Watchtower recently released the May, 2019 “study edition” that features articles that focus on child abuse. [Link] The online magazine’s “cover page” shows a family enjoying themselves while the father reads an article to them from a magazine. The significance of this issue is that it reveals some changes to Watchtower Society’s policies in managing Jehovah’s Witnesses’ child abuse cases.
Here are some examples:
Paragraph 23 briefly outlines the duties of the congregation elders versus those of civil authorities:
“What is the role of elders in handling cases of serious wrongdoing? Their role is different from that of judges and elders under the Law that God gave Israel. Under that Law, appointed men handled not only spiritual matters but also civil and criminal cases. But under the law of the Christ, the elders’ role is to handle the spiritual aspects of the wrongdoing. They recognize that the secular authorities have the God-given responsibility to handle civil and criminal cases. That includes the authority to impose such penalties as fines or imprisonments.—Rom. 13:1-4. 24″
Paragraph 24 discusses the spiritual guidance they need to use to proceed:
“How do elders handle the spiritual aspects of serious wrongdoing? They use the Scriptures to weigh matters and make decisions. They keep in mind that love is the foundation of the law of the Christ. Love moves the elders to consider: What needs to be done to help any in the congregation who have been victims of the wrongdoing? Regarding the wrongdoer, love moves the elders to consider: Is he repentant? Can we help him to regain his spiritual health?”
Paragraph 25 states the goals of the congregation when dealing with an abuse case:
“How thankful we are to be under the law of the Christ! When all of us work hard to obey it, we help to make our congregation a place where each individual can feel loved, valued, and safe. Still, we are living in a world where “wicked men” have advanced “from bad to worse.” (2 Tim. 3:13) We must not let down our guard. How can the Christian congregation reflect God’s justice when dealing with child sexual abuse? The next article will answer that question.”
Paragraphs 13-15 instruct elders to cooperate with police and other local authorities:
13. Do elders comply with secular laws about reporting an allegation of child abuse to the secular authorities? Yes. In places where such laws exist, elders endeavor to comply with secular laws about reporting allegations of abuse. (Rom. 13:1) Such laws do not conflict with God’s law. (Acts 5:28, 29) So when they learn of an allegation, elders immediately seek direction on how they can comply with laws about reporting it.
14. Elders assure victims and their parents and others with knowledge of the matter that they are free to report an allegation of abuse to the secular authorities. But what if the report is about someone who is a part of the congregation and the matter then becomes known in the community? Should the Christian who reported it feel that he has brought reproach on God’s name? No. The abuser is the one who brings reproach on God’s name.
15. In the congregation, before the elders take judicial action, why are at least two witnesses required? This requirement is part of the Bible’s high standard of justice. When there is no confession of wrongdoing, two witnesses are required to establish the accusation and authorize the elders to take judicial action. (Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; read 1 Timothy 5:19.) Does this mean that before an allegation of abuse can be reported to the authorities, two witnesses are required? No. This requirement does not apply to whether elders or others report allegations of a crime.
The next paragraph (16) appears to offer some loopholes to actually reporting an accusation to the authorities. Reading this will make you wonder whether they will – or won’t – report in ALL situations that might involve child abuse.
16. When they learn that someone in the congregation is accused of child abuse, elders endeavor to comply with any secular laws about reporting the matter, and then they conduct a Scriptural investigation. If the individual denies the accusation, the elders consider the testimony of witnesses. If at least two people—the one making the accusation and someone else who can verify this act or other acts of child abuse by the accused—establish the charge, a judicial committee is formed. The absence of a second witness does not mean that the one making the accusation is untruthful. Even if a charge of wrongdoing cannot be established by two witnesses, the elders recognize that a serious sin may have been committed, one that deeply hurt others. The elders provide ongoing support to any individuals who may have been hurt. In addition, the elders remain alert regarding the alleged abuser to protect the congregation from potential danger.—Acts 20:28.
The next two paragraphs make it clear that elders should not try to interfere with secular legal processes involving a reported abuser. However, there are a lot of “mays” that are built in to the guidelines that should probably be “shalls” when outlining elders’ responsibilities to the members and children within their congregations.
17. What is the role of the judicial committee? The term “judicial” does not mean that the elders judge, or rule on, whether the abuser should be punished by the authorities for breaking the law. The elders do not interfere with law enforcement; they leave criminal matters to the secular authorities. (Rom. 13:2-4; Titus 3:1) Instead, the elders judge, or determine, whether an individual can remain in the congregation.
18. When elders serve on a judicial committee, their role is spiritual, or religious. Guided by the Scriptures, they judge whether the abuser is repentant or not. If he is unrepentant, he is expelled, and an announcement is made to the congregation. (1 Cor. 5:11-13) If he is repentant, he may remain in the congregation. However, the elders will inform him that he may never qualify to receive any congregation privileges or to serve in any position of responsibility in the congregation. Out of concern for the welfare of children, the elders may privately warn the parents of minors in the congregation of the need to monitor their children’s interactions with the individual. When taking such measures, the elders are careful to maintain the privacy of those hurt by the sin.
[Footnote: A child is never required to confront an alleged abuser. A parent or another trusted confidant may advise the elders of the allegation without exposing the child to further emotional harm.]
What remains to be seen is whether the Watchtower and the elders in Kingdom Halls and congregations actually accept and follow these more effective and well-meaning guidelines. The Watchtower’s history of protecting members and their children from abusers (both mentally and physically) has been disastrous. It may take current elders some time to accept and adopt these newer and (hopefully) more effective and protective guidelines. The reality is that they must do so or face the consequences that more and more courts and law enforcement agencies are willing to apply to them.