Aug 10, 2020

Former Jehovah's Witness elders call for mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse

A stall promoting the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Richmond, North Yorkshire. Photograph: Alamy
Two ex-members tell independent inquiry the church believes it is ‘answerable only to God’

Harriet Sherwood
The Guardian
August 10, 2020

Two former Jehovah’s Witness elders have called for mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse, saying the organisation believes it is “answerable only to God”.

Duncan Corbett, who was an elder for 18 years, told the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse that the protection of minors and the handling of abuse claims must be taken out of the church’s hands. “Let them deal with the sin and the authorities handle the crime,” he told a hearing in London.

Lloyd Evans, another former elder who now campaigns against religious fundamentalism, said: “This is a group that feels they are answerable only to God … They don’t feel as though they need to yield to any regulations that are imposed on them.”

The pair, along with another former Jehovah’s Witness and a survivor of abuse, Sarah Davies, painted a picture in evidence to the inquiry of an organisation that demanded that its leaders be unquestioningly respected and obeyed, and that shunned members who failed to comply with its strict codes.

Davies, whose father was an elder and whose childhood was dominated by religious meetings and Bible study, said she was taught that “we were God’s chosen people” and that everyone outside the faith was “controlled by Satan”. “The congregation is your life … I knew no different,” she said.

Evans, who rarely met people outside the faith as a child, said there was “no room for deviation” within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “It can’t be overstated, the authority and influence that elders have,” he said.

According to Corbett, elders are told that their appointment has been “approved by the Holy Spirit”. It was “drilled into the congregation that they must be submissive,” he said.

Prospective elders were not subject to background checks but were asked a “one-off, once-in-a-lifetime” verbal question about sexual abuse. None of the three had any knowledge of child protection or safeguarding officials being employed or consulted.

A guidebook for elders, Shepherd the Flock of God, suggests that church leaders “endeavour to comply with secular laws” on abuse, the inquiry heard.

An anonymous witness had earlier said she had been sexually abused by a “ministerial servant” – the rung below an elder – who led study groups in her congregation and told her repeatedly that she would die in the coming armageddon. The abuse stopped when she was about nine, when the perpetrator, Peter Stewart, went to prison.

The abuse “changed who I became,” she told the hearing. “It took over everything … It literally decimated my life.” She also backed mandatory reporting, saying, “They are not going to change. They are who they are and anything imposed is going to have loopholes, so there has to be some external protection.”

Paul Gillies of the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses said elders were given internal training on how to deal with abuse allegations. Asked about the structure of the organisation, he said: “We view the Bible as our constitution.”

Guardian investigation in 2018, based on allegations from more than 100 people, revealed a “culture of cover-up and lies”.

Earlier this month, an open letter on behalf of all UK survivors of abuse at the hands of Jehovah’s Witnesses demanded a public apology, saying the organisation should substantiate its claim to abhor child abuse.

The organisation, noted for its door-to-door and street evangelising, claims 8.6m members globally, and has 1,500 congregations in England and Wales.

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