A former Jehovah’s Witness in Australia is scheduled to appear in court this week to face charges that he sexually abused four teenage boys between 1993 and 2013, according to a news report.
The case is significant because it stems from an ongoing investigation by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which found that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not report child sexual abuse to law enforcement as a matter of policy.
The commission obtained records from the religion’s headquarters in Australia detailing allegations of child abuse going back to 1950. Investigators identified 1,006 alleged abusers, none of whom had been reported to authorities. The commission referred hundreds of those cases to law enforcement and now we’re starting to see criminal charges filed.
“We hope that this arrest is one of many that police make against perpetrators within the JW faith that have got away with their crimes for far too long,” said Lisa Flynn, an attorney who has represented hundreds of victims of child sexual abuse, including former Jehovah’s Witnesses and some who have appeared before the Royal Commission. “It is a very positive step that we are seeing police investigations, and now, subsequent arrests.”
Meanwhile, the U.S., which is home to more than a million Jehovah’s Witnesses and the religion’s global headquarters, appears to be doing nothing.
As part of a three-year investigation into the Jehovah’s Witnesses child sexual abuse policies, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting contacted the FBI, attorneys general in New York and California, the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and several members of Congress, and found no indication of a government investigation.
This despite at least 20 child sexual abuse lawsuits pending against the Jehovah’s Witnesses across the country, including some in which the religion’s leaders have violated court orders to turn over a national database containing the names and congregations of child abusers going back decades.
Irwin Zalkin, a San Diego attorney who represents victims of abuse, has gone to court repeatedly to get the Jehovah’s Witnesses to turn over their child abuse database. But so far, the organization has defied judges’ orders to give up the names of any perpetrators. Zalkin worries that they could still be abusing children.
“It’s a public safety issue,” Zalkin told Reveal last year. “At this point, this needs to be investigated.”
If the U.S. is looking for a model of how to turn evidence into prosecutions, it could look to the Australian Royal Commission, which investigates child abuse in secular, government and religious institutions, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In a statement reported this week by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Justice Peter McClellan said the commission – which he heads – has reviewed 1.2 million documents and heard evidence from 1,200 witnesses.
McClellan said the commission had referred 2,025 cases to law enforcement. So far, 127 of them had been investigated by the authorities.
“The volume of referrals is so great it will take some time before all matters are processed,” McClellan said.
In 2015, the commission found, among other problems, that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not report child sexual abuse to police or other authorities and subsequently place children at risk of further abuse.
In their response, the Jehovah’s Witnesses took issue with virtually all of the commission’s findings, including the risk of further abuse of children.
“The mere presence of an offender within a congregation does not necessarily entail that other children in a congregation or the community are at risk,” they wrote in their response.