The police entered the Kingdom Hall in Mandal, in the very south of Agder, Norway, and searched the congregation’s safe in an investigation of a rape. The Jehovah Witnesses protest.
Originally published in Norwegian on Faedrelandsvennen by Tarjei Leer-Salvesen and Connie Bentrud.
The Scandinavian Office of Jehovah’s Witnesses recently sent an official letter to the Norwegian Police Authority requesting a meeting.
The religious community is upset that the Norwegian police searched a safe and interrogated some of the elders in the congregation in Mandal. The search was first reported in the newspaper Vårt Land.
Fædrelandsvennen knows that the background to the case is that a woman in the Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Mandal reported her husband for rape.
As far as Fædrelandsvennen knows, the elders must have had more conversations with the then couple. In such conversations, two elders are always present, and notes are used in the religious community’s internal processes and any religious judicial committees. The meaning of “Elder” in this context is not an indication of age, but rather is a position of trust in the congregation.
When the woman after some time chose to report the case to the police, a full investigation was initiated. The person responsible for the prosecution was Monica Grøtte Estenstad in the Trøndelag police district, as the incident is said to have taken place there.
The police questioned both the woman and the man, as well as several elders in the congregation in Mandal with knowledge of the case. Under police questioning, the man is said to have denied raping his then wife.
In the internal process of the religious community, the man is said to have been demoted and lost his position of trust, but had not been expelled. As a rule, it is sufficient to show sincere repentance for a sin to be allowed to remain in the church.
One of the elders present at the talks with the couple refused to explain himself to the police and invoked clergy/penitent privilege with respect to what he knew about the case.
Working on it
Section 119 of the Criminal Justice Act contains provisions which state that principals in registered religious communities are excluded from testifying “about something that is entrusted to them in their position”. This provision may also be used by assistants, and for documents containing such information.
But the witness exclusion does not always apply. The duty to avert serious criminal acts are enshrined in the Penal Code, which means that even those who are excluded from testifying must report or avert serious criminal acts.
In the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there is no distinction between lay people and “priests.” In the letter to the Police Authority, however, the religious community gives the impression that the elders in the congregation are to be regarded as priests, and believes that these have a duty of confidentiality.
“It is important for us to emphasize that we do not protect anyone who breaks the law, but at the same time it is also important that a believer can seek out our elders (priests) in confidence that the content of the conversation is treated confidentially.” it is stated in the letter to the Police Authority.
Dismissed on evidence
At each of these talks with the elders present, notes are taken for use in the congregation’s internal processes. When the interrogations of the elders and the man did not succeed, the police wanted to obtain these notes.
A court ruling from Kristiansand District Court gave the police permission to search the Kingdom Hall in Mandal and seize archive material from the congregation’s safe.
Police attorney Monica Grøtte Estenstad confirmed the search, but says no seizures were made.
Fædrelandsvennen knows that the notes the elders make in such processes are no longer to be stored in the safe of the congregation. They will be destroyed, in line with the organization’s updated archive guidelines following the introduction of the EU Privacy Regulation (GDPR).
In the beginning of April, the rape case was dismissed on the lack of evidence.
Such dismissal typically means that police believe a criminal act has taken place as described by the plaintiff, but that the evidence will not hold to have a possible perpetrator convicted at trial.
Will not comment
Neither the Mandal Congregation nor the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters want to comment on the matter.
Per Arne Apeland, who is the coordinator for the congregation in Mandal, says he does not want to comment on the police action against the congregation, and refers to the organization’s regional head office for Scandinavia, in Denmark.
Fædrelandsvennen has sent a number of questions to the regional head office.
Letter from the Branch to the Police Authority
Download a copy of the letter from Jehovah’s Witnesses in Norway to the Police Authority: