As with other religious organisations, Jehovah's Witnesses have been obliged in recent years to develop child protection policies to deal with cases of child abuse in their congregations. Details of the policy have been published in Jehovah's Witnesses publications and press releases issued by their Office of Public Information. Some details are found only in letters to elders which, while confidential, have been made available on the internet.
In recent years, Jehovah's Witnesses have published information on how to protect children from sexual molestation. This includes articles such as "Protect Your Children" in the October 8, 1993 edition of Awake! magazine, the article Help Your Children to Thrive in Awake! of August 8, 1997 and the series "Keep Your Children Safe" in the November 2007 edition of Awake! magazine and chapter 32 of a book for children entitled Learn from the Great Teacher. These articles focus on prevention by helping children understand what sexual abuse is, to say no to molesters and to tell their parents about attempted abuse. Jehovah's Witnesses' policy does not apply solely to those holding appointed positions, but to everyone associated with the organization.
In cases where there is only one eyewitness, the victim, to an allegation of child abuse, elders are instructed to 'monitor' the accused very closely. If there is some valid reason to suspect that the alleged perpetrator did abuse children, a 'warning' will have to be given (to the congregation for its protection). Testimony based on one person's repressed memories is not considered reliable enough to form the basis for an internal action. Repressed memories are not viewed as true or false, simply as insufficient proof. Elders are encouraged to treat persons reporting this type of memory with kindness and dismiss the case unless further proof is found.
It is important to note that the two eyewitnesses policy is applied solely to congregational discipline and has no bearing on whether the crime is reported to the police, which is most often the case. This is due to fact that elders have no professional training in child sex abuse investigation or forensic science. Evidence given by forensic experts/police is acceptable as a second "eyewitness".
Crucial to legal actions taken against the Watchtower Society has been the “Three Year” rule. This allowed for known sex offenders to continue serving as elders, provided any known offenses were committed at least three years prior to confession. The 1972 book Organization for Kingdom-Preaching and Disciple-Making stated:
“If a person was serving as an elder or a ministerial servant when he committed a serious wrong, even though it was some years ago, he bears a degree of reprehensibility, for he continued to serve in that position though knowing that he had, for the time at least, disqualified himself, not being then “free from accusation.” (1 Tim. 3:2, 10; Titus 1:6,7) He should have informed the judicial committee that he did not adhere to the requirements and should have stepped down from his position. In view of his failure to do this at that time, he would now be removed from that position.”
The term “some years ago” was clarified shortly afterwards in Our Kingdom Ministry October 1972, p.8, as a time period of three years:
“What was meant by “some years ago” on page 170, paragraph two, in the “Organization” book? This indicates more than a year or two. It may be noted that it did not say “many years ago.” So it is not the exact number of years, but more like two or three years. It was not intended to have a brother go back into the distant past to bring up wrongs of which he repented years ago and that have evidently been forgiven by Jehovah and are not practiced now.”
This position was clarified in 1991 two-day Kingdom Ministry Schools to exclude ones involved in child sex abuse. In the 2005 Kingdom Ministry Schools that it was clearly stated that hidden acts of “porneia” (sexual sins) such as "internet sex" were to require an internal judicial committee and if these involved child would be treated as child sex abuse. Any case of child sex abuse would prevent a person from ever qualifying for any position of responsibility (such as elder or ministerial servant) in the congregation.
Whether to seek help from a counselor or other mental-health professional is considered to be a personal decision for the victim (or parents) to make but victims are advised to ensure that any counselor consulted will respect the Jehovah's Witness doctrine. Likewise, elders are instructed that there are times when an emotionally distressed member may seek professional help. Whether or not a victim pursues treatment from psychiatrists, psychologists or therapists is a personal decision as long as the therapy does not conflict with their religious doctrine.
Anyone found to have sexually molested a child and failing to demonstrate repentance is to be disfellowshipped (excommunicated) from the congregation. Numerous Jehovah's Witnesses who have committed child molestation have been subjected to disfellowshipping, a strong sanction that is virtually unknown in most other faith-based groups. – See Cases of abuse below.
Those judged repentant by a committee of elders are given 'public reproof'. Their names are announced to the congregation, although their crime is not announced. Some time later, a talk is given to the congregation, discussing the type of sin and the need to be on guard against it, although this time nothing is said to connect the person to the type of sin committed.; This sidesteps the acknowledgment that child sex abuse sins are crimes. For a considerable period of time those reproved in this way are not permitted to participate in meetings by commenting in group discussions or making presentations from the platform. They are immediately debarred from serving in any appointed position in the congregation, usually for life (see below for exceptions).
In Canada, the following advice is provided to elders: "There is a duty to report when one has reasonable and probable grounds to believe that there is abuse or a substantial risk of abuse and parents have failed to protect the child. The report shall be made forthwith to the local child welfare authorities. […] Elders must be aware, however, that once they have knowledge, they have an obligation. They cannot just hope that someone else will report. They must follow through quickly, and be sure that it is done.
In 2000, elders in Great Britain were instructed: "The elder approached must encourage the complainant to consider his or her responsibility to report the matter to the authorities without delay and should also explain that he himself might have a duty to report the matter to the proper authorities. The Elders' Manual states: "Though it is not the responsibility of the Christian congregation to enforce Caesar's laws, the very nature of some crimes demands that they be reported to secular authorities. A 1995 memo to elders stated: "When a member of the congregation is accused of child molestation, the elders should contact the Society's Legal Department immediately. Many states make it mandatory that elders report an accusation to the proper authorities but other states do not. In those states where such is required, oftentimes the parent, the guardian, or the accused person himself can do the reporting.
The New York Times, though, has commented: "The shape of the scandal [in Jehovah's Witnesses] is far different than in the Catholic church, where most of the people accused of abuse are priests and a vast majority of the victims were boys and young men. In the Jehovah's Witnesses, where congregations are often collections of extended families and church elders are chosen from among the laypeople, some of those accused are elders, but most are congregation members. The victims who have stepped forward are mostly girls and young women, and many accusations involve incest.
In an attempt to draw the least attention possible from the media, congregation elders are now required to first contact the organization's legal department in such cases to establish whether there is a legal duty to report the sex crime to the civil authorities or not. In recent law suits where it was claimed the Watchtower Society failed to report child sex abuses, the Watchtower Society's defense lawyers argued that it is a confidentiality protected by ecclesiastical privilege. This “ecclesiastical privilege” means that the Jehovah's Witness going from door-to-door to talk about the Bible may in fact be a known sex offender among his elders, but has never been prosecuted by the law.
Even where there is no statutory requirement for elders to report a crime, they are now instructed to not discourage the victim (or their relatives) from reporting it, but the elders are still not required to report the crime themselves, as The Watchtower stated in 2005: "The victim has every right to report the matter to the police. In this way the proper authorities can punish the offender. And if the victim is a minor, the parents may want to initiate these actions.
By doctrine, the Jehovah's Witnesses handle all matters internally, which in recent years prompted accusations and lawsuits of a systematic sex offender cover-up. Therefore recent policies sent to elders in 2002 state: "Child abuse is a crime. Never suggest to anyone that they should not report an allegation of child abuse to the police or other authorities. If you are asked, make it clear that whether to report the matter to the authorities or not, is a personal decision for each individual to make and that there are no congregation sanctions for either decision. That is, no elder will criticize anyone who reports such an allegation to the authorities". This has been the Watchtower Society's position since at least 1993, when a memo to elders stated: "It is also a personal decision if the alleged victim chooses to report such accusations to the secular authorities.
Particularly since around 2000, the Jehovah's Witnesses organization has been accused of covering up cases of child molestation committed by their members. In February 2001, Christianity Today – an evangelical journal that also disagrees with the theological perspective of Jehovah's Witnesses - printed an article reporting allegations that Jehovah's Witness policies made reporting sexual abuse difficult for members, and did not follow legal norms on the issue. The article also included a response by Jehovah's Witness representatives.
The BBC reported on the controversy around Jehovah's Witnesses child abuse in July 2002, in the Panorama (TV series)|Panorama program "Suffer the Little Children Jehovah's Witnesses headquarters published their response to many of the allegations made in the program, the substance of which is found in the article Jehovah's Witnesses and Child Protection on their official website.
According to Witness spokesman J. R. Brown, "Jehovah's Witnesses are not required to report crimes to elders before calling civil authorities. Victims and their families are free to call police at will, he said, although some don't choose to. It is apparent that victims or their relatives must report the abuse, rather than the elders doing so. A circular sent to elders in the USA stated: "In those states where such is required, oftentimes the parent, the guardian, or the accused person himself can do the reporting. In this way the confidentiality protected by ecclesiastical privilege is not violated.
The Watchtower Society still refuses to change their policy and report all child abuse cases to the authorities automatically. Elders are instructed that reports should be made to the police only if required by law.
Current Watchower's policy requires that the elders first contact their legal department for instructions on child abuse. Resistance to contact police stems from their position that an automatic reporting policy to the police would entail reporting abuse that took place decades ago, even when the molester is repentant or rehabilitated. The current policy also prevents an automatic reporting to police claiming to avoid overriding the objections of the victim over confidentiality. When in court, the Watchtower Society's legal defense effectively has claimed that such reporting to the authorities violates the confidentiality of confessions made to the elders and violates their freedom of worship.
Another common criticism is the policy on having the testimony of two eyewitnesses to establish a perpetrator's guilt. This requirement is allegedly based on a number of Biblical passages that refer to matters being established at the mouth of two or three eyewitnesses. The Watchower public information department claims that the two-eyewitness policy concerns only how the congregation handles the sin and not whether the matter is reported to the authorities. This policy is felt to be a protection against malicious accusation of sexual assault. A serious problem with this policy is the fact that elders have no professional training in child sex abuse investigation or forensic science, and even if found guilty, there is no guarantee the elders will report the crime to the authorities, only to the Watchtower Society.
The Watchtower Society has repeatedly refused to submit this sex offender database to authorities, claiming confidentiality based on ecclesiastical privilege. The American victim rights organization known as Silent Lambs figures this secret sex offender database names 23,720 Jehovah's Witnesses.
In one case, however, a woman named Vicki Boer was awarded $5,000 against the Watchtower Society of Canada.
In 2002, Erica Rodriguez filed a suit in the US District Court in Spokane, Washington. Manuel Beliz was convicted of abusing her and was sentenced to eleven years' imprisonment for his crime. (After, he was also disfellowshipped from the congregation.) In her suit, Rodriguez sought unspecified damages from Beliz for her abuse, and also from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. The case against the Watchtower Society was dismissed on September 17, 2003.
In 2003, Heidi Meyer alleged that her pleas concerning sexual abuse were dismissed and that this is a widespread problem. However, her case against the Watchtower Society was summarily dismissed by the court.
Dateline broke the news on television with a program called “Witness for the Prosecution” in May 2002. That program is still available via the Internet.
In a press release dated November 21, 2007, Jehovah's Witnesses' Office of Public Information states: "In the United States, over 80,000 elders currently serve in over 12,300 congregations … During the last 100 years, only eleven elders have been sued for child abuse in thirteen lawsuits filed in the United States; In seven of these lawsuits against the elders, accusations against the Watchtower Society itself were dismissed by the courts
In 2007 during a ground-breaking trial motion in the Napa, California court against Watchtower Society, victims' lawyers convinced the court that the 'ecclesiastical privilege' defense does not supersede the legal obligation of clergy to report child sex abuse to secular authorities. Instead of turning in the sex offender database, the Jehovah's Witness leaders at the Watchtower Society opted to pay an undisclosed amount (believed to be in the millions) in an out-of-court settlement with 16 unnamed alleged victims of sexual abuse within the religion. According to court documents obtained by NBC News, one plaintiff was awarded over $780,000 USD.
In the case regarding Tim W. of Tehama County, California the Second Amended Complaint states: “Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc. had actual knowledge that James Henderson was a sexual predator since at least 1964. Yet, for the better part of three decades, that appointed and re-appointed him to the positions of elder and ministerial servant.”
Any reports by the media critical of Jehovah's Witnesses are said to be 'the work of Satan, ruler of the Earth, its media and all governments'; The Jehovah's Witnesses claim that slanderous reports in the media are nothing more than religious persecution, and a cause for rejoicing as it means they are pleasing Jehovah and will receive a reward..
Some recent cases reported in the media: