Discontent among part of Jehovah's Witnesses about internal handling of abuse complaints
As part of a study into sexual abuse among members and former members of the Jehovah's Witnesses community, 751 participants shared their experiences through a contact point set up by Utrecht University. 27% of these cases resulted in filing a police report. Respondents were relatively positive about how the police handled these reports. They are less content, however, with the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses community internally handled the abuse reports.
This study, which was commissioned by the Research and Documentation Centre (WODC) upon request from the Ministry of Justice and Security, was carried out by an interdisciplinary team of UU researchers led by Kees van den Bos. It aimed to gain insight into experiences with abuse and underlying patterns within the Jehovah's Witnesses community. The board of the Jehovah's Witnesses called on the members of the community to participate in the research. The WODC made the report public on 23 January 2020.
The study looked at cases of sexual abuse reported via the online contact point by Jehovah's Witnesses and former Jehovah's Witnesses. In-depth interviews were held with 10 victims or their next of kin. The research team also talked to the Dutch board of Jehovah's Witnesses and a representative of the Governing Body in the US as well as to the board of the Reclaimed Voices foundation, whose purpose is to help (ex) Jehovah's Witnesses who have been the victim of sexual abuse. Moreover, previous international studies into sexual abuse within the community of Jehovah's Witnesses and comparable communities were analysed. Because of its nature and design, it is not a truth finding investigation, and it is not possible to indicate to what extent the findings are fully representative. Where the report mentions victims, culprits and abuse, this is taken to mean alleged victims, alleged culprits and alleged abuse. Many reports relate to situations that occurred further in the past. Thirty-two reports related to the last ten years.
Three quarters express discontent with internal handling
Among the respondents, 80% had reported their experiences with sexual abuse within the community of Jehovah's Witnesses. Practically all of these reports were made to the elders of the relevant community. Some of the respondents, 30%, had also gone to the police and 27% had filed a report. Three quarters of the victims (75%) were dissatisfied with how their report was handled by the community of Jehovah's Witnesses. Victims awarded the handling of reports by the community of Jehovah's Witnesses an average score of 3.3 out of 10. Almost two thirds (63%) of the victims gave the handling by the police a passing mark. Victims awarded the handling of reports by the police an average mark of 6.4 out of 10.
According to respondents, the closed culture of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community can be linked to the problems with how reports of sexual abuse are handled. This was also found in other countries. While the community in the Netherlands has over the past 10 years taken steps to improve how reports of sexual abuse are handled, the Jehovah's Witnesses' formalistic system still provides insufficient guarantee of an adequate response to sexual abuse. The board has put clear protocols and instructions in place, setting out the procedure for responding to reports of sexual abuse, but these processes are mainly aimed at protecting the community – and, by extension, the culprit – rather than the victim. As a result, victims receive limited support and insufficient recognition
The board of the Jehovah's Witnesses actively cooperated with the study. In addition, the board has indicated that it wishes to obey the law, and the Reclaimed Voices foundation confirmed this compliance to be a principle of their policy. This situation provides the Dutch political system with the opportunity to take action and enter into talks with the community about the pattern, church rules as well as other rules, customs, structures and their consequences for the willingness to report sexual abuse within the community of Jehovah's Witnesses. Within this context, a law may be considered that would make it mandatory for the Jehovah's Witnesses and other organisations to report instances or suspicions of sexual abuse to the police. Other countries have already introduced this type of law. To determine the feasibility and desirability of such an instrument within the Dutch context, further investigation is required.
Internal reporting centre
The researchers recommend the community of Jehovah's Witnesses to ensure yet more explicit support as well as recognition of victims and alleged victims, including by more explicitly referring to the options for reporting the abuse externally or filing a police report. The researchers also recommend that elders receive even more training and that an internal reporting centre is set up for victims of sexual abuse, with adequate knowledge of the subject as well as the internal and external support options for victims. An annual report on the reporting centre's activities ought to be published on the website for the benefit of both fellow believers and society.
Read the report of the entire study here (in Dutch)
Help and more information
If you feel you’d like to talk to someone about your experiences after reading this article, please contact hotline Break the Silence on 0900-9999-001 or go to their website www.verbreekdestilte.nl (in Dutch)