamous “two witness rule” which means that most cases of abuse go unresolved both within the congregations themselves, and as a result, are almost never reported to the authorities by any elders or ministerial servants. Congregation leaders are required to contact the legal department of Watchtower in every case, which almost always cop-blocks an appropriate phone call to state and local police and child protection authorities.
Another notable and impossible situation is that of a female Jehovah’s Witness intermediary acting on behalf of a victim of abuse. As most investigators will tell you, a female victim is best treated by a trained female detective or child protection advocate – but no such person exists within the Jehovah’s Witness organization. Female Witnesses are relegated to the most menial of tasks within the organization, with no opportunity for advancement or powers of judgment in any areas short of selecting the color scheme of a Kingdom Hall. And even that decision must be approved by a male Elder.
According to the government agent I spoke to in Australia, the move to a national standard is in the works, and we can only continue our quest to ensure that eventually all nations will have legislation which mandates such protective measures for children, and that Jehovah’s Witnesses, like everyone else, will be required to comply.
Mark O'Donnell is a former Jehovah's Witness turned whistleblower after discovering the disturbing child abuse epidemic within the religion. His story, along with the revelation of a secret database of child molesters were featured in the March 2019 online issue of the Atlantic Magazine:
O'Donnell continues to investigate allegations of child abuse within the Witness organization, and works with law enforcement, attorneys, and survivors of abuse, writing about his findings on jwsurvey.org and other outlets.