A Policy That Insures Failure

Fifteen years ago, I was asked to be an expert witness on behalf of a plaintiff in a case involving child sexual abuse in a Jehovah's Witnesses church. I was asked to examine their policies and comment on whether they were appropriate in situations in which a child was being sexually abused. I concluded, "an abuser who knows that his history will not follow him, that church policies actually protect him, that a congregation that is male-dominated may feel less empathy for victims, and that the Jehovah’s Witnesses disaffection from state laws works in his favor, could not find a more promising environment in which to discover and groom victims than the Jehovah’s Witnesses." I argued that their's was a policy that insured failure.Recently, the largest award to a single individual in cases involving child sexual abuse was handed down against The Watchtower. I received an email from someone who had  been following that case. That person wrote, "Your (with respect) 'prophecy' is fulfilled."  Because it is difficult to get the article, I have received permission from the editor of the Journal of the Religion and Abuse  to reproduce the article here.


Journal of Religion and Abuse, vol 7 (4) 2005: pp. 41-54.

Abstract: Based on my experience preparing to be an expert witness in a case involving child sexual abuse in a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation, I offer reflections on the problems inherent to policies that require witnesses to abuse, and draw upon material published by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to indicate why such policies would be misguided.

In 1998, I was asked to be an expert witness on behalf of a plaintiff in a case involving child sexual abuse in a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregation. She was suing them for their failure to stop the abusive behavior of the perpetrator. The case was settled out of court, but before that occurred, I researched the history and policies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in preparation for testifying. My main concern was whether the policies and practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses tacitly protected abusers.

This concern arose from the centrality of one specific scriptural passage to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The passage was Matthew 18:15: “Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” Matthew 18:16 goes on to say “But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, in order that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established.”[i]

A passage from Deuteronomy (19:15) was also important: “No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin, in the case of any sin that he may commit. At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good.”

 If the incidents of abuse within mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations revealed the institutional roadblocks to responding to abusers, the roadblocks to holding abusers accountable in a congregation that drew its guidance for behavior from these Biblical passages would be even greater. How would a child sexual abuse victim prevail if a congregation followed these Biblical passages and created policies that required as a first step a confrontation of the wrongdoer by the victim, and also required witnesses to the wrongdoing? In practice, would not this policy result in protecting the abuser in cases involving unwitnessed incidents?

Since that time, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been in the news regarding their child sexual abuse policies. In 2002, the New York Timespublished an article on child sexual abuse in Jehovah’s Witnesses, reporting that most of the victims are girls and young women. Incest is often the accusation.[ii] William Bowen, a Jehovah’s Witness who was disfellowshiped for his activism on behalf of child sexual abuse  victims, says that his support group “silent lambs” has “collected reports from more than 5,000 Witnesses contending that the church mishandled child sexual abuse.”[iii] Recently, the Michael Jackson trial brought the Jehovah’s  Witnesses back into the headlines, because of the question of whether Jackson remained a member in good standing. The question is raised because of their policy on disfellowshiping: if Jackson had been disfellowshiped (presumably for engaging in activities that the Jehovah’s Witnesses found objectionable) other Jehovah’s Witnesses, including members of his family, could not receive him. Since he was received both by members of his family and Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders, he was therefore not disfellowshiped, and the conclusion was that the leadership structure of Jehovah’s Witnesses had not found his actions objectionable. In 2005, a Massachusetts judge ruled that a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ church in Boston could be sued by a girl who reported being sexual abused by one of the church’s ministerial servants. Finally, a website has been created to provide support to victims of child sexual abuse in Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations (www.silentlambs.org).

After a brief review of their history and procedures, I will offer a reflection on Jehovah’s Witness policy in the face of what we know about child sexual abuse victims, and their abusers. In critiquing their policies, it will draw in part, upon publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves. 


 Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, a Jehovah’s Witness from the age of 9 until the age of 21 provides a cogent description of this group:

Jehovah’s Witnesses are believers in a fundamentalist, apocalyptic, prophetic religion which has been proclaiming, since the 1930s, that “Millions Now Living Will Never Die.” The world will end, they say, with the destruction of the wicked at Armageddon, in our lifetime. Only the chosen will survive. They intensify their preaching efforts in order to increase the number of survivors…. The Witnesses are a widely varied group of individuals who subject themselves to total conformity in practice, outlook, and belief.[iv]

One could say that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were not so much  “founded,” rather they evolved as an institution, moving through three stages that laid the ground for their current practice and beliefs.

The first stage began shortly after the Civil War, as a Bible fellowship under Charles Taze Russell who died in 1916. At first called, “Russellites,” they incorporated as “Zion’s Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society,” in the 1880s. When Russell died, a power struggle occurred. Joseph Franklin Rutherford prevailed. He introduced the name “Jehovah’s  Witnesses” in 1931.

These first two stages were personality-driven, indebted to one dominant individual for its approach and direction. But upon the death of Rutherford, a Board, a directorate, took over, eliminating power struggles and the extreme cult of personality notable in the first two stages.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the doctrine of the Trinity and do not view Jesus as equal to God, but instead “as an incarnation of the Archangel Michael, a created being.”[v]

Jehovah’s Witnesses have a serious disregard for the structures of government. Its approach is one of suspicion of the world outside of its own members:

The message, elaborated successively by Pastor Russell, Judge Rutherford, and the directorate headed by Nathan Knorr, was calculated to appeal to the multiple resentments of those who are euphemistically described as the “culturally deprived.” The central contention was that Satan’s power is wielded through “the religious, commercial, and political combine” which is united in oppressing the righteous. These three elements in society are so intimately linked that each does the bidding of the others. All churches and religious organizations are “tools of Satan” and are utilized by the clergy as a means of securing cash income. The clergy both support and are supported by the proud and arrogant commercial class which dominates, subjugates, and exploits the poor. The wealthy in turn are protected by the governments of the world, all of which are equally wicked since they are ruled by Satan. The righteous, however, are not without hope, for the evils of the world are soon to be rectified at the battle of Armageddon when the forces of Jehovah’s led by Jesus will defeat the hosts of Satan; and Jesus, with the living Witnesses and the resurrected righteous among the dead, will reign for one thousand years.[vi]

The belief that Satan’s power was directing those in power led to many acts of refusal that gained the Jehovah’s  Witnesses notoriety: They refused to salute the flag and they refused to register for the draft. They oppose blood transfusions, organ transplants, and skin grafts. In a famous freedom of religion case decided in 1943, the Supreme Court upheld their refusal “to perform patriotic rites.”

 Compounding, therefore, the views deriving from Matthew 18:15 and Deuteronomy 19:15, this distrust of the state can mean that any cases of child sexual abuse that do surface, may be dealt with only through internal measures. Given their general distrust and disaffection from the state, how could they welcome adjudication of child sexual abuse cases from the state? Maintaining a policy that keeps such cases only an internal matter, would deprive victims of advocates and counselors trained in the issue, if those advocates and counselors were not Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves. It would also mean that abusers are not held legally accountable.

 Dr. Carl A. Raschke told the New York Times, “Groups that tend to be very tight-knit and in-grown historically have a higher incidence of sexual abuse and incest.” He continued, “That’s an ethnological fact. When a religion tries to be thoroughly holy or godly, it’s not going to acknowledge that people aren’t living up to the ideas of the faith.”


The Jehovah’s Witnesses have approximately one million members in the United States and about 5.5 million throughout the world.[vii] They are organized into congregations, and it is usually the individual congregation itself that adjudicates matter that arise within it. Several policies that they follow insure failure to protect victims, each policy boomeranging into the next and allowing abusers to hide within individual congregation, and even if discovered, able to move and begin again without information about their abusive behavior following them.

Keep It Internal

Jehovah’s Witnesses must obey the law except when the law runs contrary to God and is therefore evil. Their belief is that problems should be worked out within the context of the local congregation. For instance, with child sexual abuse, the law requires reporting, but the Bible appears to say, “work it out.” All things should be resolved within the community, in house, not by others. Members of the community owe fidelity to the church, not to the state.

The organization of each individual congregation is overseen by a group of “ruling elders” – all men. If one challenges the congregation, and takes issues that arise within the congregation outside of the congregation, one risks being “disfellowshiped” which results in total shunning by other congregants.

But, one need not be disfellowshiped for having sexually abused a child. The official website for the Jehovah’s Witnesses offers this explanation:

What if a baptized adult Christian sexually molests a child? Is the sinner so wicked that Jehovah will never forgive him? Not necessarily so. Jesus said that ‘blasphemy against the holy spirit’ was unforgivable. And Paul said that there is no sacrifice for sins left for one who practices sin willfully despite knowing the truth. (Luke 12:10; Hebrews 10:26, 27) But nowhere does the Bible say that an adult Christian who sexually abuses a child—whether incestuously or otherwise—cannot be forgiven. Indeed, his sins can be washed clean if he repents sincerely from the heart and turns his conduct around. However, he may still have to struggle with the wrong fleshly impulses he cultivated. (Ephesians 1:7) And there may be consequences that he cannot avoid.

Depending on the law of the land where he lives, the molester may well have to serve a prison term or face other sanctions from the State. The congregation will not protect him from this.[viii]

It is not the congregation as a whole that adjudicates problems of unethical behavior. Laypeople of the congregation become church elders, who oversee the running of the individual churches. As The New York Timesdescribes it: “Members who suspect abuse are advised to go first to the elders, who are considered spiritual and moral leaders to whom the members are to turn with their personal problems.” The elders determine guilt. The victim may be examined by family members or friends. That this panel, who are all men, will then meet in secret to discuss the accusations in a case, and also adjudicate it in secret, is, as the Times explains, “a procedure which critics say prevents members from knowing there is an abuser in their midst.”

One who refuses to “keep it internal” runs the risk of being disfellowshiped. 

Require a Witness

The Jehovah’s Witness religious organization established its own procedure for investigating allegations of wrongdoing. At the time I was asked to be an expert witness, the procedure regarding child sexual abuse was that unless the accused confesses or there are two eyewitnesses to the wrongdoing (the accuser does not count as one of these), abuse cannot be substantiated.

Confession and Forgiveness

Elders may receive a confession from the abuser, offer forgiveness, and no one else is wiser – except that other members will learn that the individual in question has been disciplined, nothing more. The official website for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, explains their policy this way:

If a child molester sincerely repents, he will recognize the wisdom of applying Bible principles. If he truly learns to abhor what is wicked, he will despise what he did and struggle to avoid repeating his sin. (Proverbs 8:13; Romans 12:9) Further, he will surely thank Jehovah for the greatness of His love, as a result of which a repentant sinner, such as he is, can still worship our holy God and hope to be among “the upright” who will reside on earth forever.—Proverbs 2:21.[ix]

Of course, an abuser can learn to manipulate the system through the use of language about “repentance.”  Nowhere in this official statement is the recognition that repentance is not only confession and remorse, not only just saying “I’m sorry,” but is tied to restitution. Change of behavior is essential, but so too is acknowledgement of what the abuse meant to the victim and acts of restitution.

Transfering membership

Individual congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are called “Kingdom Halls.” Twenty congregations are grouped together as “circuits.” Districts contain these circuits, and branches and zones contain the districts.

When an elder leaves one congregation and arrives at a new congregation, the new congregation requests a letter either recommending or not recommending the elder’s appointment at the new congregation. Such a recommendation can only contain information corroborated by the procedure described above – requiring witnesses and allowing for repentance.

A person, for instance, might leave one congregation in which he has committed child sexual abuse and move to another without that information being shared. If the case had become known within the former congregation, yet was “successfully” adjudicated by the elders, in a way that they believe he has repented and been forgiven, that church would not be required to inform the church to which he is transferring membership of his abusive behavior. Thus, an abuser can move from church to church, knowing he is protected by Jehovah’s Witnesses policy, from being discovered, and if discovered, held accountable in any way that might prevent him access to future victims. If he is wealthy, too, he might through a variety of ways of using his money within the new congregation, inoculate himself from being held accountable if caught. In other words, sexual predators who have manipulated the local congregational leadership, could move from church to church without their histories following them, without red flags, or accountability. 


1.   Does the procedure violate state law?

A procedure that adjudicates questions of abuse in-house, and requires witnesses to abuse appears to violate both child abuse reporting statutes and the reporting statutes applicable to sexual exploitation by mental health professionals, including clergy. It appears to violate the law in two related ways: by providing no provision for reporting to the legal authorities, and by failing to acknowledge that most state laws do not require confirmation in its reporting  requirements. For instance, many state laws require reporting suspicions  of child abuse or of sexual exploitation by mental health professionals, including clergy.  

2.    Does this procedure establish an investigative process that virtually insures that child sexual abuse or clergy sexual misconduct within the congregation goes undetected by that process?

Yes. Unfortunately, this procedure sets the congregation up to fail; indeed this procedure provides the vehicle for it to fail repeatedly. This procedure insures that the congregation cannot detect abuse within the framework that this procedure establishes, while also announcing to abusers that they are protected from legal authorities.

First, it says to abusers that as long as there are no witnesses within the congregation or the abuser does not confess, then the abuse will not be recognized as abuse.

Secondly, by failing to state explicitly that suspicions of child abuse or of sexual exploitation by mental health professionals, including clergy, will be reported to the legal authorities, it gives the abuser greater freedom to operate.

Finally, it puts the overwhelming burden upon the victim to identify to the congregation the fact that she or he is being or was abused.  The victim is then to expect that the community that has allowed the abuse to happen within its midst can be the sole arbiter and adjudicator of whether abuse has occurred. Victims are of necessity concerned about the consequences of confronting the abuser. Fear of retaliation is great. If the victim senses that the congregation will not protect the victim once the abuse is known, there is no incentive to make the abuse known, and every incentive not to because of the control the abuser has established over the victim’s life. Moreover, it is difficult for the victim to believe that he or she is safe enough within the community to be protected once the abuse is known, when she was not safe enough for the abuse to be prevented. This procedure offers no specific assurance to the victim that once the abuse is named to the community, that the congregation will take steps to protect the victim and prevent the abuser from access to the victim.

It is an onerous policy for a victim, as it offers no assurance that the abuse will stop even if she follows the procedure.

Even if this inadequate procedure worked to its fullest, it does not actually deter the abuser from future acts because, absent confirmation from witnesses or the abuser him or herself, the acts of abuse are not defined as abuse, and so the abuser experiences no accountability for his or her abusive behavior. In the absence of accountability, the abuser is given the message “You do not have to stop what you are doing.” Intermittent rewards are sufficient for an abuser to continue abusive behavior. This procedure does not remove the rewards of abuse from the abuser.

From their publications, especially the one that is distributed door-to-door – Awake! -- it appears that the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization is concerned about the abuse of children and the abuse of vulnerable adults. It is unfortunate, therefore, that their procedure regarding corroboration undermines their stated concerns. Because of what we know about abusers, this procedure is potentially always inadequate to deal with abusers.

A congregation betrays its more vulnerable members with a procedure like this. A congregational environment creates opportunities for abusers that many other institutions would never do because it allows access to the vulnerable in unsupervised ways. In addition, the underlying philosophy and language of a congregation instructs the vulnerable to respect and follow its leadership; it promotes trust as the basic attitude toward other members of the congregation and especially leaders. It is the responsibility of a religious community to recognize how it puts its vulnerable members at risk and to create procedures that protects them.

Other abuse victims watch the outcome to see if they themselves might hope for justice and protection. As the publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses indicate, child sexual abusers exploit situations in which they can have unsupervised access to their potential victims. These publications make specific points about child sexual abuse that run counter to a policy requiring witnesses:

  • It happens in secret. (“Remember, though, that abusers work in secrecy, they take advantage of trust”[x].)
  • Abusers use opportunities to disarm the victim. (“The abuser is a person the child knows and trusts. Rather than using force, abusers often manipulate the child into sexual acts gradually, taking advantage of the child’s limited experience and reasoning ability.”[xi]) Common strategies that abusers use to cultivate relationships with children include:
    • Identifying children who are emotionally needy.
    •  Establishing relationships with a child’s family to gain trust.
    •  Getting children alone or isolated.
    • Initiating contact in situations where no other adult is present; setting up situations where no other adult is present.
    •  Setting a child apart from peers or siblings as “special”
    • Establishing a “peer” or “buddy” relationship with a child.

(An elder in a congregation would have all these means at his disposal for grooming a child.)

Publications of the Jehovah’s Witnesses also point to problems with the reporting requirement that includes the expectation of confirmation from witnesses:

  •        It is difficult for a victim to report abuse. (“Children find it enormously difficult to report abuse. When they do lie about abuse, it is most often to deny that it happened even though it actually did.”[xii])
  •         Abusers threaten frightening consequences for disclosure. (“Abusers employ the most diabolic means of coercion: authority [‘I’m your father!’], threats [‘I’ll kill you if you tell!’], brute physical force and even guilt”[xiii]; “child molesters still want something else from their victims—SILENCE.”[xiv])
  •        Sexual abuse allegations are usually true. (“Even the most skeptical of researchers agree that most claims of abuse are valid….‘Genuine sex abuse of children is widespread and the vast majority of sex abuse allegations of children…are likely to be justified [perhaps 95% or more].’”[xv])
  •        Abusers are often accepted and liked within their community. (“Many are quite religious, respected, and well liked in the community. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, ‘to assume that someone is not a pedophile simply because he is nice, goes to church, works hard, is kind to animals, and so on, is absurd.’”[xvi] “In British Columbia, Canada, a recent study examined the careers of 30 child molesters. The results were chilling. The 30 individuals had, between them, abused 2,099 children. Fully half of them held positions of trust—teachers, ministers, administrators, and child-case workers.’”[xvii])
  •         Reports of abuse are often met with minimization or denial. Such responses are dangerous. (“The Globe and Mail of Toronto notes: ‘In 80 per cent of cases, one or more sectors of the community [including friends or colleagues of the offender, families of victims, other children, some victims] denied or minimized the abuse.’ Not surprisingly, ‘the report suggests that denial and disbelief allow abuse to continue.”[xviii])

In addition, abusers rarely confess. They usually minimize, lie, and deny. Abusers also are often repeat offenders.

Because the Jehovah Witnesses view Catholics as they do the rest of the outside world, they have covered the cases of child sexual abuse in thatdenomination. Thus, they have recognized how the congregation abuses victims by failing to stop the abuse when reporting on a conference about survivors of child sexual abuse. Awake!  quotes the National Catholic Reporter and then explains when it is that a religious organization harms the victim: “‘The first abuse is sexual; the second and more painful is psychological.’ This second abuse occurs when the church refuses to listen to victims of abuse, fails to take their accusations seriously, and moves only to protect the offending priest.”[xix]

Any procedure that establishes that abuse will only be confirmed if there have been witnesses to the abuse runs counter to the needs of the victims. A congregation that really cares about these issues must recognize the problems with any procedure requiring witnesses, and establish an adequate and responsive one. An effective congregational procedure must have these components:

1.    It must be readily available and accessible. Procedures for making complaints should be posted in a prominent location in the congregation.

2.    It must be clear. Procedures should be described step by step, specifying who, what, when, where, how. They should be written in clear language, with any necessary technical terms defined. It must be specific in identifying the behaviors that are not acceptable in a leadership or ministerial role.

3.    There must be plans that will attempt to insure that abuse will not occur. This would include inquiring as to whether there were reports or accusations at a prior congregation against a candidate for leadership at a new congregation.

4.    Intervention: Plans that identify how to intervene if abuse is suspected. These plans must include:

·      Protection of the victim from further abuse

·      If the victim is a child or a counselee, reporting of the abuse to legal authorities.

·      Holding the abuser accountable through negative consequences. When congregation leaders violate their role, the institution should confront them officially and impose consequences. If the consequences are minimal, the behavior is likely to continue.

5.    Restitution: What is damaged or lost when sexual abuse occurs by religious organization leadership can never be fully restored. Nevertheless, some restitution can and must be made.

·      Saying to the victim, “we are sorry this has happened. We failed you.” In theological language, this is called repentance. But repentance is not solely apology, or acknowledgement of wrong doing. Repentance is a turning around, and it includes restitution. Restitution is a concrete means of acknowledging the harm done and helping to repair the damage. Besides its symbolic value, it is helpful in a material sense, since survivors often incur expenses such as therapy costs, doctor’s bills, time off from work, etc.

·      Even if the abuser never confesses and is never convicted, the congregation should still remove the abuser from opportunities of access to the vulnerable.  This is an essential thing that the congregation has control over: an abuser’s access to the vulnerable.

·      The congregation needs to assure the victim and the congregation that they will protect potential victims from this abuser.

3.   In their procedure that requires the receipt of a letter from the congregation from which the elder is departing, do they adhere to the recommended procedures for prevention enumerated above and the legal standard for inquiring into the past conduct of the elder?

No. A letter from the congregation from which the elder is departing will not mention an accusation of abuse if there was only the accusation and no corroboration either through two eyewitnesses or the confession of the abuser. Since this standard for corroboration insures that abuse will go unconfirmed in almost every conceivable instance, abusers are freed to move from congregation to congregation, gaining access to new victims. Moreover, the procedure of corroboration may create within a congregation a desire to see an elder leave and go elsewhere. A congregation may be convinced that they have an abuser in their midst, but have no way within the congregational procedure to corroborate and then perhaps disfellowship the abuser. Such a congregation would be eager to see the abuser leave. The fact that they are bound not to label the behavior abusive because it was unconfirmed, frees them to send a letter that fails to warn the new congregation.

The Jehovah’s Witness standard for when information can be shared is too high. By requiring eyewitnesses or confession, they are insuring that in virtually every case that information will never be passed on.

Precisely because congregations expose vulnerable individuals to situations in which abusers may take advantage of that vulnerability, it is incumbent on congregations to inquire specifically into possible abusive behavior of elders who are joining their congregations. 


 It is the responsibility of a religious community to protect its vulnerable members from victimization by more powerful members, and to prevent the misuse of religious doctrine so that the abuser evades accountability.

That predators chose professions that give them access to vulnerable children is well-recognized. Whether they select denominations or churches based on this access may not yet be proven. Yet an abuser who knows his history will not follow him, that church policies actually protect him, that a congregation that is male-dominated may feel less empathy for victims, and that the Jehovah’s Witnesses disaffection from state laws works in his favor, could not find a more promising environment in which to discover and groom victims than the Jehovah’s Witnesses.


[i] The Biblical passages are taken from the official translation used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses: The “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures”, Online Bible at www.watchtower.org.

[ii] Laurie Goldstein, “Ousted Members Contend Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Abuse Policy Hides Offensives.” The New York Times,  August 11, 2002.

[iii] Goldstein, August 11, 2002.

[iv] Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah’s Witnesses. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.), p. 13.

[v] Carl A. Raschke, “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Contempoary American Religion,ed. Wade Clark Roof (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2000), p. 341.

[vi] Winthrop S. Hudson, Religion in America (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965, 1973), pp. 349-350.

[vii] Raschke, p. 341.

[viii] http://www.watchtower.org/library/w/1997/1/1/article_01.htm

[ix] http://www.watchtower.org/library/w/1997/1/1/article_01.htm

[x] Awake!, October 8, 1993, p. 13.

[xi]Awake! , October 8, 1993, p. 6.

[xii] Awake! , October 8, 1993, p. 6.

[xiii] Awake!, October 8, 1991, p. 9

[xiv] Awake!,  October 8, 1993, p. 5.

[xv] Awake!, October 8, 1993, p. 6.

[xvi] Awake!, October 8, 1993, p. 6.

[xvii] Awake!,  October 8, 1993, p. 11.

[xviii] Awake!, October 8, 1993, p. 11

[xix] ­Awake!, April 8, 1993, p. 31.