Did the Australian Royal Commission report really uncover hundreds of “hidden” cases? Or was a religious minority unfairly targeted?
First in a series of four articles
by Holly Folk
In the past five years, three reports about Jehovah’s Witnesses and sexual abuse came out from Australia, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Studying these reports is a work in progress for me, but I am sharing here some preliminary thoughts. I would like to preface this with an acknowledgement of the importance of the issues that I am taking up. I understand from a personal perspective the seriousness of sexual violence and crimes in the family. I have an enormous amount of sympathy for the victims. I hope that they receive justice from society, and that perpetrators everywhere are brought to justice.
But I also think it is important to think clearly about these issues, and to direct our energies efficiently so that those really guilty can be brought to justice. We cannot afford to misdirect our attention and use certain groups as scapegoats. If we do this, the risk is that those really committing crimes will be allowed to go unpunished.
In 2019, the Atlantic Monthly reported on what they called “the secret database of child abuse” kept by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the past few years, there have been many reports in tabloids on this topic, but the prestige of the Atlantic article prompted the BBC and other major media outlets to take up the story. Consequently, they have given respectability to a meme that had circulated in tabloid media for a number of years, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization is maintaining a secret database that protects pedophiles. I regard this as very unfortunate, because there is an awful lot here that is very deliberately misleading. Let me explain why.
The first report I want to address came out from Australia. I will discuss the Dutch and Belgian report in a subsequent article. In Australia, preliminary reports were published in 2014 and 2015, and the final text in 2017. They made quite a big impression on global news when they came out. CNN was among the media that picked up the story immediately, claiming that 1,000 and more Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia had been named as child abusers. They referred to something that was called the Case Study Report 29 from the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Based on this document, the media reported that there had been 1,006 perpetrators who had committed sexual crimes in Australia, and who had been hidden by the Jehovah’s Witness organization. But was this true?
The “Case Study Report 29” was one report from a series of studies conducted by The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Note that the focus of the Royal Commission was sexual crimes against minors in institutions across Australian society, both religious and secular. This is different from the situation in the Netherlands or Belgium, where reports were prepared dealing with the Jehovah’s Witnesses only. However, most of the studies focused on individual facilities, run by either religious organizations or secular entities. For the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Royal Commission targeted the religion itself. This was qualitatively different treatment, compared to how the Commission studied the Catholic Church and other faiths.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Childhood Sexual Abuse was conducted with certain departures from standard procedures for Royal Commission investigations, which affected the Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular and the inquiry as a whole. The Royal Commissions Act 1902 was amended by the Commonwealth Parliament, to allow for a special process for hearing complainants. The decision to allow information obtained in “private sessions” was made ostensibly both to protect the privacy of abuse victims, and also to handle the large number of complainants the Commission received about a great number of religious and secular organizations. These “private sessions” had a lowered bar for evaluating the credibility of information. They were done privately, and it seems that in at least some cases, the names of complainants were removed from the written accounts provided to the Royal Commission. The “private sessions” did not allow for cross-examination, and the Royal Commission acknowledged that their information was not the equivalent of sworn testimony or courtroom-level evidence. These decisions affected the conclusions drawn about many groups. Still, out of more than 4,000 private sessions, only 70 concerned the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When the Royal Commission came to deal with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they only conducted two formal interviews (in addition to the private sessions), with reference to cases from 1989 and 1992, respectively. Mostly the Royal Commission looked at disciplinary reports concerning sexual abuse that the Jehovah’s Witnesses willingly provided to the inquiry.
Before discussing findings, it is important to clarify an important methodological decision made by the Royal Commission with special regard to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Commission elected to conflate family child sexual abuse with institutional abuse.The reports done in Europe took a similar approach, leading to highly corrupted results in all three studies.
There is actually no evidence that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are guilty of what is typically considered institutional abuse, which we see in many other religious organizations, and which was the focus of Australia’s Royal Commission. For one thing, the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a set clergy in the same way that the Catholic Church has a bureaucracy of lifelong people whose entire vocation is religious work. They do not have institutional programs for children. They basically operate as lay organization. There are no cases of children who are participating in Sunday School being abused by Sunday School teachers, nor of pastors victimizing adolescents in summer camps or retreats, simply because Jehovah’s Witnesses do not operate Sunday Schools, summer camps, or retreats for teenagers.
When the Royal Commission was reviewing the files and the information received from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, they elected to convert over to “institutional abuse” any cases of sexual abuse that had happened within the family that were reported to the elders. This was a mistake, since “institutional” abuse and domestic abuse are different phenomena.
This point is critical. From a number of sociological studies, we know that the rate of sexual abuse of children is unfortunately high. Large numbers of children in societies around the world report having been sexual abused. Studies done in multiple countries suggest that a certain proportion of men worldwide are prone to victimizing children—possibly as many as two to three percent of adult males worldwide. This is something that was found, among other places, in the studies done in Australia. Sadly, we need to anticipate that in any large contemporary human population group we will see a significant percentage of sexual abuse of children. Abuse can happen quite separately from how any individual religion or other social institution is operating, because it is not the beliefs of the organization that are driving the behavior.
We can now clarify the “1,006 perpetrator” statistic. It reflects the sum of all disciplinary reports and referrals, proven and unproven, that had been submitted to the Jehovah’s Witness organization in Australia over a 65-year period. Half of those cases dealt with incest within the family household, committed by parents or siblings. Additional cases within that statistic concerned relatives other than parents or siblings, and others reported on abuse by friends of the victim’s family. In other words, the vast majority of these 1,006 disciplinary reports concerned family sexual abuse and not “institutional” abuse, done by anybody who could be considered clergy or a religious worker for the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization.
In its study of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Royal Commission was interested in how discipline of members was being conducted, in terms of pastoral counseling and pastoral care. The Royal Commission ruled that the disclosure of information immediately made the religious organization liable. One should note, this was highly discriminatory treatment, in comparison how the Royal Commission evaluated other religious groups. Nearly all the Christian churches that comprise the religious majority in Australia offer some type of pastoral counseling. Yet the Jehovah’s Witnesses were singled out for their pastoral care response.
Notwithstanding the “secret database” meme, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have maintained, for many years, a policy requiring that all reports concerning a minor at immediate risk of being abused be immediately forwarded to law enforcement. Today, there are mandatory laws in the United States and some other countries, including Australia. But the situation was different when mandatory reporting laws were not in place. We need to think very clearly about the rapidity with which standards have evolved. I believe this evolution to be positive. What is unfair is to discuss cases that happened when legal standards were different as if they had happened now.
The accusation that there was a cover-up is also not true. Of the 1,006 case files that the Jehovah’s Witnesses provided to the Royal Commission, 383 had been reported to the police at the time they had happened, and 161 had resulted in convictions. The notion that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had hidden information, or had not cooperated with law enforcement, or that these cases had not been brought to justice when they were reviewed and regarded as believable, is simply not true.
Over 65 years, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have had few cases of institutional perpetrators. 902 of the 1,006 case files in Australia did not concern a Jehovah’s Witness official, and 54 of the remaining 104 allegations involved familial abuse committed by elders or ministerial servants. These alleged incidents did not happen at Kingdom Halls or other official premises, and they were not in a context where Jehovah’s Witnesses were officially responsible for children. In other words, over a period of many decades, it appears there was less than one allegation per year that may or may not have involved institutional abuse committed by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Australia maintains that right now, they receive two to three calls a month concerning family sexual abuse. Considering the size of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in Australia (about 70,000), this is unfortunately within the general rates of abuse in modern society.
One should note, the Royal Commission referred 551 “Jehovah’s Witnesses cases” in these files to law enforcement, and it is possible that some of these are ongoing. We do not know. But something we do know is that, over the past five years, we have not seen in Australia a massive wave of arrests and prosecutions of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as it should have happened had the Royal Commission “discovered” a substantial number of “hidden” cases.
Australia’s Royal Commission made many recommendations to religions in Australia in general, and they recommended to the government that a mandatory reporting law be imposed across the board on all organizations working with children. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have never opposed mandatory reporting. For the record, I strongly believe in mandatory reporting.
But the Royal Commission also made three recommendations that drill down into the religious freedom of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They recommended that the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization abandon the application of its two-witness rule in disciplinary cases involving complaints of child sexual abuse. The Witness organization should revise its policies, so that women are involved in processes related to investigating and determining allegations of child sexual abuse. And the Jehovah’s Witness organization should no longer require its members to shun those who disassociate from the organization when the disassociated person is a former victim of child sexual abuse.
In reality, there is a substantial flexibility for what is called the “two-witness rule” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, regarding complaints of sexual abuse, especially concerning cases of vulnerable minors. From my own research about the application of the two-witness rule, I think that the description in the media is highly overdrawn. The rule does not mean you need two people to catch somebody in flagrante delicto. It is much more a case of a reasonable amount of evidence coming forward from two different parties or two different perspectives. Other Christian religions have similar rules.
Of prime importance, one should not lose sight of the intended context for the “two-witness rule.” It is meant to structure the circumstances for discipline within the religious community, not to limit how complaints are handled outside the Jehovah’s Witness organization. The rule structures the ecclesiastical process for determining whether an alleged wrongdoer can remain in their congregation. The rule, however, does not prevent someone from reporting a complaint to secular authorities.
The Jehovah’s Witness disciplinary process is meant to discipline members. It is not meant to be a substitute for secular law enforcement. If there is one thing I have seen very clearly all the way through my research on this issue, is that the Jehovah’s Witness organization supports the bringing forward of criminal complaints to law enforcement by victims of abuse. They do not think that members should be censored for bringing any type of criminal complaint forward before the law. How their internal discipline work is a different matter, and one secular states should not interfere with.
In terms of the gender question, the Jehovah’s Witness organization operates under the perception of gender complementarity. So do a great number of other religious organizations and religions around the world, including the Catholic Church and the vast majority of variants of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
When we talk about the issue of shunning, this needs to be understood more precisely. It is not applied to all members who leave the religion, but to those individuals who have either formally disassociated or who have been expelled for serious wrongdoing. Even so, I acknowledge the pain that this issue brings to people. I understand very personally the effect that this can have over the course of generations when a family is broken apart by religious disagreement. But I also think that it is not the place of a government to intervene in the choices that consenting adults make. Again, many religions have the standard of no longer maintaining ties with people who have left their tradition.
These Australian recommendations should trouble anyone who cares about civil liberties. They regulate beliefs held and practices used by many religions, and are an unacceptable breach of the separation of church and state.