Patrick Haeck is a former elder of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Here he reports on the court proceedings that took place in the Ghent Courtroom in Belgium where Jehovah’s Witnesses were appealing the ruling of inciting hate and discrimination towards former Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Yesterday, March 22, 2022, we spent a particularly long and difficult day in front of the Court of Appeal in Ghent. In contrast to previous sessions, it was not only David Vandendriessche who was present as the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) representative; this time there were about 25 JW’s present. There were circuit overseers, leading eldersm and also some JW family members and reinstated JWs. Some ex-JWs found this to be a form of intimidation. I myself found it an ideal opportunity to introduce them first-hand to the misery caused by their shunning policy.
In the morning, the three lawyers of the Christian Community of JW in Kraainem vzw (vzw = ‘non-profit foundation’) presented their arguments as to why they were appealing the decision of the court of first instance. We first heard Mister Ramon Scherer, who is a JW himself, reproaching the court for taking a decision reminiscent of that of the 16th century. Mister Ramon proved to be a real JW by making a ‘prediction’ to the court. They would hear terrible stories and it would take a whole day to tell everything. Afterwards, he was quite proud that his ‘prediction’ had come true. (A prophecy of a JW that also came true: We are really not used to that!)
Then we heard from Mister Denys, who actually caused more distraction by repeatedly calling me Filip Haeck instead of Patrick Haeck. This mistake revealed his lack of knowledge as to the contents of the court dossier.
Finally, we listened to Mister Dimitri De Beco, who mainly tried to prove that this is a press offence for which this court has no jurisdiction. He tried to play down the shunning as family quarrels. The actual crime would not be proven. The verdict of the first judge refers to the vzw as ‘co-perpetrator’ without indicating who ‘the perpetrator’ is. JW’s follow biblical principles. They are persecuted because of their faith. In the verdict they are called a cult twice and that is insulting. The first judge and the public prosecutor are clearly biased. It is their right to exercise their worship as they understand the biblical guidelines. The testimonies are implausible. The judge should not be forced to force families to get along. The judge was misled.
There was nothing here that we have not heard before.
Then we heard a strong statement from the prosecutor general who restated the earlier position of the Prosecutor General’s Office and who could not appreciate the accusation of bias. The three appeal judges heard everything with an unemotional face, but it seemed clear that the JWs had shot themselves in the foot.
After a lunch break, Miss Nathalie Dejonghe, Miss Emilie Deneve, Miss Eveline Vanhoecke, Mister Jan Vanhulle for Unia and Miss Christine Mussche argued in order. The psychological and emotional damage caused by ostracism / shunning was explained using the book ‘Ostracism’ from Professor Kipling Williams.
The sad stories of the many victims were again illuminated: The attempts to intimidate by the members of the non-profit organisation towards the victims and how, as a result of this, someone was admitted to the clinic with suicidal tendencies. It was stressed that this was not just any crime but an ‘ongoing crime’. The doctor’s certificates were brought out to refute the fact that no harm was ever proved. The victim stories were again highlighted to show the deep human suffering that JW’s cause through their shunning practices. Shunning was now also called ‘granting a social death sentence’ by our lawyers.
All victims who had taken civil action were given the opportunity by the President to say a few words.
In my speech, I told about how in 2006 I was accused (completely unjustly but with the presence of four ‘witnesses’) of practising spiritism and attending spiritist séances – in other words, witchcraft. I pointed at my judges of the time who were listening behind me. After referring to Exodus 22:18 and Leviticus 20:27 which state that you cannot let a witch live and must even stone her to death, I explained that in the 15th century, Torquemada burned at least 10,000 women at the stake as witches and that three times as many women were accused of witchcraft. When I mentioned the 15th century, I deliberately looked at Mister Ramon Scherer. I said that I assumed that this court had probably not yet sentenced too many witches. JWs do. But fortunately, they do not apply all biblical principles and I was just barely stoned. My experience illustrates that ‘applying biblical principles’ is very often outdated and has no place in our modern society. Stoning someone would today be called murder and so my request to the court was to also reaffirm shunning as a crime.
I also pointed out the various groups of victims of shunning, including people whose partners became a JW or returned to it, resulting in a bitter struggle over the children. The children who become estranged from their parents, who are missing their grandparents because their parents were disfellowshipped or disassociated, etc. I highlighted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is about the rights of ‘human beings’ and not of ‘an organisation’. JW’s violate Article 30 of the UDHR by appropriating ‘freedom of worship’ as an organisation in order to steal it from their members.
Finally, as an atheist, I took advantage of the willingness of JWs to explain biblical principles and asked the President if I too could read a passage from the Sermon on the Mount. And it was allowed! I read from and commented on Matthew 5:43-48. JWs take the role of victim and are ‘persecuted’ according to Mister De Beco. So I am labelled as an enemy. So here Jesus tells us to love our enemy, pray for them, and even salute me!
Because of the preponderance of JWs present, I did not ask the victims to stand. But the ‘surprise’ of who was present at the trial was great among JW. Their former member, not yet excluded brother, a JW attorney, came to sit by our side. And so did a daughter of a prominent and deceased circuit overseer. Also present was a woman who has 2 children with her partner (not married) and whose partner we only recently discovered was a disfellowshipped person. His attempts to return to Jehovah’s Witnesses has caused inhumane problems. She does not want to marry him and neither of them wants to leave the family they have created. Talk about a stalemate!
Benny Bonte pointed to the beautiful painting on the wall of the courtroom depicting the Good Samaritan. He told how we as victims were abandoned by our former fellow believers when they were still our fellow believers. He made a request to the court to be like the Good Samaritan and come to our aid.
The most weight was put on the shoulders of Cecile Temmerman who was a faithful JW for more than 35 years. Her son, Pascal Mertens, took part in the investigation into the JW’s paedophilia policy after infiltrating the Saint Nicholas congregation as an unbaptised person. Of course they did not DF him, but both Pascal and his mother were exposed as ‘bad association’. Although Cecile was not disfellowshipped, she has been undergoing shunning for three years now. To hear a dear, sweet 78-year-old woman, who has done nothing but live together with her intelligent son, telling about the damage she is still suffering was heart-breaking. She told of the many nightmares and how she still has to tie herself up in bed in order not to fall down or start wandering – something she never suffered from before and only occurred after the shunning treatment started.
Mister De Beco was allowed to finish with a short reaction of about 5 minutes. He was clearly emotional after hearing the victims’ stories. We saw him literally wringing his hands several times. He showed himself to be a good person who did his utmost as a lawyer with the means made available to him.
Unless the Court needed more time, the President declared that he would rule on 26 April and, in the event of a postponement, would communicate this in good time.
Afterwards, we no longer saw the haughty David Vandendriessche who walked as if nothing could happen to him. He apparently realises what we too realise: the JW have not made a very good impression in court. Also the faces of the attending circuit overseers and elders with their wives spoke volumes.
Finally, I can report that it has been 12 years since I ‘taught’ with a Bible in hand and that this was more than likely the last time I will address a JW audience