What should Jehovah’s Witnesses do if they think someone they know has sexually abused a child, but no one was there to see it?
So say leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who instruct elders not to take action against a member of the religion accused of child sexual abuse without a confession or at least two witnesses to the crime.
That policy is based on Scripture, according to the religion’s top officials.
The vast majority of sexual predators abuse their victims in secret, with no witnesses present. And even though Jehovah’s Witnesses are under pressure worldwide for covering up child sexual abuse, a senior official says scrapping the policy isn’t up for discussion.
“We will never change our Scriptural position on that subject,” said Gary Breaux, a senior official at the religion’s global headquarters in New York, known as the Watchtower.
Breaux made the statement this month on JW Broadcasting – the religion’s official internet video channel.
“Our good reasoning is pretty solid on this,” he said.
He then looked down at a Bible and read from Deuteronomy 19:15: “No single witness can convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit. On the testimony of two witnesses, or on the testimony of three witnesses, the matter should be established.”
When a Jehovah’s Witness commits a serious sin, such as child abuse, local leaders can form a judicial committee to determine whether the offender should be kicked out of the congregation. But without a confession or the testimony of two witnesses to corroborate the allegations, the elders are instructed to leave the matter to God’s judgment.
The lack of eyewitnesses in most child sexual abuse cases can also be vexing to prosecutors charged with convincing juries that a crime occurred based mostly on a minor’s allegations. Still, such cases are filed every day in courts across the country, and often result in guilty pleas or convictions. In Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations, the burden of proof is so high that some allegations are dismissed even when local leaders suspect that they’re true.
Breaux’s defense of the two-witness rule comes as legal scrutiny of Jehovah’s Witnesses child abuse policies is ramping up around the world. An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that Watchtower policies dating back to at least 1989 direct elders to keep child abuse secret from law enforcement and members of their congregations.
In September, current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada filed two class-action lawsuits against the Watchtower claiming the organization protects sexual predators in its congregations.
Attorneys in the U.S. have filed dozens of lawsuits against the Watchtower on behalf of alleged victims of sexual abuse. The commission that regulates charities in England is currently investigating whether the Watchtower’s child abuse policies violate charity laws. In 2015, a government commission in Australia reviewed internal Watchtower documents indicating that officials there had knowledge of 1,006 alleged child sexual abusers in that country. None had been reported to law enforcement.
Reveal’s investigation focused on former Jehovah’s Witnesses who claimed to have been sexually abused as children by a leader in their rural Oklahoma congregation. According to documents, other leaders there had suspected Ronald Lawrence of sexual misconduct “over a period of years in the past.”
In a letter to headquarters in New York, the leaders explained that because no one had witnessed the abuse, and because Lawrence had not confessed, that no action would be taken.
“The matter,” they wrote, “would be left in Jehovah’s hand.”