Elizabeth Chuck wrote an article about Jehovah’s Witnesses and I would have preferred she write one instead about the PTA meeting in her town. It is a normal reaction, for it was news of a huge-dollar verdict against a religious organization I hold dear. Of course I hate to see it; that’s only natural. When you find yourself on the gallows you do not angle for a selfie with the hangman.
Still, if you must hear bad news, hear it from Ms. Chuck, for her news in this case is straight reporting, not one of the hatchet jobs we often get. The topic is the most white-hot topic of all, child sexual abuse, and temptations to whip it into fever pitch are not resisted by all. She does resist it. That’s not to say I might not write it up differently. With every story, it is a matter of which facts you put where. But she doesn’t make any up or deliberately misrepresent them. Having said that, it is not to suggest that even those who do misrepresent do so on purpose. Well…I guess it is to suggest that, but only to suggest. It is not proof positive. When your own people merely say that they ‘abhor child abuse and strive to protect children’, but otherwise do not comment, what’s a reporter to do?
Here’s what I like about the Elizabeth Chuck story:
First of all, it is not like the Matt Volz AP article, picked up by many sources, that expressed seeming bewilderment that “the Jehovah’s Witness cases haven’t received the same national attention” [as the Roman Catholic Church]. Is not the reason a big ‘Duh’? The Montana case abuse under trial was all within a family and church leaders were accused of botching the handling of it, though blameless themselves. It’s a little different than church leaders actually committing the abuse, something which is very rare with Witnesses.
Ms. Chuck correctly (and atypically) makes clear that a “two-witness rule” used by Witnesses “is only for internal modes of discipline and does not prevent a victim from going to the police.” She correctly points out that “there are very strict internal modes of discipline within Jehovah's Witnesses.” Yes. It is not an anything-goes religion. She correctly observes that being disfellowshipped is often a painful experience and serves as a negative incentive to do what might trigger it. So far so good. It might not be as I would phrase it, but it is certainly acceptable reporting.
She stumbles briefly, though not seriously, when she says: “Jehovah's Witnesses are a misunderstood and very self-enclosed group, despite counting some celebrities among its ranks — including Venus and Serena Williams.” She is right that they are misunderstood. The only footnote I would add is about her seeming acquiescence to the common wisdom that groups are validated by having celebrities in their camp, some of whom are the most silly people on earth, living radically different lives than anyone else. However, the miscue is minor, and, after all, I make use of poor Serena Williams, too.
Ms. Chuck does her homework. She consults experts on religion, such as “Mark Silk, a professor and the director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn [who says of Witnesses]: ‘They don't vote. They don't celebrate birthdays and holidays. They don't say the pledge [of allegiance]. They are not just another Christian denomination.’” It is not her fault if she does not know that the guy (likely) has it in for Jehovah's Witnesses, spinning his facts negatively, and the reason is revealed in his very job title: he is a professor at Trinity College. If you do not accept the Trinity teaching, you are toast in the eyes of many of these people. Nonetheless, what the professor says about voting and not pledging allegiance is true enough. He does not mention that if nobody pledged allegiance to human institutions maybe the national king could not pit people so easily against each other in times of war, but that is beyond the scope of his information request. At least he doesn’t inaccurately charge that Jehovah’s Witnesses are disrespectful to country, for there are few people as scrupulous about ‘rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s (taxes) than they. Reporter Chuck relates the words of another expert: “Whatever belief they have or mode of internal discipline they have, they have a biblical justification for it.” I’ll take it. It’s true. We don’t apologize for it. I prefer it infinitely over church reporters saying we are not Christian because we do not accept the Trinity. The reason we not accept it is that its scriptural support is based almost entirely upon taking literally certain passages which, if they were read in any other context, would be instantly dismissed as figure of speech.
She relates dutifully the sparse words of the Watchtower organization that they “abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts,” attributing the sparseness to “a penchant for privacy.” She takes it at face value. She does not imply that they are lying through their teeth, like Mr. Gambacorta did in the Philadelphia Inquirer, dismissing the words as ‘boiler plate,’ and even ending his article with an anecdote of spying artwork at the JW headquarters captioned ‘Jehovah loves children,’ and using it as a pretext to wink at his readers as though to say: ‘Yes, I guess we know just how they love them,’ before returning to his Witness-hating base on a Reddit thread, where he is hailed as a hero. He made me so mad that I responded by letter, and when it was ignored I put it online (and I wish it got more play than it actually does, for it is good, not the whole picture perhaps, but then, what is? It represents facts not exactly shouted from the rooftops. It offers perspectives not heard anywhere else.)
However, eclipsing her skill at side-stepping all these potential landmines is that she puts her finger on the real problem in the very first paragraph of her article: Jehovah’s Witnesses are ‘insular.’ She doesn’t even try to spin that into a crime, as do some. Most Witnesses would not agree to the label ‘insular’, but that is primarily because they are unfamiliar with it and unsure just what attachments might come with it. They will instantly, even proudly, acknowledge two closely related phrases: they are ‘separate from the world’ and ‘no part of’ it.' It is a scriptural imperative, they will say, because if you want to lend a helping hand, you must be in a place of safety yourself. Not all will agree that life today is constantly-improving. Some will say the overall picture more closely resembles the Titanic floundering. Did I not just read that generalized anxiety has replaced depression as the number one mental health malady? Can that be because there is nothing to worry about in life today? I think not. It is the ramifications of these two views, society is ever-improving vs floundering, that causes most of the ‘misunderstanding’ that opponents of Witnesses speak of.
Witnesses are ‘insular,’ biblically mandated, but here is an instance where that insularity has contributed to a significant tragedy. Witness leaders find themselves in a situation parallel to certain vehicles being exempt from normal traffic laws—say, police and fire emergency vehicles. Yet, in making use of that exemption, a terrible accident results and the public outcry is so great that they are convicted even though following the law. Or, to apply it more accurately, public anger is so great that the law is reinterpreted so that it can be established that they did break it.
I am not a lawyer. I can quickly step out of my depth. Yet most persons reading this section of the Montana child abuse reporting laws would, I suspect, agree that the Witness organization followed the letter of them. They make every effort to do that. The prompt appeal of any Witness judicial committee to their Branch organization is not to see how they can evade child abuse laws, as their opponents often spin it, but how they can be sure their actions are in harmony with them.
On the very bottom of the document ‘Montana Mandatory Reporting Requirements Regarding Children’ is a section labeled ‘Members of the clergy or priests are not required to report when the following condition is met.... if the communication is required to be confidential by cannon law, church doctrine, or established church practice.”
Even “established church practice?” It seems extraordinarily loose, and yet there it is. It is a part of a doctrine called ‘ecclesiastical privilege.’ It has long been encapsulated into law, as has the privileged nature of the doctor-patient relationship and the attorney-client relationship, on the recognition that these relationships cannot function without the expectation of confidentiality.
If such is the law, why is the Witness organization found culpable despite stringent efforts to follow it? Because the war today is against child sexual abuse, deemed the most critical crusade of our time, and they were expected to ‘go beyond the law’ so as to facilitate that end. Thus, the law was reinterpreted so as to allow that they did violate it.
The Witness organization finds itself in a situation similar to that of Joe Paterno, the Penn State coach who was universally praised throughout his life as an excellent role model but then was excoriated beyond redemption when he merely obeyed the law regarding an unspecific allegation he heard of child sexual abuse but did not 'go beyond it.' He followed it. He reported the allegation to his superiors. But he did not ‘go beyond the law,’ reporting it directly to police. When the allegation turned out to be true, his career was over, and even his life, for he died two years later.
If it is so crucial to ‘go beyond the law,’ then make that the law. This is exactly what Geoffrey Jackson of the Witnesses’ Governing Body pleaded for three times before an Australian Royal Commission. Isn’t that the purpose of law – to codify what is right? Make the law clear, unambiguous, and allow for no exceptions. Jehovah’s Witnesses are universally recognized for meticulously following secular law even as they are primarily guided by biblical law. Make universal mandating the law, with no exceptions. Requiring parties to ‘go beyond the law’ only enables Monday-morning quarterbacking to assign motives, invariably bad ones, to unpopular parties that have failed in this regard.
An article in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle dated November 20th, 2011, observed that “it's a mistake to think that the failure…to report the abuse is a rarity....Studies over the past two decades nationally have consistently shown that nearly two-thirds of professionals who are required to report all cases of suspected abuse fail to do so....."I think that we fail miserably in mandated reporting," said Monroe County Assistant District Attorney Kristina Karle...” Is it not absurdly chaotic to excoriate those who did their best to follow the law when two thirds of all professionals, for a variety of reasons, do not? Does anyone charge that two thirds of all professionals do not give a hoot about children? Plainly there are other factors at work. Yet when the crusade against child sexual abuse reaches fever pitch only one factor is deemed to have any significance.
(The Democrat and Chronicle article is behind a paywall. Snippets of the above quote exist here and there, but to my knowledge, the only complete excerpt is found in a JoePa follow-up article I wrote at the time. All is not lost. Your employer will pay to get you behind that wall, and probably already has an account. Alas, my employer is me, and he likes to cut costs, seeing no need to return there, as he already has what he needs.)
End of Part 1. Part 2 to follow soon.