Sexual abuse is a problem in all places and all cultures and passes to all religious denominations. However, much focus has been on the Catholic Church when the reality is that abuse is absolutely far more common, in terms of numbers and in likely scale, among other Christian denominations.
According to a recent report, the Jehovah’s Witnesses cult has been exposed as not just secretly covering up sexual abuse, but thousands of cases for decades in what has become a massive scandal that has shook the denomination to its very core:
The governing body of the Jehovah’s Witness Christian denomination has been accused of maintaining a secret database of child molesters within the group and failing to share that information with law enforcement agencies.
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, which serves as the head of the Jehovah’s Witness organization, has reportedly paid millions of dollars in court fines and settlements over the years rather than unseal its files containing the names and addresses of the accused.
According to the organization’s official website, there are more than 8.57 million people who identify themselves as Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world, including approximately 1.5million in the US.
The allegations against the religious group were first outlined in a bombshell report published in The Atlantic on Friday.
According to the magazine, the Watchtower in 1997 sent a survey to its 10,883 US Kingdom Halls seeking information about members of the community accused of sexual abuse.
The survey was composed of a dozen questions, including how the Jehovah’s Witness community viewed the alleged abusers, whether the abuse was a one-time occurrence or part of a pattern, and how widely known the abuse was?
The responses were mailed back to the Watchtower in special blue envelopes and scanned into Microsoft SharePoint, but never shared with the police, The Atlantic reported.
In 2014, an attorney defending the Watchtower against a lawsuit filed by an alleged victim of child sex abuse said that the organization received 775 blue envelopes between 1997 and 2001.
According to some estimates, the number of alleged Jehovah’s Witness child molesters listed in the secret database could range from 18,000 to 23,000.
A representative of The Watchtower, however, told The Atlantic that number was considerably lower’ than the 23,000 figure.
The article in The Atlantic explains that the Watchtower has a ‘two-witness rule’ derived from the Bible, which dictates that no Jehovah’s Witness can be accused of committing a sin, including child molestation, without two credible witnesses who could corroborate the accusation, unless the alleged perpetrator makes a confession.
But as critics of the Christian sect point out, child abuse is seldom committed in front of witnesses.
This is not the first time that the Jehovah’s Witness community has been accused of covering up child sexual abuse.
Last year, a jury ruled that the sect must pay $35million to a 21-year-old woman who claimed that the church’s national organization, the Watchtower, ordered Montana clergy members not to report her sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a congregation member.
The Office of Public Information at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses responded to the verdict by stating: ‘Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts. Watchtower is pursuing appellate review.’
The plaintiff in the case and her older relative claimed that another family member sexually abused them in the 1990s and 2000s.
The women said they reported the abuse to church elders, who handled the matter internally after consulting the Watchtower.
The elders expelled the abuser from the congregation in 2004 then reinstated him the next year, the lawsuit states, and the abuse of the girl who is now 21 continued.
The lawsuit claimed the local and national Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations were negligent and violated a Montana law that requires them to report abuse to outside authorities.
Attorneys for the Jehovah’s Witnesses said in court filings that Montana law exempts elders from reporting ‘internal ecclesiastical proceedings on a congregation member’s serious sin.’
In 2012, former Jehovah’s Witness Candace Conti was awarded $28million at trial after claiming that a man she was teamed up with to proselytize door-to-door beginning when she was nine years old sexually abused her for about two years.
Conti, now 33 years old, said when she reported the abuse to the elders in her community in California, they dismissed her because she did not have a witness to back up her claims.
During the lawsuit, the elders admitted that they knew the accused man had a history of molestation before they paired him up with Conti.
The Watchtower later appealed the jury verdict and the judge reduced the judgement to less than $3million.
Around the time Conti received the jury verdict, another former Jehovah’s Witness Jose Lopez filed his own lawsuit against the Watchtower, accusing the organization of covering up his sexual abuse at the hands of his mentor, Gonzalo Campos, in 1986 when the plaintiff was seven years old.
Lopez claimed in his complaint that when his mother reported the molestation to the elders, they promised to handle it internally and told them not to report it to the police.
Campos was allowed to remain in the church and later became an elder. In 2010, however, he fled to Mexico and reportedly confessed to molesting Lopez and other boys.
It was during the Lopez trial that the Watchtower attorney revealed that 775 envelopes containing the filled-out surveys about molestation allegations were mailed back to the organization.
The Watchtower, however, refused to turn over the list of accused molesters, and the the trial ended with a $13.5million jury verdict in Lopez’s favor.
The verdict, however, was overturned on appeal and Lopez ultimately accepted an undisclosed settlement.
In 2016, Lopez’s former attorney, now representing another person accusing Gonzalo Campos of sexual abuse, again demanded that the church hand over the list of names.
The Atlantic reported that the Watchtower once again refused to comply and was slapped with $2million worth of court fines before settling with the new plaintiff out of court.
In the US, the Watchtower’s handling of allegations of sexual abuse so far has faced no scrutiny by law enforcement officials.
However, in Australia, where the Jehovah’s Witness community boasts 1.2million members, a royal commission in 2016 found that the sect failed to report more than 1,000 accused molesters since the 1950s. (source, source)