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Child Abuse and Jehovah’s Witnesses

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Child Abuse and Jehovah's Witnesses
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According to Tusla, the Child & Family Agency, child abuse is categorized into four different types: neglectemotional abusephysical abuse and sexual abuse. A child may be subjected to one or more types of abuse at any given time. 

Definition of Neglect

Neglect can be defined in terms of an omission, where the child suffers significant harm or impairment of development by being deprived of food, clothing, warmth, hygiene, intellectual stimulation, supervision and safety, attachment to and affection from adults, and/or medical care.

Definition of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is normally to be found in the relationship between a parent/carer and a child rather than in a specific event or pattern of events. It occurs when a child’s developmental need for affection, approval, consistency and security are not met. Unless other forms of abuse are present, it is rarely manifested in terms of physical signs or symptoms.

Definition of Physical Abuse

Physical abuse of a child is that which results in actual or potential physical harm from an interaction, or lack of interaction, which is reasonably within the control of a parent or person in a position of responsibility, power or trust. There may be single or repeated incidents.

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Definition of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when a child is used by another person for his or her gratification or sexual arousal, or for that of others.

Definition of Child Abuse by Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Awake! magazine, dated 2007, Oct 7 pages 3-11 focused solely on child sexual abuse. It’s definition is similar to the definition of Sexual Abuse referenced above, except that it goes into further detail:

Sexual abuse of a child occurs when an adult uses a child to gratify his or her own sexual desires. It often involves what the Bible calls fornication, or por·neiʹa, which could include fondling of genitalia, sexual intercourse, and oral or anal sex. Some abusive acts—such as the fondling of breasts, explicitly immoral proposals, showing pornography to a child, voyeurism, and indecent exposure—may amount to what the Bible condemns as “loose conduct” or “uncleanness . . . with greediness.”

A letter from the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses sent to All Bodies of Elders, dated October 1 2012, defined child abuse this way:

What is child abuse from a legal standpoint? Child abuse includes the sexual or physical abuse of a minor (a person less than 18 years of age). It would also include the extreme neglect of a minor by his parent or guardian. Child sexual abuse generally includes sexual intercourse with a minor; oral or anal sex with a minor; fondling the genitals, breasts, or buttocks of a minor; voyeurism of a minor; indecent exposure to a minor; soliciting a minor for sexual conduct; or any kind of involvement with child pornography. Depending on the circumstances of the case, it may also include “sexting” with a minor. “Sexting” describes the sending of nude photos, seminude photos, or sexually explicit text messages electronically, such as by phone.

There is no reference to emotional abuse. Although physical abuse and neglect are mentioned, they are not defined.  The letter relates to child abuse but tends to focus solely on child sexual abuse. Let’s investigate as to why Jehovah’s Witnesses are focusing solely on child sexual abuse.

What is Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view of Child Abuse?

Like all religions with high moral values, Jehovah’s Witnesses “abhor the sexual abuse of children and will not protect any perpetrator of such repugnant acts from the consequences of his gross sin. (Rom. 12:9) Elders should take seriously their responsibility in this matter so that the congregations will be safeguarded from any valid accusation of neglect in protecting children from sexual abuse.”

Have Jehovah’s Witnesses a Child Abuse Problem?

It is not known if they have serious issues in relation to neglect, physical abuse or emotional abuse of children, as all issues are dealt with internally within the local congregation. Any discipline is meted out by the church and no secular authorities are notified unless the child, or the parents or guardians of the child, want to press charges. This is something that is not encouraged within the church and we’ll look at this in greater detail later. What we do know is that Jehovah’s Witnesses have a serious child sexual abuse problem. This has been highlighted in the media by the convictions of numerous Jehovah’s Witness paedophiles in the US and UK.

Are Jehovah’s Witness Elders Qualified & Equipped?

No. The Watchtower refers to elders as “spiritually qualified men” and they quote 2 Timothy 2:2: “May you have undeserved kindness, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” Really, elders are appointed to “shepherd the flock” based on the good spiritual standing they may have within their congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Most elders have no qualifications at all in dealing with child abuse as they receive no training and most have limited education. After all, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not encouraged to go to university and obtain a third level qualification. Instead, the vast majority of elders work in a trade or have more menial careers such as window cleaning so that they can spend most of their time preaching to others about their religion. In fact, the Watchtower Society, the organization behind Jehovah’s Witnesses, does not recommend its adherents pursue third level qualifications unless it is in a trade.

The elders do have a number of Watchtower articles that they can refer to when dealing with child sexual abuse. These articles include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Watchtower 2010, Nov. 1, pages 12-14
  2. Watchtower 2008, Oct. 1, page 21
  3. Awake! 2007, Oct 7, pages 3-11
  4. Learn from the Great Teacher, 2003, Chapter 32
  5. Awake! 2003, Feb 8, pages 8-9
  6. Awake! 1999, Apr 8, pages 8-11
  7. Awake! 1997, Apr 8, page 11-15
  8. Watchtower 1996, Dec 1, pages 10-15
  9. The Secret of Family Happiness, 1996, Chapter 5
  10. Awake! 1993, Oct 8, pages 5-13

In reality, anyone who reads these articles and understands them is as qualified and equipped as a Jehovah’s Witness elders when it comes to dealing with child abuse cases.

How do Jehovah’s Witness Elders deal with Child Sexual Abuse?

The letter from the Governing Body to All Bodies of Elders tells them exactly what they are to do.
Note: The word “should” is used instead of “shall” throughout the letter. This is somewhat confusing as it gives the impression that the directions from the Governing Body are recommendations only and are not necessarily a requirement. Bearing in mind the content discussed in the letter and the fact that the Legal Department is to be called immediately when there is an allegation of child abuse, we’ll assume that the word “shall” was meant to be used.

If the elders in a congregation are faced with an accusation of child sexual abuse, two elders are to call their Legal Department immediately for legal advice.  The Legal Department will then provide them with legal advice based on applicable local laws.

They are recommended to help the parents of the child realize that they have primary responsibility for their child’s welfare. This direction does not take into consideration the possibility that one or both of the parents may be the abuser(s).

When elders learn of an accusation, in addition to the letter from the Governing Body, they are to carefully review the direction outlined in the Elder’s 2010 manual Shepherding the Flock of God, chapter 12, paragraphs 18-21, where it states:

Child Abuse

18. You should immediately call the branch office for direction if you learn of an accusation of child abuse, regardless of the age of the victim now or at the time of the alleged abuse, even if it occurred before the alleged perpetrator’s baptism. The branch office will then give direction based on the circumstances involved in each situation.

19. Child abuse is a crime. Never suggest to anyone that they should not report an allegation of child abuse to the police or other authorities. If you are asked, make it clear that whether to report the matter to the authorities or not is a personal decision for each individual to make and that there are no congregation sanctions for either decision. Elders will not criticize anyone who reports such an allegation to the authorities. If the victim wishes to make a report, it is his or her absolute right to do so. – Gal 6:5.

20. When a known child molester moves to another congregation, the Congregation Service Committee should send a letter of introduction with full and  complete information about his background and current situation. Any letter from the branch office concerning the child molester should be photocopied or sent to the new congregation. However, the new congregation should be clearly informed of any restrictions imposed by the branch office. A copy of the letter of introduction should to sent to the branch office.

21. In a case in which a brother denies an allegation of child abuse and he has been accused by only one witness, the following direction is given if he moves to another congregation. The elders should consult the branch office before sending any information regarding the accusation to the elders in the new congregation. It would be helpful if your letter to the branch office provided a detailed summary of the matter and explained the spiritual condition and personal circumstances of the accused and the accuser. With regard to the accused, the following questions should be answered: (1) What is his interaction with children? (2) Does he admit to any activity with the accuser that could have been misinterpreted by the accuser as sexual abuse, or does he claim to have a poor memory of the accusation? (3) What is his response to why the accuser has made the allegation? (4) Has he had to be counselled for any other matters of a sexual nature, such as inappropriate conduct with adult sisters or pornography? (5) What is the level of his spirituality? (6) Do all the elders on the body believe that he can be trusted with children? The following questions should be answered with regard to the accuser: (1) What is the level of maturity of the child or youth? (2) Is he (or she) describing conduct that one his age would not normally know about? (3) Is the child or his parents known to be serious, mature? (4) Is his memory consistent, or is it intermittent, or does it involve repressed memories? (w95 11/1 pp. 25-26) (5) What is the reputation of the parents? (6) Are they spiritually and emotionally mature? After carefully considering the matter, the branch office will then give you direction as to what information about the allegation should be shared, if any, with the elders of the new congregation.Firstly, It should be pointed out that, although the directions in the Shepherding the Flock of God textbook states in bold letters that an elder should never suggest to anyone that they should not report an allegation of child abuse to police or other authorities, it does not direct them to suggest reporting an allegation.  Furthermore, only if they are asked about reporting the incident to the police, the elders are directed not to give any support to the victim in this regard. Instead, they are to inform the victim that this is a personal decision for each individual to make.

Secondly, the Shepherding the Flock of God textbook is only available to Jehovah’s Witness elders. Victims who do not have a family member who is an elder would not be privy to the directions detailed above.  This provides an unfair advantage to victims whose parent may be an elder, and also to elders who are abusers, as they would know before hand how their case would be handled by the elders.

Thirdly, it should be made clear that many Jehovah’s Witness abuse victims may not report the incident to the police because Jehovah’s Witnesses are directed to avoid bringing another brother to court because it would “bring reproach on Jehovah’s name”. The Watchtower 1986, Nov 15, page 20, para 18 states:

It is better to suffer financial loss than to bring reproach on Jehovah’s name as well as the congregation and disrupt our unity by taking a believer to court. Of course, even though court action is not taken, some form of congregation action may be necessary if dishonesty is involved. Although these sentences are referring to bad business deals between Jehovah’s Witnesses, the inference is there: It is better to suffer … than to bring reproach on Jehovah’s name … by taking a believer to court. Compare 1 Corinthians 6:1,7.

Shockingly, Jehovah’s Witness elders are “not authorized by the Scriptures to take congregational action unless there is a confession or there are two credible witnesses”. The two scriptures they quote for this archaic rule are Deuteronomy 19:15 and Matthew 18:16 which read as follows:

No single witness may convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit. On the testimony of two witnesses or on the testimony of three witnesses the matter should be established. – Deuteronomy 19:15

But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. – Matthew 18:16

In the vast majority of child sex abuse cases, there is only one witness – the child. How is a child going to get another witness to the matter? Really, when you read the above scriptures, it’s very clear that they are not referring to child sexual abuse. But yet, Jehovah’s Witnesses will do NOTHING unless they have a confession from the abuser or the abused has another witness to the crime.

The only steps that “loving elders” take in relation to protecting children is to allow a child abuser remain a member of the congregation if they determine that s/he is repentant or if there is a lack of witnesses or lack of a confession. They can disfellowship a child abuser if s/he confesses  to abusing  child. Or, in the unlikely event that the abused child manages to get a second witness , the elders can also disfellowship the child abuser if they determine that s/he is unrepentant.

They are to be mindful of those who have been child abusers and are to inform newly appointed elders of such persons. The congregation as a whole are never made aware of any child abusers within their midst, except for those who have been abused, and their parents or guardians. Elders may also caution convicted child abusers to refrain from displaying affection to children, to avoid hugging or holding children on their lap, never to be alone with a child (other than their own), not to allow children to spend the night in their home, not to work alone with one while preaching (hence, they should always be accompanied by another adult), and not to cultivate friendships with children. This is intended to protect children and help prevent those who have sexually abused a child from putting themselves in the way of temptation, being subjected to an unfounded accusation, or doing things that may cause concern to others in the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

If the child abuser does not heed the elders’ caution, then the elders are to immediately call the Service Department for advice, as s/he may be a predator. In such cases, and only after receiving direction from the Service Department, elders may inform parents of minor children that there is such an individual in their midst. The child abuser is also informed that parents have been warned.

How Are Child Abuse Victims Helped?

Jehovah’s Witness elders are directed to speak consolingly to those affected by child sexual abuse. They are to manifest an empathetic, compassionate, patient and supportive response. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 is quoted:

On the other hand, we urge you, brothers, to warn the disorderly, speak consolingly to those who are depressed, support the weak, be patient toward all.

As mentioned previously, the elders qualifications to deal with the traumatic effects of sexual abuse on a child are very poor.  Indeed, their poor qualifications are highlighted in the fact that the letter from the Governing Body cautions elders, especially when they are dealing with women who have been sexually abused. It refers them to the Shepherding the Flock of God textbook, Chapter 4, paragraphs 21-28 which reads:

Encouraging Those Who Were Abused in Their Childhood

21. Those who as children were abused, sexually or otherwise, many times grow up to be adults with emotional scars. They are in need of much loving attention. Thus, you will want to be conscious of treating such ones with thoughtfulness, tenderness, and kindness. Such an attitude helps to assure them that you really care for them and that you are “like a hiding place from the wind and a place of concealment from the rainstorm.” (lsa. 32:2) Like God, we should be “tenderly compassionate.” (Eph. 4:32)  When offering encouragement to such ones, select from the body of elders those elders best qualified to give the needed assistance. Remember that elders have varied abilities; some may be more effective than others in handling these cases.-l Cor. 12:4.

22. It must be recognized that elders as such are not mental-health professionals or therapists but are spiritual shepherds. ( 1 Pet. 5:2) Consequently, you should not conduct sessions for what some may view as group therapy. It is not necessary to spend time reading secular publications dealing with worldly psychology or psychiatry. You should not take on a role similar to that of a professional therapist. Someone who has serious mental or emotional illness may need professional help. – w88 10/15 p. 27.

23. One way you can show sincere interest is by being a good listener. (Prov. 21:13; Jas 1: 19). The October 1, 1983, issue of The Watchtower, on page 28, cautions against telling a sufferer who seeks just to forget what occurred. Many have found great relief simply in talking with a sympathetic nonjudgmental elder who can provide “the good word” of encouragement. (Prov. 12:25). God’s Word has healing power. Jehovah can heal “brokenhearted ones. (Ps. 30:2; 147:3) Though you may need to ask tactful questions to help an afflicted one express himself, avoid probing unnecessarily or repeatedly into the details of the abuse, which can have a negative effect. After patiently listening, apply the soothing oil of God’s Word. (]as. S: 13-15). “The peace of God excels all thought,” including disquieting thoughts – Phil 4:7; Ps 94:19; w95 1/1 p. 9 para 18-20; g91 10/8 pp 3-11.

24. Sometimes a sister who suffered abuse as a child may approach a capable older sister for help. It is understood that a sister would not get involved in matters that need the attention of the elders. She can, however, give such a sister emotional support and encouragement as her circumstances and time allow. (w90 3/15 p. 28) If the elders are aware that a sister is offering such help, they should check with her from time to time as to the progress being made.

25. There are times when an emotionally distressed Christian may seek professional help. Whether a Christian or his family pursues treatment from psychiatrists, psychologists, or therapists is a personal decision. An elder should not assume the responsibility of recommending a specific practitioner or facility. He may draw attention to or discuss material in the publications that provides cautions regarding therapies that may conflict with Bible principles. (w88 10/15 pp. 28-29; w82 6/15 pp. 25-29; w75 pp. 255-256) ‘While participating in group therapy by a professional therapist is a matter for personal decision, there could be a revealing of confidential facts about other members of the Christian congregation during such sessions if a Christian does not exercise discretion.

26. Elders must recognize that the time they can spend in helping those who are disturbed emotionally is limited. Therefore, they must balance this shepherding responsibility with all their other responsibilities, which include caring for the spiritual, emotional, and material needs of their own family and assisting all in the congregation. In some cases an abuse victim may ask for more attention than you can give. Elders need to maintain soundness of mind. (1 Pet. 4:7) Some elders have found it beneficial to place limits on the time they spend in shepherding. It may take several visits to get the desired relief for the victim, if this is possible. If the individual approaches you looking for help at times when you cannot discuss the problem extensively, perhaps giving some brief words of encouragement, assuring that one of Jehovah’s love, reading an appropriate scripture, or offering a short prayer will affirm to the sufferer your interest and willingness to help to the extent possible. Also, discussing Biblical examples of some who had to endure a terrible childhood and yet succeeded in becoming faithful servants of Jehovah can help sufferers see that they need not be permanent victims of a bad family life.-w01 4/15 pp. 25-28.

Cautions Regarding Assisting Sisters

27. Elders and ministerial servants must never meet alone with a sister not closely related to them and should avoid becoming the sole confidant of an individual of the opposite sex who is experiencing marital problems. This includes lengthy phone conversations. Of course, this does not mean that it would be inappropriate for an elder to talk with a sister while in the full view of others at her home, at congregation meetings, or in the field service.-w06 9/15 p. 26 par. 7.

28. It is important never to meet alone with a sister who is a victim of abuse, suffers from depression, or for any other reason is in a delicate emotional state. A woman in such an emotional state may be more vulnerable and may be prone to develop improper feelings toward an elder meeting with her. So that this does not occur, it is the course of wisdom to have different pairs of elders involved in shepherding such a sister. This would serve as a protection for the elders as well as for the sister because it is possible for an elder to develop improper feelings for a sister he is comforting or counseling. -Jer. 17:9.

Are Jehovah’s Witnesses doing enough to protect children?

It’s clear that Jehovah’s Witnesses love their children and do want to protect them from child abusers and predators. However, there are a few issues with their current policy on child abuse:

The archaic rule regarding the need for two witnesses to convict an abuser of a crime needs to be reconsidered as the scriptures referenced are clearly not in relation to child sexual abuse.

Elders should be directed to inform those who make an allegation of sexual abuse that they should report the abuse to the police or other authorities.

The elders should also inform the victim and his/her parents/guardians that the verses found in 1 Corinthians 6:1,7 do not apply and that they will not bring “reproach upon Jehovah” for going to the police.

At least one elder in every congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses should get formal training on how todealwithandidentify child abuse in all it’s forms.

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Jason Wynne is a husband to one wife, father to two children, and writes extensively on the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses having been baptized as a member in 1995.

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