Originally published on Danish Media, TV2 by Jonas HR Moestrup
The recognized religious community of Jehovah’s Witnesses has an internal set of rules where religious leaders can judge on everything from smoking to killing.
In Denmark, there are 173 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, each led by a religious body – a so-called Body of Elders.
The religious bodies consist of up to 12 elders – religious leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses – who, according to a secret manual, must judge by a set of rules based on biblical sources.
The types of offenses they judge include smoking, sex before marriage, killing and sexual abuse of children. According to the manual, these are sins that the elders should investigate and judge if there is the enough evidence. The highest penalty is exclusion from the congregation.
The body of elders, according to several former Witnesses which whom TV 2 has spoken, are more significant for many members than the Danish authorities.
One of Denmark’s leading experts on religious law Lisbet Christoffersen, professor at Roskilde University, believes that this is a parallel legal community, which can be problematic for several reasons.
When one expresses their religious freedom within the religious group, the problem here is that they are taking on a general legislative approach that they should not have, she says.
Professor: On the verge of religious freedom
According to the elder’s handbook, once it has been proven the rules have been breached, they set up a judicial committee, which ultimately could mean exclusion for a member from the congregation. This may result in the member’s friends and family severing all contact with the outcast.
Exclusion – or disfellowshipping, as Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves refer to it – must be seen as an expression of love, according to the organization’s own magazine “Watchtower”:
– Family members can show their love for the congregation and for the wrongdoer by respecting the disfellowshipping arrangement, it says.
This is precisely what Lisbet Christoffersen finds problematic because she believes it is at odds with the individual’s religious freedom.
– Not only for the religious community, but also for the family and all members, one vanishes into thin air. You become non-existent. It is not recognizing the individual’s religious freedom, she says.
– An invisible prison
Development Manager at Kristeligt Dagblad, Morten Thomsen Højsgaard, with a Ph.D. in Sociology of Religion, has an in-depth knowledge of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He is concerned that many members of Jehovah’s Witnesses regard the bodies of elders as important authorities.
– In a Danish context, there is no validity in what is stated in an old book – here it is Danish criminal law that applies. But for those who have grown up to follow Jehovah’s recommendations, then in practice, it is just as important – almost more important – than current Danish law. Therefore, it becomes a parallel society, he says.
A parallel society that creates a form of social prison, he believes.
– There is no coercion within Jehovah’s Witnesses, neither violence nor militarism. They’re all proper and decent citizens. But it is an invisible prison in the sense that if you break the rules, as it says in the manual, then the relationship bonds break completely, says Morten Thomsen Højsgaard.
Jehovah’s Witnesses: – We do not interfere with the government’s investigations
Another problem with the handbook is that, according to Lisbet Christoffersen, the elders must handle cases that are also punishable under Danish criminal law.
– If it is about criminal offenses, then it is the task of the police and the courts. There should not be some internal justice. It is a problem we have discussed in relation to all child abuse cases (pedophilia cases) in the Catholic Church worldwide, and it is just as relevant to Jehovah’s Witnesses, she says.
There have been several cases of abuse of children in Jehovah’s Witnesses in other countries, which have never been passed on to the authorities, partly because of the internal rules.
For example, in Australia, a major study found that over several years, Jehovah’s Witnesses had not informed the police when they suspected 1006 children had allegedly suffered from child sexual abuse.
In the United States, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been sentenced to pay out large sums of money to victims of abuse because the organization did not inform the secular authorities.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses branch office in Holbæk did not want to be interviewed, but wrote in an e-mail that the elders in cases of child abuse always go to the authorities in Denmark.
– It is … false to confuse the secular authorities’ investigation of a crime with the congregation’s internal judicial system. We do not interfere in the secular authorities’ investigation of a case.
According to the Branch Office, since 2003, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Denmark have advised the elders that all child abuse charges must be reported to the authorities.
– We have done this consistently, and if necessary, we can document that to the authorities.
The branch office further writes that if a person is accused of child abuse, the elders will investigate in harmony with the Bible’s guidance.
– The elders follow a religious-based procedure whose sole purpose is to consider the accused’s membership within the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”