Jehovah’s Witnesses have been covering up child abuse for decades.
In 2002, BBC’s Panorama aired a programme entitled “Suffer the little children” in which they highlighted the plight of survivors of sexual abuse from the Jehovah’s Witness community. The documentary opened with the story of a young woman in Scotland who told elders, the men who had been appointed to lead her congregation, that her father was sexually abusing her. They called her a liar and sent her home. What they failed to also tell her was that three years earlier, her father had admitted sexually abusing her sister.
Fast forward to 2015, when a nearly identical case was being litigated in the High Court in London (A v Watchtower  EWHC 1722 (QB)). The victim, named A for reasons of anonymity, claimed that she had been sexually abused by Peter Stewart, a ministerial servant in her local congregation in England. She went to the elders for help and they put the allegation to Peter Stewart who denied it. Without a second witness to her allegations, that was the end of A’s matter. What the elders also failed to tell her was that years earlier, Stewart had admitted molesting another young girl in the congregation.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses operate under what is commonly referred to as the two-witness rule, which means that for any sin committed, there must be two witnesses to the sin in order for the elders to take the matter forward and discipline the member. It matters not that the member has admitted to the same type of wrongdoing in the past. In cases of sexual abuse, there is rarely, if ever, a witness. For victims of sexual abuse who finally find the courage to come forward, their complaints are usually dismissed unless the perpetrator admits the abuse, which of course hardly ever occurs.
Not only did the elders in both congregations fail to tell either of the women that their perpetrators had admitted to abusing other children, they also did not report the allegations of abuse to the police. Whilst the Governing Body, the group which controls and directs the policies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, does not directly forbid members from reporting allegations or even admissions of abuse to the police, there is a general and well-fostered distrust of secular authorities. So much so, that there are several cases where after a Jehovah’s Witness has been convicted of sexual abuse, the elders of the congregation have continued to assert the individual’s innocence and support an appeal whilst at the same time shunning the victim. In the case of A, elders and ministerial servants, under oath and penalty of perjury, responded to many questions with “I don’t know” or “I can’t remember.”
The British government is currently consulting on mandatory reporting, which would make it a legal requirement for those working with children in various capacities to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, the proposals do not and would not extend to religious organisations, so elders and others within the Jehovah’s Witnesses will still not be required to report abuse to the authorities.
Unfortunately, little, if anything, has changed in how Jehovah’s Witnesses deal with child sexual abuse since the Panorama programme of 2002. Without the introduction of mandatory reporting of known or suspected child abuse and the inclusion of religious and voluntary organisations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there will be more and more victims like A and the young woman in Scotland, for many years to come.