Since 2013, Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Childhood Sexual Abuse has been investigating how institutions like schools and churches respond to allegations of sexual crimes against children. The commission is now questioning members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, finding that there have been 1,006 reports of sexual abuse made to church leadership between 1950 and 2014. On August 15, a leader in the church testified that there are certain “spiritual” reasons why victims are deterred from reporting their assaults to police.
Both victims and church elders have been testifying before the commission since late July, with several women testifying that they were dissuaded from reporting their abuse to outside authorities and made to confront their abusers in internal proceedings before a committee of all-male elders. Victims were believed only if there were two or more witnesses to the abuse, or if the abuser willingly confessed.
The transcripts of the hearings have been made public, and they are harrowing to read. As Vice reported, one victim testified that she used to pray for Jehovah to put angels around her bed to keep her father from raping her. The same woman testified that her father quoted Scripture during the rapes, telling her it was her duty to be “obedient” to her.
On August 15, a senior church official, Geoffrey William Jackson, testified. Jackson, who was born in Australia but now lives in Brooklyn, did his best to explain why the church is so very reluctant to report sexual abuse allegations to the police. It’s all about Proverbs, you see.
Jackson’s testimony is, basically, that church leaders won’t report abuse unless they feel they’re required to do so by law. He said there is a “spiritual dilemma” at work that would keep them from reporting. Here’s the exchange between him and Angus Stewart, the attorney questioning him:
Q: Well, that’s what I’m driving at. Perhaps you can address that question specifically, which is this: is there a scriptural basis to that policy or practice, being not to report child sexual abuse allegations to the authorities unless required by law to do so?
Jackson: Thank you for the opportunity to explain this. I think very clearly Mr Toole pointed out that if the Australian Government, in all the States, was to make mandatory reporting, it would make it so much easier for us. But, let’s say, the spiritual dilemma that an elder has is to consider how did he get the information that he has been told? Now, there is a scriptural principle in the 22 book of Proverbs, chapter 25 ‐ and I’m not saying, Mr Stewart, that any one of these principles takes precedence, but it is something that the elder would need to take into consideration.
So Proverbs 25 verses 8 26 through 10. That’s on page 905: “Do not rush into a legal dispute, for what will you do later if your neighbour humiliates you? Plead your case with your neighbour, but do not reveal what you were told confidentially, so that the one listening will not put you to shame and you spread a bad report that cannot be recalled.”
Now, I’m not saying, Mr Stewart, this is the only factor, but it is one factor that all ministers of religion have grappled with when it comes to an issue such as this.
He also quotes from Peter, arguing that it’s up to adult victims to decide whether they want to report (and conveniently skirting the whole question of child victims and what one should do about them). He says the family “guardian,” in the event that they’re not the perpetrator of the abuse, has the right to decide whether or not to report.
The second issue is that elders are told, as is mentioned in 1 Peter, chapter 5, page 1625, verses 2 and 43 — do you have that, Mr Stewart?
Q. I do?
A. Yes: “Shepherd the flock of God under your care, serving as overseers, not under compulsion, but willingly before God; not for love of dishonest gain, but eagerly ‐‐and then this is the point ‐‐not lording it over those who are God’s inheritance, but becoming examples to the flock.”
The point being, here, another aspect that an elder needs to consider is he does not have the authority to lord it over or take over control of a family arrangement, where a person ‐ let’s say it is a victim who is 24 or 25 years of age ‐ has a right to decide whether or not they will report that incident. They also respect the family arrangement that the appointed guardian, who is not the perpetrator, has a certain right, too. So this is the spiritual dilemma that we have, because at the same time, we want to make sure that children are cared for.
So if the government does happen to make mandatory reporting, that will make this dilemma so much easier for us, because we all want the same goal, that children will be cared for properly.
In other words, “We would have reported sexual abuse, if you’d just told us we had to.”
Stewart also asked Jackson about cases where a child reports being abused by her father, asking if he understood that other children in the family could be at risk. “And by not reporting to the authorities, is the case not that the confidentiality of the one who reported is regarded as being more important than to protect those who are still at risk?”
Again, for Jackson, many knotty spiritual dilemmas from saying that yes, that abuse should be reported, but he’ll allow that families should be “encouraged” to report:
No, Mr Stewart, if I could just ‐ what I’m trying to highlight is there are several factors that make it hard for a minister of religion to make a clear‐cut or quick decision on this matter. Obviously, I think, again, what has been highlighted to the Commission, the elders should encourage the guardian of the child, or whoever is in that family arrangement that is not the perpetrator, to notify the authorities.
Jackson also says the “two witnesses” rule used in the Witnesses’ in-house judicial hearings has a spiritual basis, but insisted that it hasn’t prevented children who are being abused from being protected by the church:
Our literature has said, and we agree, that in most cases with children, with child abuse, they are telling the truth. That is an established thing. They are not making up these stories. So, immediately, the elders would put into place protection measures to help, to make sure that the family cares for the child and that due steps are taken to protect the child.
But he says, too, that judicial hearings are to determine whether someone has committed a sin serious enough to disfellowship them — excommunicating them from the religion. Child abuse is evidently not quite that serious, not always:
The judicial hearing is simply us determining whether a person, the perpetrator, has committed a sin that would warrant them being put out of the congregation. But that doesn’t mean to say we are stupid and that we think that someone hasn’t done something.
Stewart dryly points out that the Bible says that a man who rapes a woman in a field — a situation in which she is the only witness — should be stoned to death.
“Is the scriptural basis ‐ and you are the scholar, I’m not ‐ to the two‐witness rule really so solid,” he asks Jackson. “Or is there not space for your Governing Body to recognise that in cases of sexual abuse it need not apply?”
Jackson responds that in some cases — which cases, exactly, it’s still not quite clear — the victim can also be considered a witness.
Jackson also testified that while there haven’t been any particular discussion among church leadership about apologizing to victims of sexual abuse, it’s “perceivable” that they might consider doing so. He was a little vaguer on the point of whether they’d pay compensation to those victims:
Well, let me say, there are many schemes that we’ve had with regard to humanitarian areas, like flood victims, and so on. I know this is not related, I’m just explaining. The Governing Body is happy for our organisation to spend money helping persons ‐ how much more so someone who has been traumatised or affected in a bad way.
Terrence O’Brien, another senior church official in the Australian JW chapter, promised the commission on August 5 that the church will “review” its approach to sexual abuse allegations.
Jackson testifying by video conference. Screengrab via YouTube