The two Northern European countries commissioned reports on the issue that were largely publicized, but both their methodology and conclusions are objectionable.
by Holly Folk
Second in a series of four articles. Read article 1.
In a previous article, I discussed problems raised by the part of the inquiry of the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse dealing with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In this follow-up article, I will talk about similar reports from Belgium and the Netherlands, which were influenced by the Australian Royal Commission. The release of the studies in Belgium and the Netherlands have set a fire that is quickly spreading around the world. This issue is actively continuing in the United States and in several other countries, with a campaign and ongoing accusations of there being a large Jehovah’s Witnesses cover-up.
The reports from Belgium and the Netherlands were different from the Australian study in one important way. They singled out Jehovah’s Witnesses only, while the Australian investigation dealt with sexual abuse in a large number of both secular and religious institutions.
Starting in 2017, a number of articles ran in a Dutch newspaper called “Trouw,” which means “Truth.” The newspaper has a national distribution, but it operates with the backing of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. In other words, it is a publication with an active faith commitment behind it. The articles accused the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization of covering up or hiding cases of sexual abuse. The journalists worked very closely with at least one activist organization of former Jehovah’s Witnesses, Reclaimed Voices, who provided what they claimed to be complaints from more than 200 ex-members. It was because of these articles that two different studies were launched in Europe over the past couple of years.
One study was by the Centre for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations (CIAOSN), which is a Belgian anti-cult organization. The CIAOSN report cited the newspaper articles published in the Netherlands as the rationale for running a study of the activities of the Jehovah’s Witness organization in Belgium. The main basis for the Belgian report was thus the “Trouw” series.
The authors of the CIAOSN study claimed that inquiries in the Netherlands had uncovered three complaints that had possible ties to Belgium. In fact, these three cases were allegedly reported from the Netherlands by Reclaimed Voices. The CIAOSN investigators argued that on that basis, an inquiry should go forward and the recommendations from the Australian inquiry should be adopted in Belgium as well.
Yet there was little information that was found or discovered in the Belgian investigation, which relied primarily on newspaper accounts. Instead, the report presented all sort of derogatory information about the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in general, unrelated to the issue of abuse. It is difficult to review the Belgian report, because there is truly little in terms of original research or data about Belgium. It is not enough to say that compared to what it promised, the document is a disappointment. The report fails to meet even basic standards for social science research.
The Belgian study was commissioned and released first. It came before the Dutch one, so there is an overlap in terms of their construction and their being brought forward. It can be confusing to read one report without the other, because both the Belgian and Dutch studies reference inquiries made in the other country. At first glance the studies appear to corroborate each other, but a closer read reveals that they were scaffolded to be mutually supporting.
The CIAOSN study was done in cooperation with the Belgian Parliament. And, similarly, there is government backing behind the study in the Netherlands, which was done by a team of scholars from the University of Utrecht. Their report is called “Sexual Abuse and Willingness to Report Within the Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The study was commissioned in cooperation with the Center for the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety, with the help of certain government agencies that in the Netherlands have been accused of having politicized scholarship.
In the Utrecht study, the researchers claimed to have examined 751 complaints. As with the study by the Royal Commission in Australia (discussed in the first article in this series), this number was quickly converted by the media into the idea that there were more than 700 Jehovah’s Witness perpetrators running at large in society in the Netherlands. I reviewed this study with some colleagues, and the review is available on the Web site of the Dutch government.
The investigators in the Netherlands ran a study with two components. First, it had an online internet questionnaire, and it also had an email address box where participants could send responses. Note, the study was not so much a survey as an invitation for people to post complaints.
The Utrecht researchers made several highly questionable decisions in conducting this study. First, they did not vet the replies for unusable answers. Rather, they decided to include all responses, complete or incomplete and regardless of credibility. And they chose to consider each response as a separate, ostensibly valid accusation.
The “751 complaints” thus represent all the responses to both contact points—the questionnaire and the email address. This is a massive departure from standard practices for research. Institutional review boards around the world recommend special precautions for the collection of electronic data. “Recruitment” and “authentication of participants” are known problems for electronic surveys, because corruption of data can so easily happen.
Incomplete responses were accepted as complaints. If a study participant lost Internet service while writing and had to resubmit their answers, each attempt to resend was counted as a valid accusation from a different person. In fact, the Jehovah’s Witnesses provided the court with an affidavit from a member who experienced this when trying to answer the online questionnaire. The respondent, who is a survivor of abuse, discovered that when her session “timed out,” her successive attempts to complete the survey were counted as multiple complaints.
Nor did the Utrecht researchers factor in the probability of false accusations. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are controversial to people who do not understand their religion, and it is not hard to imagine malefactors using the study to spread false information. But the parameters of the Utrecht study practically invited trolls to write something disparaging about the Jehovah’s Witness organization. As someone who is familiar with the requirements of Institutional Review Boards, I feel the studies are completely lacking in ethical oversight.
Another issue is that the Belgian and Dutch studies, just as the Australian one before them, worked with the notion that family abuse could and should be converted into institutional abuse. Family sexual abuse is a grave injustice under all circumstances. But as I discussed in the first article of this series, the true rate of abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses needs to be compared to abuse rates among the general population. To date, there is no evidence that Jehovah’s Witnesses have higher rates of abuse, or higher rates of “failure to report” abuse in families than those who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses.
An additional concern with the Utrecht study, and the ones from Belgium and Australia as well, relates to the very low number of people interviewed for the inquiries. The CIAOSN study did not include personal questioning at all. You may remember that the Australian study lowered the bar for evidence obtained in “special sessions,” and only consulted two survivors formally, in addition to others heard in “private sessions.” The Dutch researchers interviewed only ten people in conjunction with their survey. Among the ten interviewees in the Netherlands, four were not raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they were likely reporting incidents in the past about situations where the Jehovah’s Witnesses had absolutely no role whatsoever. Seven of the ten cases were more than five years old at the time of the study. If for any of these cases a police report were warranted, why wasn’t it filed at the time of commission, and why has a report still not been filed?
There are other problems that involve all three reports. One sees encouragement and collusion with anticult associations and activists, who conveyed information to the respective governments and proposed that investigations take place. And in none of these studies have there been any questions about credibility of information.
The similarities across the reports themselves are troubling as well. I teach college writing, and recognize when there is too much textual similarity. My first reaction when I read the Belgian and the Dutch reports was that, if two students had handed me these two documents saying they each had written them, I would have doubted their honesty. The structure and lines of arguments in the papers are identical, and sections of text are so close, that it almost looks like cut-and-paste from one report to the other.
There is a deliberate derogatory framing of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in all of these texts, and they make similar arguments. These reports devote much more of their textual attention to negative descriptions of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion than to the complaints of sexual abuse themselves. Inter alia, there is a persistent accusation that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a “closed society,” which I feel is inaccurate in two ways. It is inaccurate about “closed” groups, and it is inaccurate to present the Jehovah’s Witnesses as closed.
“Closed groups” is a typology that works as a generic descriptor. It is a sociological paradigm, which many sociologists think is overdrawn. While useful for organizing data with shared characteristics, social typologies were never meant to predict or explain how a religious group would conduct itself.
It is also inaccurate to think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “closed” group. “Permeability” exists at a personal level even in groups that have strong social boundaries. It is simply not true that the Witnesses do not have regular dealings with the outside world. These are people who have businesses, who are active in society. They do not live in some kind of bunker where they are not able to communicate with the world. There are clearly families and individuals who are much more tightly within the social network of the Jehovah’s Witness organization, but I myself have friends who are Jehovah’s Witnesses. We can go out for coffee or hamburgers, and even sit down together to drink a beer.
The causality between religion and sexual abuse is not clear. These reports assume that strong beliefs code with higher abuse, but this assumption is based on stereotypes, and overlooks the fact that abuse is endemic in modern society. In fact, the social views of a religious organization like the Jehovah’s Witnesses might actually drive down the possibility of sexual abuse. Most religious abuse happens through opportunities. Conservative religions very often separate genders, keeping girls away from boys and men, and keeping children away from casual acquaintances. It is also very important to keep in mind that the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have children’s programs such as Sunday Schools or summer camps, and so they have fewer occasions for abuse within a religious setting.
One might reasonably ask why so much negative information that is not relevant to the question of abuse was incorporated into these studies. There is a general portrayal of Jehovah’s Witnesses as being deviant for having conservative religious beliefs. Yet, many other religions have similar views, including on the issues of gender and disfellowshipping. My grandparents were both disowned when they got married in the 1930s for marrying out of their faith traditions, so I understand that personally. They were not Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Summing up, the Belgian and Dutch studies unfairly single out Jehovah’s Witness as an organization uniquely vulnerable to instances of mishandling sexual abuse cases. The reports are based on sensational journalism, faulty social science data, and a misunderstanding of the nature of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. Their recommendations are not aimed at preventing abuse, but limiting religious practice. It would be very misguided to base political decisions on these studies.