[The following is a lecture given in Geneva, Switzerland in June 2009 by Barbara at the ICSA Conference, based on her own research. See also Opening Pandora’s Box.]
I know you’ve heard of Pandora’s Box, the simple Greek myth that explains how bad things came to be. In one version of the myth the box that Pandora opened appeared valuable, but in fact it caused no end of misery because when she opened it, she let out all the evils including hope. Is hope evil? The Greeks considered hope evil, even dangerous; its bedfellow was thought to be delusion.
In modern times, opening Pandora’s Box signifies unwittingly unleashing chaos on yourself and those around you.
This is precisely what the spiritual directors of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) did when they published articles dealing with Healing the Wounds of Child Abuse in their October 8, 1991 Awake!. Healing from the devastating effects of child abuse was possible, the Awake! pointed out, for those who, in most cases had no physical scars, but deep emotional scars, or secret wounds that festered inside and whose behavior could be destructive. How could such an optimistic message printed 17 years before unleash chaos on the publishers of that Awake! which continues to swirl around them even until now?
When I read that Awake! I would never have believed such a thing could happen. At that point in time I was part of the volunteer staff of the Writing Department at JWs headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. I had lived and worked there with my husband for almost nine years. We were provided room and board and a small allowance in exchange for our labor by the corporate legal arm that represents JWs, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, known by the members as the WT Society (WTS). I was the principal researcher for the Witnesses history book which the WTS published in 1993.
After this magazine was published, the WTS received thousands of letters and phone calls expressing appreciation. I was probably like most Jehovah’s Witnesses—I assumed the reason behind the subject was the growing media coverage in the 1980s revealing hidden child sexual molestation in all types of organizations including churches.
Around the end of ‘91, I learned there was little support and help within the Witness community for abuse victims and that’s why the Awake! editor authorized the publishing of the material.
Along with suggestions for recovery from abuse, the magazine dealt with repressed memories, a controversial subject then and one still controversial. Rather then deny that such memories were false, the journal actually acknowledged the phenomenon. This was done to quiet the accusations of demon possession.
Even more astonishing to JWs, there were two previously unheard of recommendations to survivors of abuse:
1) seek help from a qualified counselor, or mental-health professional;
2) talk out one’s feelings with a supportive believer. Until then, WT leadership had actively discouraged JWs from doing either. The cure-all was always—read the Bible and be involved in all Witness activities.
Generally, this new information was thought to be like a breath of fresh air blowing through the WT organization, although in reality it opened up chaos like opening of a Pandora’s Box as thousands of survivors of child sexual abuse began to seek the help of mental-health professionals and trusted Witness members, and were revealing the evils of who in the organization had molested them—men in authority positions.
Another problem developed. Some men who governed the group did not agree with much of what was outlined in that Awake!. They thought claims of molestation were a fad. This caused an internal rift that went on for years. One member of the Governing Body (GB) of JWs sent out representatives to warn accusers to stop the talk or they would be disfellowshipped.
So indeed that 1991 Awake! brought forth hope to heal abuse survivors but it was just like what the Greeks said it was, an evil—a delusion. There would be no help forthcoming.
For nearly five years, from autumn of 1991 until the end of 1996, I lost lots of sleep knowing that the directors of this organization allowed men, who were known to them as confessed, although seemingly repentant, molesters, or men accused of molestation to remain in authority positions.
Finally, in 1997, the mouthpiece magazine of the Witness organization, the Watchtower, contained an article, Let Us Abhor What Is Wicked, in which the following statement is found:
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.
For me it was a relief to see the GB finally take this step to make life safer for Witness children. I sent a note to the Awake! editor, Harry Peloyan, who I had done research for, to express my appreciation for his efforts to get the Witness organization to this point where molesters couldn’t qualify for a responsible position in congregations.
In a few weeks, I received a reply from Harry that changed the direction of my life. He acknowledged that the change came “after more than 5 years of blood, sweat, and tears,” And he could not understand how some people at headquarters could “…have been so ignorant (or worse),” and why some fought against publishing anything on the subject. He commended Watchtower’s Legal Department’s “help to set the record straight.” If Watchtower “had continued on their blind course,” there would have been “more megabuck lawsuits” and if any elder protected molesters, “the Society would not protect them” he said.
But then Harry said something that was so extraordinary that it literally caused me to have to sit down to calm myself. He wondered who would answer for Witness children’s lives ruined by “baptized Witness molesters” because of the past five years of inaction (1992-1996) by those who had the power to change things.
Confronting the Disclosures
Because of the work I had done for this man putting together a large packet of material to inform the GB of the child sexual abuse problems within the Witness organization, there was no excuse for this inaction. To my way of thinking, their ethics and morals were so compromised that I could no longer in good conscience remain in association with the group whose policies protected pedophiles rather than children.
It was then that I realized, without a shadow of a doubt, that the men I personally knew and respected, WT leaders, men in positions of power over the lives of more than six million people, were responsible for more kids being harmed because of their inaction. So in 1998 I called it quits. And all of this the unintended result of that Awake! published some seven years previously.
I know I did the right thing when later I read in the March 14, 1997 confidential letter the Witnesses’ Service Department sent to all bodies of elders in reply to questions from elders wanting the Watch Tower to explain “Who Is A ‘Known’ Child Molester”?
There it stated, “An individual ‘known’ to be a former child molester has reference to the perception of that one in the community and in the Christian congregation.” If the congregation knew a man had been a molester, the letter went on to say, he would not be respected or might even stumble some. Therefore, if no one knew a man had molested and he had a fine reputation in the community, he could qualify for privileges in the congregation. And that’s exactly what happened.
Also, men, who led seemingly “godly” lives, remained in their “privileged” position if the community and the congregation did not know they had molested or were accused of molestation in the past.
Not only that, the letter further pointed out, “Others may have been guilty of child molestation before they were baptized. The bodies of elders should not query individuals.” Not only did the Witness organization not do background checks on men who became authority figures, they would not “query” them to see if they had been guilty of molestation before baptism.
I was so disgusted with what I learned about the policies and oft times hidden practices of JWs during the next five years and all of this unknown to the average JW. However, the survivors of child abuse knew how the system worked! How after they reported their molestation to elders as instructed to help keep the congregation clean from “sin,” the elders—lay ministers—initiated an investigation, which applied an Old Testament burden of proof, the need for two witnesses to an act of sin. The result—if no verifying witness—then the alleged perpetrator was protected and the victim disbelieved. And if the congregant repeated an allegation to others or authorities, it was at the risk of excommunication.
Revealing What Was Hidden
Eventually, due to certain events that attracted media attention, I appeared in an interview along with a few other critics of the WTS’s child abuse guidelines on NBC Dateline on May 28, 2002 and discussed what I had discovered. Within a year after the program aired a number of attorneys were filing lawsuits in behalf of a few of the thousands of JW abuse survivors who came forward.
After that program was seen by millions, Witness spokesmen proclaimed on WT’s website and to reporters:
“Child abuse is abhorrent to us,” and asserted their child abuse policy “is without equal in the religious community. Yet, remember, according to the Awake! editor, the GB had been settling megabuck child sexual abuse lawsuits secretly for years.
I continued to be a vigorous critique of Watch Tower. Therefore, for the next three years I actively aided attorneys to understand WTs bewildering beliefs, practices, and abuse procedures.
There were over twenty lawsuits filed by plaintiffs the year after Dateline aired. Statutes of limitation were a continuing problem so eventually only nine cases involving 16 victims made it to the finish. Finally a day in court was scheduled for the cases in the spring of 2007. However, in February and March 2007, leaders of JW behind closed doors settled the cases out-of-court.
Nevertheless, this was not the end of the story because I immediately ordered and soon obtained over 5,000 pages of public domain court records which revealed secrets of how pedophilia was managed, not solved, in the religion. The documents proved that WT’s covert actions spoke louder than their public words.
“KEEP IT SECRET” has been WT’s child abuse policy for years. They had long feared that if exposure of child abuse was publicized, some type of public reproach would settle on the group; hence, interfering with conversions. So it’s always been about self-preservation—not children.
To help people understand the documents I obtained, I wrote nearly a hundred-page commentary and included that along with all the court records and put everything on a CD which I named, Secrets of Pedophilia in an American Religion, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crisis.
As my goal was to shine a bright light on these secrets, I then contacted an NBC TV producer and explained what had transpired between the courts and JWs and that I had acquired extraordinary court records.
Incredulously, by mistake, one California court actually sent me court-sealed settlement papers which revealed that the Watch Tower paid out $781,250 to one victim. Multiplying this figure by 16 victims, the total was an even $12,500,000.
Within a few months, on November 21, 2007, the prestigious NBC Nightly News and MSMV TV Channel 4 in Nashville, TN, reported on the out-of-court WT settlement with plaintiffs and about some of the most important discoveries found in the court records I provided. During the report, when I was interviewed, I emphasized that child abuse is a crime not to be put in the same category as a sin such as adultery or drunkenness to be investigated by church elders. Therefore, abuse should always be reported to the authorities, something, I pointed out, rarely done by WT officials. In addition to that interview and report, NBC investigative reporters wrote an excellent, lengthy MSNBC website article featuring some very disquieting discoveries they found in the court documents.
First of all, Watch Tower filed a number of important motions stating their reasons why the court should dismiss the lawsuits. The first one was where they claimed status as a religious institution protected them from lawsuits under the First Amendment. The court ruled against them. Also, when they claimed they could not be held responsible for what members did, the court ruled they could. These decisions were a huge blow to the religion. Consequently, the lawsuits continued.
It’s common knowledge among the Witnesses that elders are directed to always call Watchtower’s “Legal Department” for guidance after they do a preliminary investigation when an accusation of molestation is made. After the phone call, then the elders proceed with well-defined instructions.
Well, amazingly, in reply to plaintiffs’ attorney’s question during a deposition of a key Watch Tower official, I read where he said there was no policy in place to report child abuse. What was in place was this: During that phone call to WT’s Legal office, a directive to report an allegation to police was based upon whether the molestation happened in a clergy-mandated reporting state. There was and still is absolutely no rule placed upon elders to report abuse to authorities in a non-clergy mandated reporting state.
If the elders were required to report the abuse, the directions given during that phone call usually caused elders to avert or prevent cooperation with secular investigators.
In the Witness world, it is common knowledge that elders are required to send reports to headquarters about allegations and investigative judicial committee actions. However, what was not known was that the information in these reports ended up in a secret computerized database WT maintained, which wasn’t used to help identify sexual predators and protect children, but they negligently concealed the information from parents in the organization. And if elders did report the abuse, they were prohibited to report the results of their investigation to authorities.
Concealing allegations from the authorities resulted in perpetrators often receiving no punishment, except for that meted out internally by elders such as disfellowshipping, or some secret restrictions put upon them. But congregation members never knew a dangerous child abuser was in their midst. Reinstatement of expelled molesters or restrictions removed after a shockingly short period of time was common.
Elders were required to investigate allegations by gathering evidence, question witnesses and form judicial committees to manage the situation. These hearings weren’t shepherds helping the sheep. That’s why, subsequently, courts found these hearings were adversarial, not spiritual and found that the elders could not hide behind the clergy penitent privilege to keep from disclosing to police or in court hearings pertinent information gathered in judicial hearings with the accused.
Questionnaires and Forms
Found in the documents was an actual WT Legal Department questionnaire that WT printed up which they named CHILD ABUSE TELEMEMO. Incidentally, WT lawyers did everything legally possible to prevent plaintiffs’ from seeing a copy, even a blank one, but a California court ordered the defendants to provide the form to plaintiffs’ attorneys. This paper was to be filled out by a WT representative at headquarters who was assigned to discuss an accusation of child abuse with the required two elders who called. The questions listed on that document were indicative of the investigative nature of the process.
Outrageously, one inappropriate question found on the paper asked if any of the elders believed the child victim was “somewhat at fault” for their own sexual victimization.
And, incredibly, if the molestation took place in a mandated reporting state, one of the directives required elders’ to go to a phone booth and call the authorities anonymously. Of course, it was done this way so elders couldn’t be located by police for questioning, but if identified later, elders could argue they obeyed the reporting law.
Also found was another form which congregational elders send to WT reporting disfellowshipping actions. This one was filled in with information about the action taken towards a molester. On the paper was the question, “Were there ‘two witnesses’ to the molestation?” This proved to outsiders that elders were required to apply the “two witness” to molestation rule. BTW, after this pedophile was internally disciplined he was not reported to the police.
In addition, found in the documents was a WT communiqué between a high-level Witness supervisory person and WT headquarters. This type of communiqué is rarely, if ever, seen. It was a letter from a long-time U.S. Watchtower district representative where he discussed a little-known WT policy which allowed molesters to stay in their positions of authority. I have to say that few JWs know about this directive of waiving sanctions if a sinner was repentant and the sin had occurred at least three years earlier. In other words, if a man molested a child there was no need to remove him as elder or ministerial servant or even to call a judicial hearing if he had led a “godly life” for at least three years after he had sinned in a sexual way and hid that sin.
Further, I learned that in one case, during discovery, an accounting journal document was provided, which revealed in one Witness congregation, in 1996, the WT paid a secret payment of $50,000 to a victim unnamed in the congregation. The reason listed for the payment was noted as “elder misconduct.” Another record revealed who this elder was and that he was reported up to five times to WT headquarters since the 1970s but not once to police. WT removed him from his authority position, then after a few years he would be reappointed again. This was repeated over and over as he continued to molest well into the 1990s when a young man went to the police.
Victims testified in depositions they were discouraged from receiving appropriate medical and psychological care. It was clear victims were not the main concern of the group, but keeping molestation secret was.
The court records contained a case of a girl in Oregon who was abused from the time she was 5 until she was 14 years old by a JW ministerial servant. She always knew it was wrong and suffered depression and drug problems as she grew older. She complained to her family who spoke to the elders and yet no one reported the man to the police. Because he was not reported to the authorities, this pedophile molested as many as fifty kids in the community including the girl’s brother. The girl ran away from home just so she would be picked up and put in a foster home and then she believed she would be safe from her molester. Otherwise she would have had to endure more times when he would pick her up at her home to take her into the door-to-door ministry, but rather than do that, he molested her. At JW conventions, during noon breaks, he’d come get her, take her to his van and rape her. In foster care this girl told caregivers about the abuse and he was arrested and confessed. Asked by the police why she allowed the abuse, she replied it was because the man was God’s chosen servant!
From information found in the records it was clear that Watchtower had the ability to actually know when a pedophile moved from one congregation to another; yet, they chose not to monitor the movements of predators and warn members.
As an example, for three decades a sexual predator moved from congregation to congregation. Parents had no clue that a sexual predator was amongst them even though elders had knowledge of complaints against him from other congregations. His name is Frederick McLean and this predator is now on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. One victim estimated McLean molested her over 100 times. In a press report, a marshal said McLean gained the trust of many of his victims through his leadership position in his local congregation of JWs near San Diego.
Many Questions Require Answers
Back in 2002, after NBC’s Dateline program aired, the Watchtower Society’s general counsel denied there was a policy to minimize, or hide, the child abuse problem. He said the policy that Jehovah’s Witnesses have on how to handle cases of child abuse is without equal in the religious community. But after reading the court documents many questions arise.
During legal proceedings why did the Watchtower Society work so hard to block access to blank Telememo forms it uses to handle reports of pedophiles? Why keep these forms secret?
When local laws require elders to report allegations of child abuse, why has the Watchtower Society never disclosed to JWs that it directs elders to make the reports anonymously from public telephone booths? Why keep this information secret? If elders want to trumpet their moral stance, they should have proudly identified who they were and who the perpetrator was.
Why is the name of a convicted child abuser not released to a congregation? Above all, children deserve to be kept safe above the feelings or reputation of some adult who doesn’t deserve consideration? If he’s repentant, he should go to each one in the congregation and tell them what he has done. Why isn’t this a rule? Why keep secret the names of molesters in the congregation?
When the Watchtower Society petitioned the courts to settle the nine lawsuits stemming from sexual molestation of 16 children, why did they petition the court to seal the record? Why keep this a secret?
Since the Watchtower Society has a capable Office of Public Information, then why didn’t the Office of Public Information offer any news release expressing settlement of lawsuits along with apologies to victims for their victimization by authorities appointed by the Watchtower Society? Why keep this a secret?
Why has the Watchtower Society never adopted a doctrinal position to always encourage victims of child molestation to report the crime? Or, for that matter, tell congregation elders to always report allegations of child molestation to local authorities so JWs and others would have at least some opportunity for protection from child predators? Why keep this information secret?
These questions and the documentation uncovered presented compelling information leading to a conclusion the WTS does indeed have a culture that seeks to hide and/or minimize the victimization of children among JWs.
The Congregation Secrecy Continues
This is still happening. In Minnesota, a JW and his 24 year old JW son were arrested for molesting five victims in the day-care center they owned. Thousands of children came through that day-care center during 30 years. The day these men were arrested, the father was removed as an elder. The victims were not JW kids, but it seems likely there was molestation of kids in the congregation but nobody is speaking up. The molesters pleaded guilty and will be sentenced. We can only wonder how many times within the congregation did someone accuse these men but if there weren’t two witnesses, nothing was done.
How would you as a parent like to attend a church and not be informed that a man considered a spiritual brother had served nearly 20 years in prison for child sexual abuse? That his prison records state he is a psychopathic deviant pedophile whose behavior cannot change? This is actually the case in one JW congregation where the pedophile’s past is kept confidential. At one time there were other convicted molesters in this congregation, yet only the elders knew about them. Obviously, these confidentiality policies protect pedophiles, not children.
So are the child abuse policies of this religion “without equal in the religious community”? Yes. I don’t know of another religion that has so many deplorable rules which end up protecting pedophiles. Is child abuse abhorrent to WT leaders? I have no facts to prove otherwise but I contend what is really abhorrent to WT leaders is to lose the control they have over their members. Therefore, they want to keep reports of child abuse very private within their own sphere of influence.
A Religion Without Love and Compassion
Due to media coverage, the public is now aware that JWs have a serious problem with pedophilia. That Awake!, which was published 17 years ago and featured hopeful but delusionary directives, eventually brought chaos to their own organization. Those eleven pages unwittingly became WT’s Pandora’s Box, yet WT continues to keep in place the two-witness rule and the confidentiality policies that protect pedophiles and not children. The hidden secret really is this: That long ago Awake! promised love and compassion to survivors of abuse. However, love and compassion have never been a priority in this organization. Ask any Witness what this organization did to me for trying to protect JW’s children so they wouldn’t become abuse survivors? The response would be “disfellowshipping along with shunning.”
By its actions, it’s obvious that operating according to the “the letter of the law” has been more important to WT leaders than operating according to the spirit of the law. There is no justification for WT’s actions in its disgraceful way of handling child abuse accusations. Were WT company men seeking to protect the accused first? There can be no justice when that attitude is part of the “policy” even though it was unwritten but obvious in practice.
If the WTS instructs some elders to report child abuse because of the state they live in is a reporting state, then why not uniformly report. This in itself shows that the interests of Witness leaders are not with children. In the early 1990’s, WT’s battery of lawyers advised a uniform policy of elders reporting child abuse but the GB refused. If they had listened, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today or shunned by my family and friends for breaking the Witnesses 11th commandment, “Thou should not go public.”
Watchtower leaders did not admit liability or wrongdoing by secretly settling these lawsuits out-of-court. Nonetheless, by paying out a total of nearly 13 million dollars to 16 victims they admitted responsibility for negligence of members’ children.
By their contrivance of bad policies and selfish lack of transparency towards this crime, this religious organization has demonstrated that it is less concerned with the real and day-to-day interests of helpless and innocent children than it is with its own ill-conceived notion of preservation.
Religious organizations are supposed to exist for the good of people. As a religious guide, the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the name of the new WT Corporation that enforces the policies of the GB of JWs, needs to reform their one-dimensional way of dealing with child abuse, even if their policies are religiously motivated.
They need to mandate elder bodies to uniformly report abuse to the authorities no matter what jurisdiction; Prohibit elders from being involved in any investigative process to decide guilt or innocence in place of the authorities; Do away with the two-witness rule to determine, as if they were magistrates, guilt or innocence of someone accused; Prohibit so-called repentant molesters from engaging in the door-to-door ministry, and always inform the congregation if a convicted or confessed molester is meeting with them.
To improve their image, the directors of the Witness organization need to provide a safer environment for children; transparency into their directives; open their classified data-base of molesters to police, and stop disfellowshipping internal critics who are then shunned by the flock who assume the disfellowshipping took place because there was some secret sin involved. If they would just do the right thing, there then could be a spirit of good-will.
By not attending to the evils that were exposed through lawsuits, which were actually a result of WT leaders opening their own Pandora’s Box by publishing that long ago Awake! magazine, and to continue to put the interests of cunning child molesters ahead of the most vulnerable of their flock by enforcing deplorable guidelines, there will continue to be consequences, not only monetary ones in more out-of-court settlements, but a spiraling downward in membership.
Already, 63% of those who say they were raised as JWs have left the group joining tens of thousands of disappointed members around the world who have observed the pursuit of power and control on the part of their GB, the self-proclaimed “Faithful Slave” rather than the pursuit of good for all of the flock.
Oh, by the way, as our message spreads that the Witness ringing doorbells with Bible in hand could be a convicted pedophile, what do you think will happen to the formerly high growth rate of conversion to this religion? The answer is obvious and it’s already happening!