In recent years, Watchtower’s child abuse crisis has become increasingly common knowledge across the globe.
In Australia, we have seen a Royal Commission undertake two separate investigations into the religion’s handling of child abuse, discovered that over one thousand JW child molesters in the country had not been reported to the police by Watchtower, and issued damning reports on the critical failures it uncovered. Hours of testimony, including testimony from Witness elders and Senior Watchtower officials including Governing Body Member Geoffrey Jackson, can all be viewed online.
In the UK, the Charity Commission has likewise mounted investigations into Watchtower (currently still ongoing) and has issued its first report severely critical of the religion’s handling of child abuse, and also of the religion’s attempts to shut down the investigation.
In the US, Watchtower has been embroiled in a series of disastrous and expensive lawsuits, losing case after case, and being fined by the court for refusing to turn over a database of allegedly thousands of JW child molesters that have never been reported to the police. US Investigative news organisation RevealNews.org has been publishing the work of Journalist Trey Bundy, who has become a world expert in covering the worldwide scandal.
In Canada, Watchtower has also experienced painful media coverage of this issue, and may be facing a $68 million class action lawsuit from abuse survivors.
And now it appears the people of Holland are starting to wake up to the terrible issue of hidden child sex abuse inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the Netherlands, there has been been a recent surge in coverage of the issue of Watchtower’s international child sex abuse scandal. Articles have appeared in the newspaper Trouw, and reports such as this one have appeared on the Dutch TV News show RTL (click cc on the video for English subtitles.)
Much of this media exposure is down to the bravery of abuse survivors coming forward to tell their story to the media and to government, and helping them to do so are the Reclaimed Voices foundation.
Who are Reclaimed Voices?
To get some background on who Reclaimed Voices are and how they came about, I spoke with two members of the foundation; Raymond Hintjes and Aswin Suierveld.
Both are former Witnesses; Raymond was raised in the religion whereas Aswin joined when she was 24 years old. Raymond moved up the ranks of the faith, eventually serving as an elder, however he ultimately left due to irreconcilable differences. He was gay, something the religion does not allow, and this led to his questioning of the religion. Since leaving he has obtained training in practical theology and a degree in religious studies.
Aswin left the religion when she was 36. She studied theology and later got a degree in practical theology which included extensive training in pastoral care. Ironically, Aswin points out that her education in this field has made her realise how poorly many JW elders perform their pastoral care duties; much of Watchtower’s advice and training in this matter to elders is, according to Aswin, a perfect example of what NOT to do.
(At this point I have to note the irony; Awsin has far more professional training and knowledge of how to care for a flock than most elders do, and yet Watchtower’s strict policy of gender role enforcement would keep Aswin from any such “shepherding” roles and would hand the role to far less qualified men purely on the basis of gender.)
The foundation originally began in an exJW facebook group, where many exJW members were sharing stories of sexual abuse inside the organisation. At the same time, the newspaper Trouw was preparing a series of articles on the 2015 Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. Members of the group agreed to share their stories with Trouw. Reclaimed Voices member Frank Huiting was one of those who did so, and he realised whilst doing so that there was a need not only to share stories and articles but to actually form an organisation to help survivors of Child Sex Abuse. He had experience working with and forming other foundations, and brought his expertise to bear on the task.
And so Reclaimed Voices was formed.
The goals of Reclaimed Voices
The role of Reclaimed Voices is to support survivors of child sex abuse inside the Jehovah’s Witness religion. Aswin and Raymond point out that for many survivors, contacting Reclaimed Voices is often the first chance such survivors have to ever tell their story. They receive many, many emails which are answered by Aswin, who with her degree in Pastoral Care, and is well trained to listen and give comfort. At the time of writing, Reclaimed Voices has been contacted by over 250 survivors and, interestingly, some of these are still active and believing Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Something Raymond and Aswin are very keen to stress is that thier foundation is not seeking to tear down the faith of any active JW’s; or challenge the religious teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Rather, they are simply helping abuse survivors cope with thier experiences and thus a JW who has experienced abuse but does not want thier religion itself attacked can feel safe contacting Reclaimed Voices.
The foundation guarantees total anonymity for those who contact it, so if you are a Witness in the Netherlands reading this, but are hesitant to reach out to the Foundation, please do not be.
Your identity will be protected and no-one will seek to undermine your faith.
The further goals of Reclaimed Voices are as follows. They want Watchtower to adopt a child centred safeguarding policy that will adopt the three main recommendations from the Australian Royal Commission, namely;
- To no longer use the Two Witness Rule in cases of Child Sex Abuse.
- To include women in the judicial process.
- To not shun anyone who leaves the religion as a consequence of suffering Child Sex Abuse.
Additionally, Reclaimed Voices wants the Dutch branch of the religion to publicly acknowledge the problem that the organisation has and to apologise for past harm caused by its policies, in much the same vein as many other prominent religions have done. It would be a very healing gesture and very helpful for survivors, Raymond points out, if at the upcoming Regional conventions in the Netherlands, such a statement was read out and a prayer offered in which the organisation asked for Jehovah’s forgiveness.
How has Watchtower reacted?
Such an act would be a marked change from Watchtower’s current attitude, which is clearly very frustrating to the Foundation. Raymond mentions a cartoon that was published on Tumblr that he feels sums up Watchtower’s attitude; in the cartoon, leaders of other faiths are apologising for failing the children, whilst the Watchtower leader is complaining that the children have not yet apologised to him!
This sadly seems to capture the current Watchtower attitude very well; Watchtower seem to be convinced it has done nothing wrong, and is dismissing any claims to the contrary as “apostate lies.”
For Raymond and Aswin, this is a key point. The Watchtower claims to have the highest moral standards of all religions on the planet, but thier actions in the matter of child sex abuse are in clear conflict with this claim.
I ask a question that I’ve been very curious about: Has Watchtower’s Netherlands Branch met with Reclaimed Voices? In the Trouw article, the Watchtower Branch Spokesperson indicated that this might be possible.
It turns out that, as is so often the case with Watchtower, the organisation was saying one thing when it really meant another. Apparently, the spokesman agreed in theory to meet with them, but only under “certain conditions.” It was not mentioned what these conditions were. Reclaimed Voices wrote a letter to the Branch to initiate dialogue, which was also published as an open letter. It took four weeks for the Branch to reply but the reply gave no substantive response, simply stating that they would contact Reclaimed Voices at some future date. And so far, that has been the only reply.
“They are not keen to have this conversation at all,” says Raymond. He suspects the “conditions” are that the members of Reclaimed Voices would have to repent and return to the Watchtower religion before any conversation can take place. And then, of course, any “returned” Witness would be forbidden from challenging the religion’s Governing Body on this matter, thus effectively shutting any discussion down.
However, Reclaimed Voices have reason to think that whilst the leadership of the religion might be trying to avoid this issue altogether, there is evidence to show that the rank and file of the religion are becoming increasingly aware and unsettled by the issue.
For example, they know of one Circuit Overseer who is aware of the problem, and who thinks the religion should alter its policies. They have also heard of other belivieing Witnesses who are aware of the issue and are troubled. Petitions that have been started on this issue in the Netherlands are sometimes signed by active Witnesses.
It has become clear that this is an issue that Watchtower can no longer ignore; the issue has been brought before the Government Ministry of Justice and Safety in the Netherlands, and the Ministry is clearly concerned.
Watchtower’s child abuse crisis: Will the government respond?
Both Watchtower and Reclaimed Voices have been in discussion with the Ministry on this issue, and in the last few days the issue has been discussed in open session. You can view the footage yourself on the Reclaimed Voices youtube channel. The audio is in Dutch but you can click the “cc” button to get English language subtitles.
It’s clear in the video that the committee are deeply concerned; not only that cases of child abuse appear to be going unreported within the Witness community, but also that the Witnesses appear to be bypassing the Dutch legal system by dealing with dangerous sexual predators in their own religious courts.
It is additionally pointed out during this hearing that failing to report a serous crime once a person become aware of it is actually a criminal offence. I would therefore point out that it’s possible Watchtower’s Dutch Branch has been breaking the law for years, as have elders who have sat in Judicial committees that found a person guilty of child sexual assault, but have not reported it.
Movement on this issue is still in its early days, but the Minister in this video appears to be pushing for a number of solutions;
- That as many of the survivors be encouraged to report to the police as possible. This will enable the department of public prosecutions to act more assertively towards the issue. It appears that without official reports to the police, the government may be limited in its response. My understanding from Reclaimed Voices is that such reports are indeed being filed and a collective prosecution may be in the pipeline.
- There was a serious concern raised to the committee by Reclaimed Voices that Watchtower may destroy incriminating documents. Indeed, this was a major subject in the letter that arrived during the hearing but could not be read out. In response, the Minister seems very clear that such destruction would be a criminal offence and says that Watchtower has been informed of this. Additionally Reclaimed Voices is working with survivors and lawyers to get Watchtower files related to those victim’s cases released.
- That an independent investigation be set up to look into the problem. This investigation would need to have the confidence and board support of all involved, and thus could not be an internal investigation controlled by Watchtower.
- That the issue of Watchtower failing to report serous crimes should be investigated.
- That the use of internal religious courts by the JW’s to keep serious offences from becoming public should also be investigated.
So this appears to be where we are right now. Things are moving quickly and further updates in this story will no doubt be coming. Speaking for myself, it’s heartening to see a modern democratic government move so swiftly to address this issue. Of course, much could still happen in the future and there is still uncertainly as to what the end result could be, but it’s clear that at this stage of the processes the Ministry seems genuinely appalled by what has been uncovered by Dutch journalists and Reclaimed Voices, and seems to be very serious about addressing the problem.
You can also view an interview that Reclaimed Voices member Raymond Hintjes gave to the JW Survey team on the youtube channel of Senior Editor and Founder Lloyd Evans below.
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