|Part of a series on Jehovah's Witnesses|
|Jehovah's Witnesses by country|
Faithful and Discreet Slave
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society
Corporations of Jehovah's Witnesses
|Bible Student movement
Jehovah's Witnesses splinter groups
|Beliefs & Practices|
|God's name · Eschatology · Blood · Disfellowshipping|
|The Watchtower · Awake!
New World Translation
|Watch Tower Presidents|
|W.H. Conley · C.T. Russell · J.F. Rutherford · N.H. Knorr · F.W. Franz
M.G. Henschel · D.A. Adams
|William Miller · N.H. Barbour · George Storrs|
|Notable Former Jehovah's Witnesses|
|Raymond Franz · Olin Moyle|
As with other religious organisations, Jehovah's Witnesses have been obliged in recent years to develop child protection policies to deal with cases of child abuse in their congregations. Details of the policy have been published in Jehovah's Witnesses' publications and press releases issued by their Office of Public Information. Some details are found only in letters to elders which, while solely for internal use, have been made available on the Internet.
The Watch Tower Society, the legal entity responsible for publishing literature of Jehovah's Witnesses, including their official doctrinal positions, has published information on how to protect children from sexual molestation, such as the articles, Protect Your Children in the October 8, 1993 edition of Awake!, Help Your Children to Thrive in Awake! of August 8, 1997, the series, Keep Your Children Safe, in the November 2007 edition of Awake!, and in the book, Learn from the Great Teacher. These articles focus on prevention, by helping children understand what sexual abuse is, to say "No" to molesters, and to tell their parents about attempted abuse. Whether or not a victim seeks professional treatment from psychiatrists, psychologists or therapists is accepted as a personal decision of the victim (or the parents) as long as the therapy does not conflict with their religious doctrine.
Jehovah's Witnesses' congregational judicial policies require the testimony of two eyewitnesses to establish a perpetrator's guilt in the absence of confession, based on their interpretation of scriptures such as Deuteronomy 17:6 and 1 Timothy 5:19. This policy is felt to be a protection against malicious accusation of sexual assault. The Watch Tower Society's Public Information Department specifies that this two-eyewitness policy is applied solely to congregational discipline and has no bearing on whether a crime is reported to the authorities. To establish proof by two eyewitnesses, it is not necessary that both have been present at the same instance of child molestation. As of 2002, statements by two victims of separate incidents by the same perpetrator may be deemed sufficient to take action and impose internal sanctions. DNA evidence, medical reports, or information from forensic experts or police that proves sexual abuse is also accepted as a valid "second witness".
In cases where there is only one eyewitness—the victim—to an allegation of child abuse, elders are instructed to monitor the accused individual closely. If there is evidence to suggest that the alleged perpetrator did abuse children, a warning is given to the congregation for its protection.
In instances of a child reporting abuse, elders are instructed not to ask probing or intimate questions, as to do so may carry legal implications. Elders are instructed that, however surprising the allegations, they should not indicate disbelief, nor should they criticize the complainant, as elders are regarded as 'spiritual shepherds' only, and have no professional training to investigate or evaluate allegations of child abuse. Testimony based on repressed memories is not considered reliable enough to form the basis for internal action. Elders are encouraged to treat persons reporting this type of memory with kindness, but not to pursue the case unless further proof is found. They also are instructed to report possible abuse cases to the secular authorities, if they believe they should or if required by law. Abuse victims are not required to face their abuser to make an accusation; in 1998 elders were officially advised that if children are victims of molestation, they would not be required to confront the accused.
Jehovah's Witnesses have a disciplinary system that applies to all congregation members who commit child abuse, rather than only members in positions of authority. Their policy states that child sex victims be immediately protected from further abuse, and that abusers be prevented from finding additional victims. If allegations of child abuse are deemed to have a sound basis, an internal judicial committee is formed, and the accused individual is relieved of any positions of responsibility in the congregation. Anyone found to have sexually molested a child and failing to demonstrate repentance is to be disfellowshipped (excommunicated) from the congregation. If an accused individual denies wrongdoing, but later due to evidence presented in a court of law, it is proven that he or she was involved in child abuse, the individual is expelled from the congregation.
An abuser who is judged repentant by a committee of elders is given a 'public reproof', wherein it is announced to the congregation that the named individual "has been reproved", though the nature of their crime is not stated. Some time later, a talk is given to the congregation, discussing the type of sin and the need to be on guard against it; the reproved individual is not named in connection with this talk. For a considerable period of time, a reproved individual is not permitted to participate in meetings by commenting in group discussions or making presentations from the platform. They are immediately debarred from serving in any appointed position in the congregation, usually for life. A fax sent by Jehovah's Witnesses' Office of Public Information to the producers of the BBC's Panorama television program stated that at least twenty years must have passed before an individual who committed an act of child sex abuse could even be considered for appointment to a responsible position in the congregation, if ever.
Former child molesters, including those who molested children before becoming Jehovah's Witnesses, those eventually reinstated into the congregation after being disfellowshipped, and those who were deemed repentant, are subject to a number of symbolic restrictions, which normally remain in place permanently. A 1997 Watchtower article stated: "For the protection of our children, a man known to have been a child molester does not qualify for a responsible position in the congregation. Moreover, he cannot be a pioneer or serve in any other special, full-time service." Former sex offenders may not offer public prayers, read paragraphs during congregation studies, or be given even minor responsibilities in the congregation, such as handling microphones or distributing literature in the Kingdom Hall, and the person's home may not usually be used for congregation meetings. According to the Watch Tower Society spokesman, J. R. Brown, sex offenders are not permitted to participate in the congregation's house-to-house preaching, unless accompanied by a responsible adult. Commenting on the effect of these symbolic restrictions, Jehovah's Witnesses' legal representative, Mario Moreno, stated that these restrictions alert members that the individual "lacks spiritual maturity."
If a former child abuser moves to another congregation, elders from the previous congregation must send a letter to the body of elders in the new congregation, outlining the offender's background and whether the abuser is still under the symbolic 'restricted privileges'. Previous communication from the organization's Branch Office regarding the abuser is not forwarded to the new congregation. Other members of the new congregation are not formally made aware of the abuser's past.
For many years, the Watch Tower Society has had a policy that a person in a position of responsibility who admits to a serious sin years after it was committed would still be removed from their position. The 1972 book, Organization for Kingdom-Preaching and Disciple-Making, stated:
If a person was serving as an elder or a ministerial servant when he committed a serious wrong, even though it was some years ago, he bears a degree of reprehensibility, for he continued to serve in that position though knowing that he had, for the time at least, disqualified himself, not being then “free from accusation.” (1 Tim. 3:2, 10; Titus 1:6,7) He should have informed the judicial committee that he did not adhere to the requirements and should have stepped down from his position. In view of his failure to do this at that time, he would now be removed from that position.
The term “some years ago” was clarified shortly afterwards, in the October 1972 issue of Our Kingdom Ministry, page 8, as referring to recent years, rather than actions committed in the distant past:
What was meant by “some years ago” on page 170, paragraph two, in the “Organization” book? This indicates more than a year or two. It may be noted that it did not say “many years ago.” So it is not the exact number of years, but more like two or three years. It was not intended to have a brother go back into the distant past to bring up wrongs of which he repented years ago and that have evidently been forgiven by Jehovah and are not practiced now.
This position was further clarified in 1991 to exclude individuals involved in child sex abuse. During the 2005 Kingdom Ministry School, it was stated that hidden acts of “porneia” (sexual sins) would require an internal judicial committee, and if these involved children, would be treated as child sex abuse. Any case of child sex abuse would prevent a person from ever qualifying for any position of responsibility (such as elder or ministerial servant) in the congregation:
For the protection of our children, a man known to have been a child molester does not qualify for a responsible position in the congregation. Moreover, he cannot be a pioneer or serve in any other special, full-time service.—Compare the principle at Exodus 21:28, 29.
A press release issued in 2003 by Jehovah's Witnesses' Office of Public Information stated: "The elders may be required by law to report even uncorroborated or unsubstantiated allegations to the authorities. If so, we expect the elders to comply." The Watchtower magazine has outlined the following policy: "Depending on the law of the land where he lives, the molester may well have to serve a prison term or face other sanctions from the State. The congregation will not protect him from this." A 2002 memo to all congregations stated: "Our position is that secular authorities deal with crime while elders deal with sin." Even where there is no mandatory reporting requirement, victims or others having knowledge of an incident of sexual abuse must not be discouraged from reporting it.
The New York Times commented: "The shape of the scandal [in Jehovah's Witnesses] is far different than in the Catholic church, where most of the people accused of abuse are priests and a vast majority of the victims were boys and young men. In the Jehovah's Witnesses, where congregations are often collections of extended families and church elders are chosen from among the laypeople, some of those accused are elders, but most are congregation members. The victims who have stepped forward are mostly girls and young women, and many accusations involve incest."
Congregation elders are required to first contact the organization's legal department in cases of alleged abuse to establish whether there is a legal duty to report the sex crime to the civil authorities or not. In Canada, elders have been advised: "There is a duty to report when one has reasonable and probable grounds to believe that there is abuse or a substantial risk of abuse and parents have failed to protect the child. The report shall be made forthwith to the local child welfare authorities. […] Elders must be aware, however, that once they have knowledge, they have an obligation. They cannot just hope that someone else will report. They must follow through quickly, and be sure that it is done."
The elders' manual, Pay Attention to Yourselves and to All the Flock, states: "Though it is not the responsibility of the Christian congregation to enforce Caesar's laws, the very nature of some crimes demands that they be reported to secular authorities." A 1995 memo to elders stated: "Many states make it mandatory that elders report an accusation to the proper authorities but other states do not. In those states where such is required, oftentimes the parent, the guardian, or the accused person himself can do the reporting." This was publicized by 1997.
In 2000, elders in Great Britain were instructed: "The elder approached must encourage the complainant to consider his or her responsibility to report the matter to the authorities without delay and should also explain that he himself might have a duty to report the matter to the proper authorities," and that "all in the Christian congregation will want to consider their personal and moral responsibility to alert the appropriate authorities in cases where a serious criminal offense of this type has been committed, or there exists a risk that one may be committed." In 2008, the Watch Tower Society of Britain, in discussions with the UK Charities Commission, undertook to produce a Child Protection Policy and update its procedures to bring them into line with other religious and secular bodies.
Doctrinally, Jehovah's Witnesses handle all matters internally, which in recent years prompted accusations and lawsuits of a systematic sex offender cover-up. Recent policies sent to elders in 2002 state: "Child abuse is a crime. Never suggest to anyone that they should not report an allegation of child abuse to the police or other authorities. If you are asked, make it clear that whether to report the matter to the authorities or not, is a personal decision for each individual to make and that there are no congregation sanctions for either decision. That is, no elder will criticize anyone who reports such an allegation to the authorities". This has been the Watchtower Society's position since at least 1993, when a memo to elders stated: "It is also a personal decision if the alleged victim chooses to report such accusations to the secular authorities."
Particularly since around 2000, the Jehovah's Witnesses organization has been accused of covering up cases of child molestation committed by their members. In February 2001, Christianity Today—an evangelical journal that disagrees with the theological perspective of Jehovah's Witnesses—printed an article reporting allegations that Jehovah's Witnesses' policies made reporting sexual abuse difficult for members, and did not conform to typical treatment of such cases. The article also included a response by representatives of Jehovah's Witnesses.
The BBC reported on the controversy around Jehovah's Witnesses child abuse in July 2002, in the Panorama program "Suffer the Little Children" Jehovah's Witnesses headquarters published their response to many of the allegations made in the program, the substance of which is found in the article Jehovah's Witnesses and Child Protection on their official website.
According to Witness spokesman J. R. Brown, "Jehovah's Witnesses are not required to report crimes to elders before calling civil authorities. Victims and their families are free to call police at will, he said, although some don't choose to." A circular sent to elders in the USA stated: "In those states where such is required, oftentimes the parent, the guardian, or the accused person himself can do the reporting. In this way the confidentiality protected by ecclesiastical privilege is not violated." The Watchtower Society maintains its existing policy, without an explicit requirement for elders to report all child abuse cases where such is not mandatorily required by law.
The headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses, the Watchtower Society, requires all congregations to submit details of child abuse allegations and maintains a database on all cases of child abuse reported to them. Watchtower Society representative J. R. Brown stated in May 2002:
Although numerous lawsuits have been filed in recent years, to date there has been no court decision against the Watchtower Society or any other legal agency used by Jehovah's Witnesses for negligence in a child abuse case, as the Watchtower Society opts to settle payments out of court.
In a press release dated November 21, 2007, Jehovah's Witnesses' Office of Public Information stated: "In the United States, over 80,000 elders currently serve in over 12,300 congregations … During the last 100 years, only eleven elders have been sued for child abuse in thirteen lawsuits filed in the United States; In seven of these lawsuits against the elders, accusations against the Watchtower Society itself were dismissed by the courts." 
In 2007 during a ground-breaking trial motion in the Napa, California court against the Watchtower Society, victims' lawyers convinced the court that 'ecclesiastical privilege' does not supersede the legal obligation of clergy to report child sex abuse to secular authorities. The Watchtower Society paid an undisclosed amount (believed to be in the millions) in an out-of-court settlement with 16 unnamed victims of alleged sexual abuse within the religion. According to court documents obtained by NBC News, one plaintiff was awarded over $780,000 USD.