Setting the Record Straight: The Atlantic “Secret Database” Article

Sometimes you have to speak up and speak out when you come across a news article or a TV program that gets everything wrong. What follows is a case of an article whose author not only got the story wrong but just about everything else connected to the story was messed up – including where the story was actually published! [Updated and Revised 12/10/2019]

Barbara Anderson: It’s Time to Set the Record Straight About The Atlantic Article,

“The Secret Database of Child Abuse”

“Question everything. Anywhere” was the lead-in for an ad to subscribe annually to The Atlantic, a prestigious magazine on sale for $39.50. That lead-in was good advice for anyone searching The Atlantic’s website for a newly published article, “A Secret Database of Child Abuse,” supposedly appearing in the March 2019 print and digital edition. The article was finally located in the March 22, 2019 issue of The Family Weekly, one of ten free digital newsletters, which was another way to get Atlantic stories. Link to original article: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/03/the-secret-jehovahs-witness-database-of-child-molesters/584311/

The Family Weekly was a “family coverage” newsletter that was delivered to a subscriber’s inbox every Saturday morning. No longer available—the last one appeared June 11, 2019. The following message, “Editor’s note: The Family Weekly will go on hiatus after this week while we figure out how to improve the newsletter” is found at https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/the-family-weekly/.

The Family Weekly newsletter quoted by other media
The “Secret Database” story was picked up by the New York Daily News, reporting that “Jehovah’s Witnesses kept a secret list of hundreds of child molestation reports.” In addition, UK’s Daily Mail published, “Jehovah’s Witnesses kept a secret database of tens of thousands of child molesters for two decades and hid it from the authorities.” The Evansville, IN, Courier & Press talked about JWs compiling a large database of sex abusers, allegedly containing “… the names of thousands of church elders and congregation members.”

It can only be wondered why there was such a disparity in the figures reported in the various media articles. Were there “hundreds,” “thousands,” or “tens of thousands” of child molestation reports kept secret by JWs? Obviously, “Question everything. Anywhere” was going to be necessary.

Adding to the confusion, on April 21, 2019, The Sunday Business Post in Ireland, under the title, “Silent Witnesses,” stated that “the American magazine, The Atlantic, …ran a major investigative story on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their handling of child sex abuse worldwide.”

This sounded impressive. However, as previously noted, the story did not appear in the prestigious print or digital edition of an “American magazine, The Atlantic” – but turned up in that company’s free newsletter written by a freelance writer – not a staff writer. It seemed odd that someone at The Atlantic would have authorized “…a major investigative story on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their handling of child sex abuse worldwide” to appear in a newsletter.

Despite all the melodrama connected with this article, the story of the “hidden documents” wasn’t new. It had been covered by the media since 2007 in conjunction with news of million-dollar settlements and court judgments against the JWs’ corporate entity, the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society – and their appointed elders – in many child sexual abuse lawsuits. Here are some recent reports:

March 2, 2018, San Diego Reader, San Diego, California

“The Watchtower has done its best to fight being forced to turn over documents that would show the scope of sexual abuse by elders. The final blow came last year when an appellate court affirmed a lower court’s decision to fine the Watchtower $4,000 a day for not turning over documents to the victim’s lawyers.”

September 30, 2018, The Missoulian, Thompson Falls, Montana

“Two cases in San Diego presented the opportunity for the release of all of Watchtower’s internal documents relating to known sex abuse allegations. Judges continued to fine Watchtower as much as $4,000 a day for not turning the internal documents over in the case’s discovery. The church paid millions in those fines until the plaintiffs eventually settled the case outside court.”

The Story

Without a doubt, fact-based journalism is worth fighting for. But journalists need to be reminded of holding to “agreed-upon standards” of truth set by their industry.

In May 2018 a freelance writer planned to do an in-depth article about Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) and their child sexual abuse cover-up. He hoped it would be published in the summer in The Atlantic magazine but it appeared nearly a year later in one of that magazine’s digital newsletters.

The article’s title, “A Secret Database of Child Abuse,” was sure to get attention as was the sub-title, “A former Jehovah’s Witness is using stolen documents to expose allegations that the religion has kept hidden for decades.” Usually, a sub-headline is related in subject to the headline and that’s exactly what the reader would suppose in this case, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is for the sake of truth that an analysis of this article was done.

Following the headline and sub-headline, there originally was a summary lead-in, but it was soon eliminated. This was a good thing in that there were many inaccurate assertions such as saying, “In the Jehovah’s Witness community, child abuse and assault have been something of an open secret for decades.” This is not true; other than what some elders knew from dealing with accusations of child abuse, most members had no idea there was child sexual abuse and assault going on among JWs.

Determined to prove there was a secret database of child abuse that JWs were hiding, many different angles were presented by the author from internal documents, personal stories, and lawsuits.

The article contained seventy-six paragraphs. Surprisingly, less than ten were related to JWs concealing for decades what the author said “might be the world’s largest database of undocumented child molesters… likely numbering in the tens of thousands” of reports in a secret database of child abuse.

Furthermore, there were around twelve paragraphs that examined the results of stealing child abuse documents as mentioned in the sub-headline of the article.

Of note, the 2015 Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse received honorable mention in the article where it was revealed that the JWs’ Australian organization did not report over 1,000 perpetrators to the authorities.

There were also a few accounts of significant JWs’ child abuse lawsuits that were reported in the media beginning in 2012. Totally unexpected was that the majority of the remaining article addressed the compelling life stories of two JWs raised in the religion, Mark and Kim O’Donnell. They eventually married and later exited their faith. The author of the article interviewed the O’Donnell’s at their home where they discussed their lives and also Watchtower’s “secret database of child abuse.”

All in all, just from reading the title it was expected there would be considerable information presented on the subject, but that just wasn’t the case. And to anyone familiar with the details about this “database,” some of the author’s statements, which sounded significant, were actually inaccurate. It was as if he blended together an assortment of facts into a deduction that sounded good, but wasn’t accurate. This was especially true when he began his article by summarizing an important letter from JWs’ leaders addressed to
congregation elders.

An analysis of the article, “A Secret Database of Child Abuse”

 In the opening paragraph of the article, the author introduces readers to a summary he did of a letter dated March 14, 1997, sent by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society to “ALL BODIES OF ELDERS” in JWs congregations around the world. This is what he claimed was in the letter:

In March 1997, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses, sent a letter to each of its 10,883 U.S. congregations, and to many more congregations worldwide. The organization was concerned about the legal risk posed by possible child molesters within its ranks. The letter laid out instructions on how to deal with a known predator:”Write a detailed report answering 12 questions — Was this a onetime occurrence, or did the accused have a history of child molestation? How is the accused viewed within the community? Does anyone else know about the abuse?—and mail it to Watchtower’s headquarters in a special blue envelope. Keep a copy of the report in your congregation’s confidential file,” the instructions continued, “and do not share it with anyone.”

Was the summary accurate?

First of all, the author points out the reason for the letter was because Watchtower was concerned about the legal risk posed by possible child molesters within its ranks. How did he know this in that not once in the entire 1997 letter were the words “legal” or “legal risks” mentioned? He attributed something to that letter which wasn’t there. If he had done his homework, he’d have known that the word “legal” was used three times in a letter to ALL BODIES OF ELDERS dated July 20, 1998, about “legal considerations” being a factor when appointing a child abuser to a “position of trust.”

He also used the term, “known predator,” which was not stated anywhere in the entire 1997 letter. It was fifteen years later – October 1, 2012 –in a Watchtower memo – where that term was first used.

“Not every individual who has sexually abused a child in the past is considered a ‘predator.’ The Watchtower, not the local body of elders, determines whether an individual who has sexually abused children in the past will be considered a ‘predator.’ ”

In addition, in that same sentence, the author used the word, “possible” child molesters, a descriptive word that was also not found in the 1997 letter. The word “known” was used nine times prefacing the words, “child molesters,” not the word, “possible” child molesters.

Further, the words “guilty of” were used four times regarding child molestation, not the words, “accused of.” For example, “…give the Society a report on anyone who is currently serving or who formerly served in a Society-appointed position in your congregation who is known to have been guilty of child molestation in the past.”

Without a doubt, through summarizing, the author made claims not backed up by facts. In truth, JWs leaders were not interested in receiving information concerning “possible” or “accused” molesters, but in clear, unmistakable words, they asked for names of those who the elders understood were “known” to be “guilty” of child molestation from before they became JWs, or after they were baptized and were holding congregational positions at the time the letter was received, and in the past.

In the second paragraph, the author continues to build his story about that March 14, 1997 letter saying,

“Thus did the Jehovah’s Witnesses build what might be the world’s largest database of undocumented child molesters: at least ‘two decades’ worth of names and addresses—likely numbering in the tens of thousands—and detailed acts of alleged abuse, most of which have never been shared with law enforcement, all scanned and searchable in a Microsoft SharePoint file.”

For emphasis, with regards to the March 14, 1997 letter, most of the above statement was overstated. The elders, as per instructions in that letter, sent to the Watchtower names and details of men appointed to congregational oversight positions who were documented or known at the time of their appointment to be guilty of child molestation sometime in the past. None of the men were alleged molesters, but as far as the elders were concerned, these people were known to be molesters.

Further, it’s not this database made up of names resulting from instructions in that 1997 letter that make up “the world’s largest database of undocumented child molesters” and has at least two decades’ worth of names, but there is another list of names that will be identified later on in this discussion.

In the next twelve paragraphs of “A Secret Database of Child Abuse” is information which was not connected with the first two paragraphs. This part of the narrative is an intriguing story of how “A former Jehovah’s Witness is using stolen documents from a Kingdom Hall to expose allegations that the religion has kept hidden for decades.” To be sure, a few of those stolen documents taken from a Kingdom Hall may also be found in the “Secret Database” located at JWs headquarters. This because the name of any man holding a congregational position, who was found guilty of molestation either by a court of law or by a judicial panel of JWs elders, would have been sent there as per that 1997 letter.

Helpful Facts: Watchtower’s foremost child sexual abuse directives

July 1, 1989 In this letter, elders were told to phone in any reports of child abuse to the Legal Department. All JWs bodies of elders received this letter containing the following instructions, “When elders receive reports of physical or sexual abuse of a child, they should contact the Society’s Legal Department immediately.” Two elders were to call in a report, a command that’s still in effect to this day.

To expedite the call, a special form became available that same month titled, CHILD ABUSE TELEMEMO. A Watchtower Legal Department representative would fill in the form from the information gleaned from the elders and then share it with the Service Department. Moreover, it was these reports accusing anyone of child abuse associated with the JW congregation which Attorney Irwin Zalkin also requested, not only going back to 1989 to 2001, but to 1979 through 2001. Eventually, the Zalkin Law Firm received the requested material, but it was useless because of extensive redactions.

This collection of names is the one that might be called “the world’s largest database of undocumented child molesters.” It would be the results of elders following instructions in the July 1989 letter to phone in reports of anyone, men, women or teenagers, alleged to have abused a child, no matter what their status in the congregation was.

January 1, 1997 – An article appeared in this Watchtower magazine titled, “Let Us Abhor What Is Wicked” where a pledge by JWs Governing Body 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. Moreover, he cannot be a pioneer or serve in any other special full-time service.” Not unexpected, this statement generated inquiries “asking how this applies in the congregation.” Although the majority of JWs were not aware of their organization doing this in the past, JWs elders knew this was a standard practice if the “known” molester repented of his “sin” by demonstrating acts of godly devotion. Two and a half months later, all bodies of elders received a letter from Watchtower’s Service Department further explaining the organization’s position in this matter.

March 14, 1997 – The letter began with the following words: “A matter of serious concern was addressed in the article ‘Let Us Abhor What Is Wicked,’ published in the January 1, 1997, issue of The Watchtower.” After answering elders’ inquiries, there were instructions to the body of elders to provide a written report on anyone in the congregation who was currently serving, or who formerly served, in a Watchtower “Society-appointed” position who was known to be guilty of child molestation at the time of their appointment. It is this letter that is the foundation of the database referenced in the first paragraph of The Family Weekly article where Watchtower sought names of men which the elders identified as abusers. These reports make up a database containing perpetrators’ names and details which “Watchtower has refused to comply with multiple court orders to release the information contained in its database and has paid millions of dollars over the years to keep it secret.”

The information was needed, the letter stated, [so that elders] “…can appropriately apply the spirit of the Scriptural information in the January 1, 1997, Watchtower article ‘Let Us Abhor What Is Wicked’.” Another reason it was needed was for “…a view toward qualifications for appointed service.” And still a third reason – “legal considerations” – was mentioned in the July 1998 letter Watchtower sent to ALL BODIES OF ELDERS. “Special Blue” envelopes were used by the elders to send in the names of “known” molesters.

Richard Ashe, serving at the U.S. branch offices of JWs in New York in the branch’s Service Department explained (February 23, 2015) “that responses to the March 14, 1997 letter from local congregation bodies of elders were filed in individual congregation files maintained by Service Department elders for each congregation of JWs in the U.S.”

It is a matter of public record that by April 2015, Watchtower had supplied to the Zalkin Law Firm the names it received from 1997 through 2001 related to the March 1997 letter. When the law firm received the information, the details had been redacted by the Service Department which precluded their ability to check with law enforcement to see if any of these perpetrators had been reported to law enforcement.

July 20, 1998 the date of that other confidential “BODIES OF ELDERS” letter which was a special follow-up issued by Watchtower’s Service Department to remind elders of the directive in the March 14, 1997 letter to send in reports of known, guilty child abusers holding special congregational positions. However, the emphasis in this 1998 letter was related to “legal considerations” associated with appointing someone who was a child abuser as a ministerial servant or an elder that “could result in costly lawsuits” – a fact that was not mentioned in the March 14, 1997 letter that was wrongly attributed to it in The Family Living newsletter.

How many perpetrators are named in the Database? – “thousands”?

The fascination to know how many names of perpetrators the Watchtower is storing began in 2002 when a former elder stated on a BBC’s Panorama TV documentary that there were 23,720 names. Although a Watchtower spokesman didn’t deny a list of names was being kept, he stated that the total was considerably lower.

Who was this elder? Where did he obtain this figure? Was it bona fide?

That former elder was William Bowen. Sometime around 2000, when Bowen was still an elder, he was a frequent poster on an Internet discussion board, “Jehovah’s Witness Discussion Forum.” There was also a poster who began posting in 2001 calling herself “Dutchy.” Bowen claimed to insiders that “Dutchy” told him privately that while she was working in a New York attorney’s office, Watchtower had 23,720 secret records delivered there to be scanned.

Years later, two “Forum” posters tracked down Dutchy and she admitted to making up the story.

Total of names resulting from the March 14, 1997, and July 1, 1989 letters

From 1997 onward, without further appointments of “known” molesters to congregational positions as the January 1, 1997 Watchtower article, “Let Us Abhor What Is Wicked” promised, the number of names sent to Watchtower in response to the March letter likely would not grow larger as the years passed. However, the number could be substantial in that JWs’ practice before 1997 of appointing known molesters to serve in a minister’s position went back decades. To date, though, there has been no credible, substantiated total number of names of JWs men “guilty” of child abuse in response to the 1997 letter released publically by the Zalkin Law Firm who has received the names and offenses of each pedophile from the Watchtower with all other information redacted including whether any of the pedophiles were reported to the authorities.

Should the number of molesters’ names received by JWs leaders owing to the 1997 letter and kept secret, be the most important part of the ”Secret Database” story as published? That database is still secret no matter how many stolen documents were taken from a Kingdom Hall that Mark O’Donnell leaks. That’s because the religion refuses to give-up any demanded un-redacted files no matter how much California courts fine them. However, in my opinion, the emphasis in the article should have been on the consequences of keeping that database secret. And, sadly, the consequences of not reporting known pedophiles to the police is clear – more JWs kids were in danger of being molested.

In conclusion, The Family Weekly report consisting of ten paragraphs about “a secret database” should have been as simple and factual as the following press release is, but it wasn’t. Read what the Zalkin Law Firm’s October 24, 2019 press release, under the sub-title, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Promoted Known Pedophile to Position of Leadership – Letter from 1997 Confirm Awareness of Sexual Predators in Their Midst” makes clear about the March 14, 1997 letter.

“Allegedly, a March 14th, 1997 letter to all Elders within Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations from Watchtower headquarters confirmed they were aware of child molesters within the church and were in the process of compiling a comprehensive database of known pedophiles in positions of leadership. Also, allegedly, a July 20, 1998 follow-up letter to all Elders makes clear that the information about known abusers was being compiled because of concern for potential legal liability to Watchtower and the JW organization, and was kept strictly confidential for internal use with no stated intent of alerting law enforcement about cases of child sex abuse.” [Bold and italics added] https://www.pr.com/press-release/797742 (See the eighth paragraph in the press release.)

(As an aside, note that the word, “alleged” doesn’t appear even once in conjunction with the predators, but “allegedly” appears twice regarding two of the Watchtower’s letters. In addition, rather than use “alleged,” relating to the abusers, the press release uses the word “known.”)

Corrections

Very soon after publishing the article, two corrections appeared at the end:

First correction: ** This article originally stated that Watchtower paid a $2 million fine. Though the organization did incur that fine, it did not make a separate payment of $2 million to the court once the case was settled.

Second correction: ** This article originally implied that, as a result of being pressured by the elders, the daughter had not contacted civil authorities. The article originally stated: “But he was reinstated a year later, partly because the daughter who had accused him of years of rape refused to answer new questions from the elders, who had pressured her and her sister not to alert civil authorities.” It was changed to “…who expressed disapproval in the letters that she and her husband had alerted civil authorities.

Reportedly, there was a third error regarding the timeline of events in Candace Conti’s account of visiting the elders as an adult to see if she could help them to keep what happened to her from happening again. The author said when Conti went to the elders to tell them about the abuse, “… she was rebuffed by something called the two-witness rule.” However, she, in fact, had to prove her abuse had happened; the elders, in turn, investigated. It was later on when the two-witness rule came up. In addition, the author stated, “Conti refused to take a settlement,” a common viewpoint, but incorrect. The Conti clarifications were not reported to the author, hence they were not corrected.

On March 25, 2019, when the author was questioned about the 23,720 figure he stated: “But if you read the article, you will note that we present that number with the understanding that it may not be correct–that it is one of several clues as to the size of the database. It did come from a well-known member of the organization speaking to a reputable media outlet, so we deemed it worthy of mention.” Nevertheless, if the author had done more fact-checking he would have learned the 23,720 figure was reputedly not accurate; consequently, rarely repeated by reputable sources.

In response to a suggestion that the author needed to clear up other misconceptions in the story, his response was: “The Atlantic has a rigorous fact-checking process that is widely considered among the best in journalism and I can assure we spent many hours confirming everything in the story.”

Well, obviously, as this analysis has factually demonstrated, in this case the “rigorous fact-checking process” wasn’t “rigorous” enough.

 

 

 


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