Both official reports and media often confuse “institutional” abuse in religious settings and abuse happening in families that happen to be religious.
by Holly Folk
In two previous articles, I focused on reports on how the Jehovah’s Witnesses handle sexual abuse cases published in Australia, and The Netherlands and Belgium. I established that a main problem of these reports is the confusion between institutional abuse and family abuse. Institutional abuse happens in venues like youth groups, Sunday schools, or summer camps—all institutions the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not operate. Family abuse is the prevailing form of sexual abuse of children in our societies, and happens at home.
In this third article of my series, the issue of family abuse versus institutional abuse is examined more in depth. It deserves more discussion, because the statistics have been shaped in each of these studies to make it look like the Jehovah’s Witnesses are hiding active cases of institutional abuse, which is simply not true. In all these reports, most of the cases discussed happened in the families. Yet, this is downplayed, and in the media sometimes it is almost completely hidden.
It is important to be realistic about which forces in our social system have responsibility for sexual abuse. Here is where things become a lot grayer. The year that things happened, the age of the victim at the time that they reported something, and a variety of other circumstances need to be considered, along with the fact that incest is the dominant category in all three reports.
One of the things that is being completely overlooked is the role that families had in keeping this information secret. I have not read the internal disciplinary reports from the Jehovah’s Witness organization, as they are kept confidential for obvious reasons, but I have read all three of the studies, and a variety of pieces carrying forward the complaints of victims in the media. And something that becomes obvious is that a number of these young people spoke to their parents, and their parents were the ones who chose to suppress this information, for which the victims have every right to be angry.
To get a true estimate of whether any religion is associated with sexual abuse, however, it is important to factor in family abuse for all groups, and not to single out one religious organization in particular. It is wrong to assume that this is an isolated phenomenon within a limited number of particular religious traditions, and something that is not going to happen in other religions or in other parts of society.
None of the studies have shown the Jehovah’s Witnesses to have a pattern of shielding clerical abuse. This stands in contrast to other religions where abuse has become known. It is true that the studies communicate many complaints about the process of investigation. But it is also important to realize that the Jehovah’s Witnesses can offer a number of reports from individuals who appreciated the support they received during a family abuse crisis.
These issues are extremely hard for those involved in pastoral care. And it would probably be good if people who were involved in counseling across the board—in religious groups and society at large—managed to up their game. But I also think that we cannot retroactively apply standards of today to a time when they were not in place, thirty or forty years ago.
The three reports made remarkably similar recommendations. They called to end, for cases of sexual abuse, the two-witness rule that Jehovah’s Witnesses use when disciplining their members. They called for inclusion of women in the investigation and discipline of cases of sexual abuse. And they called for changing the policy of shunning those who chose to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses or are expelled, even for reasons other than being victimized, if they had been victims of sexual abuse.
For people who have left their faith tradition, one can understand why they would want some of these changes to be made. But at the end of the day, these recommendations are an intrusion of the governments into the free exercise of religion. They unfairly single out the Jehovah’s Witnesses, ignoring how other religions have similar beliefs and practices.
Jehovah’s Witnesses comply with mandatory reporting laws wherever they are instituted. They support the institution of mandatory reporting laws everywhere. The standards for addressing sexual abuse have evolved, fortunately, but in terms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses these standards are now being applied selectively and retroactively, which is grossly unfair.
I would like to conclude this article with a question about who is gaining from this international media campaign. The first obvious answer is, anticult activists. It is true that specialized anti-Jehovah’s-Witnesses activists and anticult activists in general are very much involved in this effort. But concretely, who is benefitting from this venture?
I would suggest that there is a huge financial interest driving the demonization of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. Personal injury lawyers have shown up across the United States, and increasingly around the world. A number of lawsuits have been launched by firms that won settlements against the Roman Catholic church. Some law practices seem almost to specialize in lawsuits against religious organizations, with the Jehovah’s Witnesses currently the main target.
There are open calls, “If you believe you have been abused by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, please contact our law firm.” Nobody should be surprised to know that this has become a very profitable business. And everyone should be aware of the financial motive that is pushing the issue of abuse forward right now.
Let me conclude by noting that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have a public statement, that they, the “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse as a sin and crime. Our policies on child protection comply with the law, including any requirements for elders to report allegations of child abuse to authorities. The organization will continue to promote child protection education for parents.” No organization is made only of perfect human beings. But I believe that, overall, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, no less and perhaps more than other religious and secular groups, have striven to keep this commitment, and have been reasonably successful.