On November 24, 2020, the Independent Commission for Processing Child Sexual Abuse spoke in a confidential setting with experts about sexual abuse of children and adolescents of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Important international studies in recent years such as the Australian Royal Commission, the UK Charity Commission and the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in Great Britain, and the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands have dealt with child sexual abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses. Each of the investigations was also based on reports from those affected or contemporary witnesses who reported sexual violence in the religious community.
These investigations, but also reports from affected former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had turned to the commission (see “Mia’s story” Balance Report Vol. II), were the reason for this focus in the ninth workshop talks. The background of sexual violence against children and young people in the past and present within the Jehovah’s Witness community as well as the conditions for dealing with it should be examined in more detail. In addition, the focus was on the question of how those affected can be reached in the future and informed about the Commission’s offers, confidential hearings and written reports.
“The Watchtower Society strives for a theocracy”
In a conversation with an employee of a denominational counseling center for religious and ideological issues who would like to remain anonymous, the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses was described as a theocracy, in which they refuse to participate in elections because of Jehovah’s rule. Other prohibitions of the Watchtower Society would also lead to self-discipline of the believers because they strike at their conscience and the believers would allegedly violate God’s word if the rules were not followed. The basis for their assessment is the experience from their work. The employee has been advising former members of Jehovah’s Witnesses for many years.
In the counseling sessions she repeatedly gets the impression that the believer is under enormous pressure to perform. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses could never do enough to “earn paradise” on the one hand and on the other are to save as many other people as possible who are on the alleged wrong (faith) path. Specific factors that may negatively affect mental health include, among other things, children who have an outsider role in society but want to strictly follow the rules of the Watchtower Society. Or the turmoil of people between this religious community to which they have newly joined and their family of origin, from which they have to turn away if they do not believe in Jehovah God.
However, it also became clear that dogmatism in the practice of faith, and also the distinction between believers and leaders of the community in terms of access to knowledge and decision-making, are not specific to Jehovah’s Witnesses. These were found earlier and can sometimes be found today in Christian churches and other religions.
Sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse and taboo on sexuality
Barbara Kohout grew up within the Jehovah’s Witnesses and also started her family in the community. Because of her son’s critical questions regarding the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she herself developed doubts, especially about child protection and dealing with sexual violence. When she wanted to investigate the matter and asked the elders critical questions (“elders” lead the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which in turn are called “congregations”), she was expelled from the religious community. She then founded various self-help groups to advise and help those who have been expelled.
Barbara Kohout explains why child sexual abuse is possible in a closed community such as that of Jehovah’s Witnesses, primarily due to religious privilege: internal organizational disciplinary proceedings. According to Article 140 of the Basic Law in conjunction with Article 137 of the WRV, these are subject to the autonomy of religious communities. Jehovah’s Witnesses usually put this above child protection. As a result, incidents and actions that take place within the organization are not made public and also not publicly clarified.
In my opinion, it’s not just physical, but also emotional and psychological abuse.
– Barbara Kohout
She also claims the reason sexual violence is made possible is because of the one-sided sexual morality of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the lack of sexual education for girls and boys. According to Barbara Kohout, this leads to children being unable to distinguish between “sexual acts by elders […] who were in positions of trust and behaved in an abusive manner” where a limit was crossed. “Because they had been assured that this is love […]. But they could not exchange ideas with anyone, because talking about sexuality is a great shame, a taboo”, says Barbara Kohout.
Classification of Child Sexual Abuse as a Sin
As a former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Udo Obermayer was invited by the commission to report on the experiences of victims of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness community. Udo Obermayer was a member and elder in the religious community for a long time. As a former member, he founded JZ Help e. V. As chairman of the board of the association, he has been campaigning for former members since then, especially if they are affected by child sexual abuse. Like all Jehovah’s Witnesses after leaving, Udo Obermayer initially lost his social environment, including his family, who had to break off contact with him according to the rules of the community.
So far, around 50 victims of child sexual abuse from within the Jehovah’s Witnesses have turned to his counselling center for advice. Their reports show that there are no confidants for affected children or adolescents, either inside or outside the community. Parents are hardly an option either, because their options for protecting their child in the community are limited – as well as calling out injustices and demanding clarification. In any case, if a case was reported to one of the elders, the child had to testify alone in front of a committee consisting of three elders, and possibly also in the presence of the perpetrator, and often justify why they let themselves be touched and had not fought sufficiently.
The elders have not been trained in any way to deal with abused children.
– Udo Obermayer
Udo Obermayer explained how to deal with child sexual abuse within the religious community based on stories from those affected by abuse in the past. He described how affected children were blamed because they had participated in a sin according to the rules of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The classification of violence as “sin” protects offenders on the one hand, because sins can be forgiven, but places an extraordinary burden on those affected (spiritual abuse) on the other. In general, no effective measures to protect against further acts were implemented by the community, even if the persons had previously assaulted children.
Udo Obermayer confirms that within the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses the term child sexual abuse was not previously used in its regulations, as the Bible does not expressly forbid this, unlike, for example, extramarital sexual intercourse. Sexual violence against children has only been mentioned in recent years and, like extramarital sexual acts, so-called “unclean conduct” is treated as a sin that can be forgiven in the event of repentance.
The pseudo-basis for the argument is the Bible. The ban on child sexual abuse does not even appear in it.
– Udo Obermayer
If you want acts of child sexual abuse by members of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be really cleared up, you need to turn to state authorities, because everything within the community is handled and dealt with exclusively internally, explains Obermayer. At the same time, he notes that only former members are willing to turn to secular authorities for investigation or prosecution. This is because the leadership of the community have made a clear understanding to the members that they do not approve of investigating or prosecuting authorities getting involved, – even if the leadership sometimes gives the outward impression that each individual member is free to do so.
Wilhelm Hornung is also involved in JZ Help e. V .. As a young man, he initially served in missionary service for Jehovah’s Witnesses until the mid-1990s. After training as a speech therapist, he worked as a psychological advisor and solution-oriented systems coach within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Until his official exit in 2016, Wilhelm Hornung had advised and coached a large number of members of the religious community. In this context, he also learned of sexual abuse against children and young people. At the same time, Wilhelm Hornung held a leading role as an elder within the community. The particular reason for his withdrawal from the Jehovah’s Witnesses was because of the shocking handling of known acts of child sexual abuse, for which, as an elder at the time, he no longer wanted to be a part of. He is currently working as a coach for a public service provider.
Due to his many years of work as a coach for Jehovah’s Witnesses and in his former role as an elder, Wilhelm Hornung can confirm that there have been numerous cases of child sexual abuse in the community and also the structures that enable this. Similar to the Protestant or Catholic Church, where confirmation or communion classes are one of the occasional structures, with Jehovah’s Witnesses it is Bible study and preaching service. These are practiced by both elders and all believers in the community and usually take place alone with a child or young person. Even people who are known to the elders as perpetrators of child sexual abuse are often allowed to continue their pastoral work and the preaching service alone with one child, reported Wilhelm Hornung.
Therefore, he also speaks of the fact that these were not isolated cases, but that a system of cover-up existed within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Today Wilhelm Hornung deeply regrets that he only realized after many years that the targeted cover-up was systemic and that the affected children and adolescents were not believed in principle.
It took me ten years to see through the pattern. And the pattern was that it was supposedly all isolated cases and that those affected were consistently forbidden to speak. It is the typical pattern in all countries.
– Wilhelm Hornung
The two-witness rule is specific to Jehovah’s Witnesses. It says that a suspicion or allegation of a crime or act of violence should only be investigated by the elders of the religious community if there are at least two witnesses. In the case of child sexual abuse, at least one other person in addition to the child must be able to confirm that the sexual violence was carried out by the perpetrator named by the child. If that is not possible, the elders are instructed to leave the matter in Jehovah’s hands. This means that they do nothing to investigate the matter further, the child is not believed, receives no help and according to the rules of Jehovah’s Witnesses has to remain silent about it from now on. This also applies to the parents. If they do not want to let the matter rest and continue to ask, they are considered rebellious and the family is threatened with expulsion from the community.
Both Udo Obermayer and Wilhelm Hornung provided massive criticism of the two-witness rule in connection with child sexual abuse, because those responsible in the religious community knowingly use it as a pseudo-argument to systematically deny and cover up sexual violence.
The two-witness rule is very helpful to the Watchtower Society when it comes to child abuse. Since the child usually does not have two witnesses, the investigation can be ended promptly. And I think at this point it is extremely perfidious. And that is standard, common practice.
– Wilhelm Hornung
Need for political action and offers by the Commission
The three former Jehovah’s Witnesses also see a need for political action in various places in order to better protect children and young people in the religious community. The modification of Article 140 of the Basic Law was mentioned, which puts the rights of religious communities above the protection of the abuse survivors’ fundamental rights. In addition, more state rights of intervention are required and the legislature must create access to the files of Jehovah’s Witnesses by law. In order for other affected persons and contemporary witnesses to report to the processing commission and report on their experiences, low-threshold offers are required from them.
Focus on Jehovah’s Witnesses
The commission would like to find out which conditions have made child sexual abuse possible among Jehovah’s Witnesses in the past and which structures need to be put in place to prevent it in future. For this, the stories of those affected and contemporary witnesses are of great importance. You have the opportunity, as well as people from other areas, to communicate with the Commission in a confidential hearing or as a written report.
On September 29, 2020, the commission held an online information event for those interested in Jehovah’s Witnesses. The commission introduced itself and its work and discussed the options that are available in order to report to it.