The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, which serves at the head of the Jehovah Witness organization, may have kept a database of tens of thousands of instances of child abuse and paid millions to keep them hidden.
According to The Atlantic, in 1997 the church allegedly sent out a 12-question survey to its 10,883 U.S. Kingdom Halls in order to enable Jehovah’s Witness leaders to record instances of child abuse within the community. The questions focused not just on the abuse but also how the abusers were viewed by other members of the organization and who might know about it. The reports were then mailed to The Watchtower’s headquarters in blue envelopes, and the information was reportedly scanned into a Microsoft SharePoint file but never reported to authorities.
An ex-Jehovah’s Witness, Mark O’Donnell, is now working to make sure these documents see the light of day:
Among the papers Mark showed me that day was a series of letters about a man from Springfield, Massachusetts, who had been disfellowshipped—a form of excommunication—three times. When the man was once again reinstated, in 2008, someone working in a division of Watchtower wrote to his congregation, noting that in 1989 he was said to have “allowed his 11-year-old stepdaughter to touch his penis … on at least two occasions.”
The children who reported their abuse say that leaders within the organization ignored what was happening to them based on something called the “two-witness rule,” which, conveniently for authority figures looking to ignore crimes, provides Biblical justification for covering up child molestation:
Rooted in Deuteronomy 19:15—“No single witness may convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit”—the two-witness rule states that, barring a confession, no member of the organization can be officially accused of committing a sin without two credible eyewitnesses who are willing to corroborate the accusation. Critics say this rule has helped turn Witness communities into havens for child molesters, who rarely commit crimes in the presence of bystanders.
This isn’t the first time the Watchtower has been accused of hiding child abuse. In 2014, George Lopez was awarded $13.5 million after he sued the Watchtower, claiming one of its leaders molested him in 1986 when he was seven years old. Another former member of the church, Candace Conti, says she was sexually abused at nine by a man she was paired with for community service and that her abuse was ignored because of the two witness rule. In 2012, a jury awarded her $28 million, which might have been the largest sum ever awarded to a single accuser in a child abuse case against a religious organization, but a judge reduced the amount to less than $3 million on appeal.
During Lopez’s trial, an attorney for the Watchtower said that the U.S. headquarters had received 775 blue envelopes from 1997 to 2001 but did not say how many had been collected since then.