I was sexually abused by a Jehovah’s Witness, but the church didn’t believe me – can I sue?
A disturbing, widespread culture of negligence around child sexual abuse by the Jehovah’s Witness church – including allowing abusers to return to the organisation – has been uncovered in the latest Royal Commission findings. Tindall Gask Bentley partner Mal Byrne explains.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was damning in its findings about the manner in which the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Australia has so far dealt with child sexual abuse victims who have reported the allegations to Church authorities. The Commission made the following findings:
- That 1006 members of the Church had allegations made against them of child sexual abuse, including 108 who were elders or ministerial servants at the time of the first allegation of alleged abuse.
- That 28 alleged abusers were appointed as elders or ministerial servants after an allegation of child sexual abuse was made against them.
- Whilst 401 alleged abusers were “dis-fellowshipped” as a result of allegations of child sexual abuse, 230 of those were later reinstated.
- Of those 401 alleged abusers who were dis-fellowshipped, 78 were dis-fellowshipped on more than one occasion as a result of a child sexual abuse allegation.
- That there was no evidence before the Commission that the Jehovah’s Witness Organisation made one report to police of the allegations made against the 1006 alleged abusers in their files.
- Whilst 161 of the alleged abusers were later convicted of a child sexual abuse offence, and 383 of the alleged abusers had been reported to and dealt with by police, there was no evidence that any of the police involvement was initiated by a report from the organisation itself.
- That the Commission was satisfied it was the general practice of the Jehovah’s Witness Organisation in Australia not to report allegations of abuse to the police unless required to do so by law. The organisation’s position was that where mandatory reporting was not required by law, it was up to the survivor to make the report.
The report also disclosed six highly-problematic practices of the organisation in response to abuse allegations:
- Complainant must face the abuser
The handbook entitled “Shepherd the Flock of God”, published by the Organisation, specifying how complaints of misconduct are to be handed by elders, states that a complainant alleging “wrong doings” must make their allegation in the presence of the accused unless there is some practical or logistical difficulty which might prevent him/her from doing so. The organisation responded by saying this practice had not been in place since 1995 for child sexual abuse victims, but there was certainly no document produced by the Church to the Royal Commission that indicated that the policy had changed and that members had been advised that the policy had changed.
- The Two-Witness Rule
The Commission found that the two-witness rule, whereby a complainant of child sexual abuse has to have their allegation either corroborated by the perpetrator or a second credible eye witness, was “unacceptable and wrong”. To have such a rule in place for abuse victims only served to re-traumatise the victim, noting that abusers go to great lengths to conceal their activities and would not conduct activities where there is a risk a second witness might see what is occurring. Not surprisingly, the Royal Commission recommended the organisation revise and modify its application to the two-witness rule for complaints of child sexual abuse.
- The absence of women from the complaints process
Whilst there was sufficient flexibility within the Church rules to allow women close to the victim, where permitted in certain circumstances, to convey the victim’s testimony to investigating elders, the Church’s requirement was that only elders can make findings as to the veracity of the allegations. Noting Church laws state only men can be elders, this meant only men can make the final decision. The Commission found excluding women from the making of the decision increased the potential for re-traumatisation of a victim and that the Church should modify its processes to allow women more say in the investigation and assessment of child sexual abuse allegations, and that victims should have greater freedom to divulge the allegations to women only if need be.
- The Absence of Support Person for Victims
In the handbook it was not clear that victims should be allowed to have a support person with them throughout the investigation process. The commission recommended it should be a matter of policy that a support person or persons be present if that is the wish of a victim.
- Sanctions and Risk Management
The Jehovah’s Witness Church currently allows child sex abusers to remain within the organisation if they are found to be “genuinely repentant”. An unrepentant abuser can be dis-fellowshipped or expelled but can be reinstated if they later demonstrate genuine repentance. This allows repentant abusers to have ongoing access to children within the congregation and community, which was a matter of great concern to the Commission. There were no structures or policies within the organisation to assess whether abusers were at risk of reoffending and decisions about dis-fellowship and reinstatement were based largely on the subjective assessment of their repentance rather than any objective consideration of the risk the person might reoffend.
The Commission found that victims of child sexual abuse who decided to leave the Jehovah’s Witness Organisation were subject to shunning by members of the congregation. The process was aggravated by the Church’s requirement that anyone wishing to leave had to formally “disassociate” from the Organisation by stating to the congregation that she/he is not going to be recognised or known as a Jehovah’s Witness. Alternatively, congregation members could decide to become “inactive” where it is accepted that they are not practising the faith, but that they remain within the organisation and as such, are still subject to its rules. This practice, of course, places victims of child sexual abuse in an extremely difficult position where the Organisation permits the abuser to remain. The victim then has to make a choice between remaining within the organisation and being constantly exposed to the perpetrator or actively dissociating from the Organisation and being shunned.
The test for whether an institution is legally liable for child sexual abuse perpetrated within its ranks is whether the Church knew or ought to have known the abuser was a risk to children or that the abuser was committing abuse and did not take reasonable action to alleviate the risk. In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church, the Church is not only at risk of being liable for the abuse itself but also for aggravating the injury to the victim caused by the abuse through re-traumatising the victim through its institutional responses. The sum total of the institutional response of the Jehovah’s Witness Church is so far below the standard expected of an institution, even by the standards of bygone decades, that victims who have reported abuse and have been exposed to the Church’s long-standing practices are likely to have strong claims.
Mal Byrne specialises is sexual abuse compensation claims. For a discreet discussion about your matter, call Mal on (08) 8250 6668, send him an email or register online.