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NETHERLANDS: Jehovah’s Witnesses do everything they can to get hold of sensitive data from abuse investigations

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Jehovah's Witnesses doing everything they can to access sensitve data
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Victims of abuse who shared their story in an investigation into abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses at Utrecht University fear that they could be identified as the organization tries to obtain the complete investigation data.

Originally published on TROUW by Rianne Oosterom en Marinde van der Breggen on 26 april 2021.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses did everything in their power to obtain the written testimonials from persons who participated in an abuse investigation at Utrecht University. Participants now fear that the religious organization will use this data to find out their identity in order to question them about hanging out their dirty laundry.

This includes written in-depth interviews and the raw data from the questionnaires completed by some 750 members and ex-members. Almost 300 of them said they had been abused themselves. Utrecht University partially rejected a request to release the documents, which prompted the Jehovah’s Witnesses to file an appeal last week.

The study, published early last year, found that the way Jehovah’s Witnesses deal with abuse is traumatic for the victims. The organization, with 30,000 members in the Netherlands, often deals with abuse in private. Sixty percent of the witnesses and ex-witnesses who cooperated even gave a score of 1 in their dealing with abuse.

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Using FOIA to get the interview reports

The Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) at various ministries to obtain as many documents about the investigation as possible, but they did not get everything they wanted. Because the research was carried out on behalf of the WODC, part of the Ministry of Security and Justice, it also falls under the FOIA.

Now that the religious organization has lodged an objection, the university has to make a new decision based on their arguments. If they don’t like it, they can go to court. According to victim organization Reclaimed Voices, the Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly intend to do so. The university board will make a decision within three weeks, but the chance that the board will revise the decision is nil.

For lead researcher Kees van den Bos, “protecting research participants is paramount,” he says. “This is very sensitive matter that can also be traceable anonymously because it concerns a small community. For example, people have said in their own words what happened to them and by connecting answers you quickly figure out who it is. We must avoid the possibility of a witch hunt.”

“A signal to its own members”

Whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a chance of success in court is unclear. Apart from that, this step does not exactly contribute to an open culture within the organization to talk about abuse, says Frances Peters, who supports many ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses with traumatic experiences in her therapy practice. According to her, something else is going on in the background. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses want to send a signal to their own members: we are doing this to protect the group from lies and slander.”

“They use the FOIA, which should serve the public interest, to get as much data as possible with which they can combat the investigation,” says Raymond Hintjes of Reclaimed Voices, a foundation for the victims. He calls any attempt to find out the identity of participants “a gigantic breach of confidentiality”. “I believe the request for this data is a disregard for victims of abuse and their needs. The slightest show of empathy is nowhere to be found”, he says.

“Only anonymized documents”

In response to a list of questions from Trouw, a press officer from the Jehovah’s Witnesses gives a short answer: “Our request focuses on anonymized documents with full respect for everyone’s privacy and in accordance with the GDPR. Since the entire procedure is still ongoing, I cannot say much more about it”, he writes.

In January, the Jehovah’s Witnesses tried unsuccessfully to prevent the publication of the investigative report through summary proceedings. They would not stop there, the organization immediately said. Currently, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are preparing substantive proceedings against the report.

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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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