Merel participated in the investigation into the handling of sexual abuse among the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Since that leaked, people have come to her door making accusations. “Nowadays I first check who is at the door.”
Originally published on Trouw by Rianne Oosterom and Marinde van der Breggen on 26 April 2021
How did she get it into her head to reproach the name of Jehovah? Merel is waiting for her children at the edge of the schoolyard when she is suddenly approached by two other parents, also Jehovah’s Witnesses. They berate her for participating in the investigation conducted by Utrecht University into the handling of sexual abuse by the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A third parent joins them. One of the three is even an elder. It’s three to one. Her children watch the scene in silence.
When she found out through newspaper clippings from Trouw – which a friend gave her – that Utrecht University had opened a contact point in early 2019 for members and ex-members who wanted to share their experiences, Merel deliberated and weighed in whether she would do so. The letter from the board of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to all congregations had stated that participation in this study was “of course a personal choice.” “They leave the choice up to you, but most of them don’t read it as gray, but as black: don’t participate. I know that there are people therefore who have deliberately not cooperated.”
Eventually, Merel made two reports: one about sexual abuse by a family member in her youth, and one about sexual violence in her marriage, which she recently fled. She hoped to be able to contribute to improving the care for victims. Because she had experienced this first-hand, it left a lot to be desired. When she revealed the childhood abuse, the perpetrator had already died, so there was little that could be done about it. But there had been little pastoral support. Just like later. After leaving her partner, after he started becoming violent against the children, she was told she was escaping her responsibility as a woman, she says.
Loyalty torn apart
Although Merel was in the process of breaking away from the faith community at the time, her loyalty was still with the organization. When the call came to ask if she would participate in an in-depth interview as part of the investigation, she decided to first inquire of the elders how they felt about it. When they told her that no further guidelines were known, she decided to participate, but kept that choice silent.
But that was to no avail. After publication of the report, attentive readers recognized passages about Merel’s troubled marriage situation. It resulted in the scene in the schoolyard and led some of her fellow believers to stop talking to her. “I have received calls from all the congregations where I have been a member from people who just wanted to give their opinion. There have even been people at the door. Nowadays I first check who is at the door before I answer,” she says.
Research data demand
She has no doubt that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are trying to find out who shared their story with the researchers by requesting the raw research data from the university. “Knowing the organization, I think they want to try to bring down all those stories and thus the research. For example, I have already written a letter twice asking to unsubscribe, which they refuse, because they think I am too unstable to make such a decision. They could use that to brush my story off the table.”
About 300 victims participated in the university’s investigation, but according to Merel there are many more people who did not report. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses spoke of a smear campaign against the organization, and I think the brothers and sisters saw it that way. In all the congregations that I have been a part of, I know that there are brothers and sisters who have experienced sexual abuse and it has not been dealt with successfully.”
Victims receive zero recognition
The results of the report were therefore nothing new to her, although it was nice to receive external recognition for what she has experienced, she says. She is especially concerned that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not using the investigation to help the victims. “They have already experienced something very bad, which has not been dealt with properly. With the response to this report, [victims] still get zero recognition. As if you were hit in the face again.”
Merel says it is a pity that the care of the community, to which the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to profess, was not there in practice. “When I came into contact with people and professional assistance from outside the organization, it made a world of difference. I think that is a pity, because I wish the brothers and sisters who have had to deal with this had a listening ear or had an arm put around them.”