When there is abuse within the family, there is little help from the community: What is behind such descriptions by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses? The research conducted by the BR political magazine Kontrovers decribes a parallel justice system under the cloak of the Bible.
Originally Published on BR24 on May 12, 2021 by Anna Feininger, Alexander Loos and Rebecca Reinhard.
Reports of sexual abuse within religious groups has increased in recent years. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are also becoming aware of more and more cases from abroad. But how is it in Germany? Within 24 hours of research by BR, around 20 people reported their concerns to an Internet forum for former witnesses. Including a woman who is ready to go public with her story – even if she believes that it could mean her expulsion from the community.
She calls herself Manuela, is 40 years old, and grew up in a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Lake Tegernsee. She now lives up by the North Sea, but at the beginning of shooting the report she is still officially a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. But now she has doubts because she was abused as a teenager and still cannot comprehend how the community has dealt with it.
Community Through Expulsion: The Structure of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Jehovah’s Witnesses meet in small churches: the meetings. Closer contact with the outside world, with so-called worldly people, is undesirable. Because Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that all people will die in the battle of Armageddon and only Jehovah’s Witnesses will survive. So if someone chooses to leave the congregation or is expelled, friends and family within the community break off contact. Because of this, it is often difficult for outsiders to gain insight into the communities.
Manuela tells the reporters of the BR political magazine Kontrovers that she was abused by her father as a child. Again and again he is said to have touched and harassed her while she was an adolescent. He is said to have even raped her sister, says Manuela. When she confided in her mother, however, her father denied everything.
That is why Manuela sought help from the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses: In the event of conflicts within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the so-called elders – always male Jehovah’s Witnesses – are the persons of contact and the decision-makers in all situations. Manuela says she turned to an elder she trusted. But nothing happened because the father denied the incident and there were no witnesses.
Handling Conflicts Among Jehovah’s Witnesses
If an accused disputes allegations – such as those of Manuela – at least two witnesses are required so that possible consequences can be drawn. The exact procedure for dealing with conflicts within the community is regulated in the so-called elders’ book.
If an incident is considered proven, a so-called judicial committee is formed: This consists of three elders who hear the accused – and, if necessary, those affected – and then make a decision. If the accused does not regret the incident, he will be expelled from the religious community. If he shows remorse, he can stay.
However, if there are no witnesses, no judicial committee will be formed and a possible case will not be heard. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that if this happens, Jehovah will make appropriate decisions.
That Manuela is now addressing her story to the public could lead to her being expelled from the community, she believes. But: If Manuela’s allegations are true, it would mean that Jehovah’s Witnesses did nothing to protect them.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Position on Abuse
Research by the BR political magazine Kontrovers shows that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been dealing with the subject of abuse for a long time. In the rulebook of the elders alone, the topic comprises an entire chapter. “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child sexual abuse,” it says among other things. Affected members are now even free to seek help from the police.
But there are also guidelines available that are aimed at teenagers and instructing them on how to prevent sexual abuse. There it says, among other things: “Do not send false signals. Do not flirt or wear anything provocative, you could give us the impression that you are looking for a sexual adventure or at least you have nothing against it.”
Abuse in Two Opposing Systems
So, are victims of sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness community even to be complicit? Udo Obermayer was an elder in a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses for decades. Why is the subject of abuse among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although it appears to be an issue, is apparently rarely reported? He says that the belief system of Jehovah’s Witnesses has to do with it.
“If you really believe that God will soon destroy all people and none will survive except Jehovah’s Witnesses, then why go to an institution that is destined for destruction?”, says Udo Obermayer, former Jehovah’s Witness.
The former elder never had to attend judicial committees. However, his criticism is directed towards the lack of sufficient legal or psychological training of members. Meanwhile, Udo Obermayer has resigned from Jehovah’s Witnesses and founded an association to help former Witnesses.
Manuela draws conclusions
Manuela has also broken away from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and has left the community. It’s a new beginning for her, as she explained to the Kontrovers reporters.
“For me it felt like the handcuffs were suddenly opening. I take a deep breath, sit up straight and think to myself: Yes, and now I’m blooming. I’m better.”, says Manuela, a former Jehovah’s Witness.
Meanwhile, on behalf of the Federal Government, the Education Commission for Child Sexual Abuse deals with cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses. Manuela hopes that other affected people will also find the courage to seek help outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ system.