August 10, 2015
The Royal Commission intochild abuse has highlighted a number of flawed areas within the Jehovah’sWitness Church. It’s time for the elders to instigate real change from within,writes former Witness Paul Grundy.
I was raised a Jehovah’sWitness and for many years followed the doctrine of the religion.
I believed the teachings ofthe religion’s guiding magazine, Watchtower, and thought I was never going todie. I didn’t even expect to finish school before Armageddon – where God wouldkill the billions of people who were not Jehovah’s Witnesses and leave the fewmillion witnesses to live on this planet forever.
According to the teachings ofWatchtower:
Only Jehovah’s Witnesses,those of the anointed remnant and the “great crowd”, as a unitedorganization under the protection of the Supreme Organizer, have any Scripturalhope of surviving the impending end of this doomed system dominated by Satanthe Devil.
In my teen years I”pioneered” – meaning I devoted 20 hours a week to preaching – and at21 I moved to the Bethel Watchtower headquarters, where I spentthree-and-a-half years as a volunteer worker.
I personally came to know anumber of the people who have recently been called for interview before theRoyal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
Terry O’Brien, the AustralianBranch coordinator, was in my pioneer training school in the 1980s. GeoffJackson, one of the religion’s governing body, lived in Tasmania, and hiswife’s family brought my family into the religion in the early 1970s. VincentToole, the Bethel lawyer, was someone I knew well and looked up to.
I still think all three ofthem are wonderful people and are genuinely doing what they think is God’s willand is best for the followers.
But the Royal Commissionhighlighted a number of areas that are flawed within the religion, particularlyaround the handling of child abuse victims. These include:
• Thetwo-witness rule. A rule within the religion that states officials cannotaccept an accusation of child abuse unless there was a second person who alsowitnessed the abuse – something that rarely happens.
• Women’s role (or lack of) in the congregation and judicial committee process.As a patriarchal religion, women are to view men as their head. They cannot bepart of a judicial committee. In practise this means a young female victim mustgo into graphic details of her abuse alone in front of three older men.
• Theexpectation that the victim confront the perpetrator as part of the process.
• Notmaking it mandatory for elders to report accusation of abuse. While not beingobliged to report accusations may be legally acceptable in some states, theRoyal Commission identified that the judicial committee process meant thatoften elders would uncover actual proof of a crime, even a confession, butstill not report it. At this stage, where it had moved from an allegation toproof of a crime, there was a legal obligation to report.
• Notreporting allegations to the police. This practise was to protect Jehovah’sname, and was due to a general mistrust of people in “the world”.According to Watchtower: “While some contact with worldly people isunavoidable – at work, at school, and otherwise – we must be vigilant so as tokeep from being sucked back into the death-dealing atmosphere of thisworld.”
• Fear of psychologists, based on the belief that they may give advice that isnot in line with Watchtower principles.
The Royal Commission alsohighlighted that because of Jehovah Witnesses’ insistence on separation from”worldly” society, they were unwilling to join other organisations inany sort of redress scheme for victims.
Evidence given at thecommission also contradicted the claim from those within the religion thatchild sex abuse was “very rare”. The commission heard there werealmost 300 cases in the last 10 years, and Toole testified that for the pasttwo years he had received three or four calls a month about new cases. For sucha relatively small organisation, that’s a huge problem. What’s more, this onlyincludes reported cases, and not the many people that no doubt remain silent.
Thankfully, there have beensome positive, albeit small, changes in how the religion handles abuseallegations, particularly in the last decade. For example, now two accusationsfrom separate victims can be considered to meet the two witness rule. Also,whilst elders do not actively encourage victims to go to the police, they areadvised not to discourage it either. The elders interviewed at the RoyalCommission went so far as to say the current policy was to immediately advisegoing to the police, but it’s hard to believe that’s happening.
Unfortunately, it was alsonot always possible to trust what the elders told the Royal Commission, andanyone watching them would have noticed their strenuous efforts to deflect theconversation and answer with irrelevant straw man arguments (although counselassisting the commission, Angus Stewart, and Justice Peter McClellan wereexceptional at keeping the answers on topic).
This approach by the eldersmay be part of what the teachings refer to as “theocratic or spiritual warfare”,where Jehovah’s Witnesses may, at least in some cases, be encouraged towithhold information order to protect the name of Jehovah and the organisation.According to their Awake! magazine:
Being truthful does not meanthat we are obligated to divulge all information to anyone who asks it of us.Do not give what is holy to dogs, neither throw your pearls before swine, thatthey may never … turn around and rip you open, warned Jesus, at Matthew 7:6.
Watchtower magazine goes onto say:
So in time of spiritualwarfare it is proper to misdirect the enemy by hiding the truth.
At the Royal Commission, atleast one elder said they could not comply with current Australian law where itconflicted with Jehovah’s requirements, as given in the Bible. This is adangerous stance that needs government sanctions where it results in harm toothers, as Watchtower policy on child abuse has done. Indeed, Watchtower doesnot actually strictly follow the Bible, they follow the current interpretationof select Bible passages. Moreover, Watchtower policy has changed constantlyover time as the interpretation of the current governing body changed.
For instance, the two witnessrule has already been changed slightly as I noted before. And there is nothingto stop the religion making further changes, such as allowing women on judicialcommittees. As Justice McClellan pointed out at the hearings, Watchtower onlytakes the Bible literally when convenient.
In the end, effecting changewithin the religion will come down to legal, political and financial pressure:if there is enough pressure on the religion, it will change. And I don’t saythat frivolously.
Despite thousands ofJehovah’s Witnesses going to prison as conscientious objectors over decades,Watchtower has made allowances for witnesses to once again perform civilianduty (as they had been until the Second World War). And despite thousands dyingafter refusing blood components, the doctrine changed in 2000 to allow the useof donated blood – quite illogically though, since Jehovah’s Witnesses arestill not allowed to donate blood themselves.
Counsel assisting also madean excellent point at the hearings that Jehovah’s Witness was a captiveorganisation. If a person has issues with the religion, which is often the casewith victims of child abuse and the subsequent mishandling by elders, they havethe impossible choice of leaving the organisation and losing all family andfriends, or having to remain associated with something they don’t agree with.
O’Brien tried to downplaythis by stating that anyone is free to leave, but it is not that simple. If youleave and are “disfellowshipped” or disassociated, every single oneof your family and friends are banned from talking to you under almost anycircumstance. You are to be strictly shunned. Even if you are notdisfellowshipped, and you fade out to become inactive, you are considered badassociation and Jehovah’s Witnesses will cut back on dealing with you.
When you have been raised toavoid anyone that is not part of the religion, have been told that anyone thatis not a Jehovah’s witness will soon be destroyed at Armageddon, and you knowyour family will most likely disown you, it is an unbearable choice to either leavewith no support group or stay with something that you cannot agree with.
I personally struggled withthat for more than 10 years, until at 35 I could no longer cope with being partof something that I so strongly disagreed with.
Paul Grundy is a formerJehovah’s Witness.
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