Aug 6, 2015

Jehovah's Witnesses hear one case of alleged child sex abuse a week: royal commission

Sydney Morning Herald
August 5, 2015
Rachel Browne/Social Affairs Reporter

One of the most senior members of the Jehovah's Witness Church in Australia has been handling about one case of alleged child sexual abuse each week for the past two years, he told a royal commission.

The head of the Jehovah's Witness Church legal department, Vincent Toole,​ told the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse he was taking three to four calls a month about child molestation within the church, which has about 70,000 members in Australia.

The commission has previously heard evidence the church has collected 1006 files relating to individual perpetrators of child sexual abuse within the church since 1950 but not one was reported by the church to secular authorities.

In evidence, Mr Toole denied that the church failed to co-operate with secular authorities.

In his statement tendered to the commission, Mr Toole said: "The legal department has been instructed to direct the [church] elders to clearly explain to the victim and/or their families that they have an absolute right to report the matter to the authorities and that they should feel completely free to do so."

Under cross-examination from counsel assisting Angus Stewart, Mr Toole conceded church members had no moral obligation to report child sexual abuse to the secular authorities.

"Elders do not have the scriptural authority to take away the right of the individual to decide whether or not they want to pursue the matter," he said.

The commission has previously heard evidence that the Jehovah's Witnesses base their policies and procedures on scriptural law taken from the Bible.

A letter from the church's head office to elders, tendered to the commission, advised them to "avoid unnecessary entanglement with secular authorities" and "never give consent for anyone to search a Kingdom Hall or any other place where confidential records are stored".

In evidence, Mr Toole denied these messages would discourage elders from co-operating with secular authorities.

"Ever since 1999 we have co-operated with the authorities, as far as I understand, on every instance where the authorities have asked for information," he said.

"One thing you could never, ever cite against Jehovah's Witnesses is that they are ever encouraged to disobey the law."

Mr Toole said evidence before the commission has been a "wake-up call" for him.

He told the commission the church would seek independent legal advice about its obligations to report child sexual abuse as soon as the commission's public hearing is over.

"Any obligations that arise in relation to those laws we will certainly comply with," he said.

The hearing before Justice Peter McClellan continues.

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