The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote four incendiary articles about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Wow! did they ever make them look bad! Probably that was the intent, though it is hard to say for sure because nobody would ever say that the subject is nothing. It is the topic of child sexual abuse, the most white-hot topic of all.
Some significant facts are omitted in the articles. Some background facts that are included are misrepresented, leading to condemnation of a religion that otherwise has a reputation for fine works and conduct. “Overall, they’re nice, sincere people” says vehement critic Barbara Anderson in the first article, referring to the “rank and file.” Her statement accompanies the video of Jared Kushner, from before campaign days, speaking about the Witnesses from whom he would buy their Brooklyn buildings. It is almost unheard of in its praise—Witnesses are persons of “high integrity” with whom “a handshake deal means something,” he says. How can this be if the leadership is as vile as the reporter represents them? Plainly, something is missing.
No topic is more incendiary than child sexual abuse. In no other area is a person’s viewpoint so determined by experience. It is exacerbated by the Witnesses being said to be an ‘insular’ organization, and this ‘crime’ of being insular is pushed pedal-to-the-medal by the Philly reporter, who returns to an anti-Witness website in between articles, where he is lauded as a hero. Perhaps he has 20 more of such articles up his sleeve. But it is little wonder that he is lauded: some of these gathered at the site are ones who have been victims.
The overall stats for child sexual abuse do not speak well for humanity. Few evils appear to be more widespread. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they are 18 (in the U. S, according to InvisibleChildren.org)—this, despite decades of battling the evil. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who stops at nothing in his impersonations, appeared to be stopped dead in his tracks when one of those impersonations apparently uncovered an elite pedophile ring, reported Newsweek on December 20, 2018. He and his production team were so disturbed at what they thought they had found—“a pedophile ring in Las Vegas that’s operating for these very wealthy men. And this [interviewed] concierge had said that he’d worked for politicians and various billionaires”—that they turned over all footage to the FBI, who declined to pursue the tip.
There is some reason to think that child sexual abuse is relatively uncommon within the ranks of Jehovah’s Witnesses,* but just try telling that to one who has suffered from it. Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017, at their summer conventions, which all attend, considered detailed scenarios in which child sexual abuse might occur, so that parents, the first line of defense, could be vigilant. If anyone displays unusual interest in your child, if there are sleepovers, if there are unsupervised trips to the rest room, if—there were several others, all potential hot spots, not necessarily bad, but reason to be attentive. Nobody, but nobody, gathers their entire membership for such education other than Jehovah’s Witnesses.
There is also Caleb and Sophia, cartoon characters whose family doings are utilized as a teaching tool for Witness parents. They teach short lessons on subjects often mundane, yet crucial to smooth functioning of society, such as the desirability of honesty. The tykes delight the hearts of JW children everywhere (except in Russia, where they are behind bars as extremists). ‘Protect Your Children’ is an especially vital lesson that addresses pedophilia, in which Mommy and Daddy coax their children on how to respond if threatened. If someone “touches you where they should not” or “asks you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable.” “Even if it is someone you know and trust,” Mommy commends a correct answer, and her husband adds, “and then tell Mommy and Daddy right away,” who, in the video, take the news most seriously.
In four articles, the Philadelphia Inquirer makes no mention of these clearly relevant factors, though the balance between malice and incompetence is difficult to ascertain. Nor does it cite the Witness organization’s easily available printed and digital child abuse policy, which gives the obvious lie to most of the insinuations made. Included only is a Watchtower Society quote that the latter “abhor child sexual abuse,” which the Inquirer presents in a context as though evidence that they do not.
No, Philly Inquirer, the religion you slimed is not the scourge of humanity. It comprises a group of decent, caring human beings who encountered problems in the 80s and 90s doing what others did not attempt. The Watchtower organization was investigating reports of this and other forms of wrongdoing within its ranks, and it is through this policy of vigilance that they come to be identified with this moral crime. In fact, any group professing that their beliefs contribute to better conduct should take measures to see that that is in fact the case. The Book of Romans says “You, the one preaching, ‘Do not steal,’ do you steal? You, the one saying, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ do you commit adultery?” If they “mishandled” anything, it must be observed that you cannot mishandle what you never attempted to handle in the first place.
The Philadelphia Inquirer appears to be fully siding with enemies of the religion whose stated goal is to litigate it out of existence. Were they to succeed, they would be showing themselves friends of child sexual abuse, for few others have the proactive education and prevention record of Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite some missteps with regard to general society now determined to leave no stone unturned in squashing the evil. Data that can be gleaned from various sources,** coupled with the Witnesses’ relentless campaign to avoid pornography in any form, plus the educational factors already cited, make this conclusion nearly inescapable, though positive proof will ever be lacking because others of the time failed to address the problem and thereby produce records. In many venues, such ‘negligence’ is a punishable offense; here it is effectively rewarded. It is Sergeant Shultz crying, “I know nothiinnnggg,” a policy that ultimately got him out of many a jam on the old TV show.
It is fine to handle a case of child sexual abuse properly. But it is far finer if the abuse does not happen in the first place. It is similar to calling in the grief counselors in the wake of a school shooting. Of course, it is a good thing to call them in, but how much better to not need them in the first place. A case of child sexual abuse “properly handled” does not mean that it did not occur, and the child is only somewhat less damaged than if the case was properly handled. Thus, a story on this topic should never omit the overall relative success of the Witness organization in prevention of this evil.
Lucy Delap, writing for History and Policy, states that “clear guidelines for best [child protective] practice were not established until the 1990s,” during or even after most of the JW abuse cases under review. Thus, the Witness organization walked in largely uncharted territory, for the purpose of identifying this most pernicious group so as to apply discipline, often expulsion, to safeguard other congregation members, and to ensure that pedophiles could not slip unnoticed from one congregation into another (as they could anywhere else). Seen in this light, condemnation of the Watchtower for this proactive policy is a prime example of the cynicism: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
The misstep that the Inquirer exclusively zeroes in on, and it is not nothing, is the inclination of many Witnesses, upon submitting a matter to congregation elders, to not also go to outside authorities, and elders to not go over their heads and do so themselves. Ones were never prevented from doing so, but the prevailing atmosphere in the 80s and 90s was such that they were less likely to do it, and stories abound of persons being pressured in that direction. An ill-conceived desire to protect reputation is hardly unique to Witnesses of that day; the very reason there is an expression “skeletons in the closet” is the universal human instinct to keep them there. This writer would not argue that Jehovah’s Witnesses were slower than many to give up that mindset. These days elders positively plead with families of victims to report to outside authorities, only to find that some are still reluctant to go that route.
In this context, some victims of child sexual abuse come to feel that they went unheard. Some of these later become bitter towards religion in general and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular. Today, in an era of litigation, many of these ones seek their due. The fourteen persons that the Philly reporter interviewed appear to be from a Reddit forum “devoted exclusively to ex-Witnesses,” who “discuss the absurdity of their experiences.” This writer has no reason to challenge the experiences the fourteen relate, and whether their perspective on what they report is the final word, he is in no position to say. However, it is inexcusable for the Inquirer article to link to an ex-Witness forum of 20,000 members, and not also to a Watchtower downloadable child-protection policy packet plainly showing that most its insinuations are untrue.
The second of the series tells it from the point of view of a wronged girl. The details of any child molestation case are stomach turning. It is not claimed that she speaks untruthfully. It is simply that, humans being what they are, we are inclined to remember things the way we remember them—embellish certain points and downplay or forget others. When the judge involved recalls certain things in a matter-of-fact way, the victim says that’s not how she recalled it, and the reporter at that point forgets all about the judge and runs with the victim. It is at least as likely that the judge recollects it more accurately, because he has not carried the emotional baggage for two decades. When Witness Governing Body member Stephen Lett, speaking many years later, tells of “apostate lies,” the reporter presents it as though he is calling his old friend—he once knew the victim’s parents—a liar. Of course, he is not. No one says that the bare facts of the abuse case is a lie; it is the spin that enemies (which now seem to include the Inquirer) put on it that is the lie.
The notion that persons should be monetarily compensated for real or perceived wrongs has long been accepted by society. Lawsuits for all manner of offenses are unremarkable routine, with enormous monetary awards increasingly common. It amounts to a massive societal transfer of wealth, with lawyers netting a third. It is the reason insurance skyrockets at a time that inflation is quite low. It is a reason that prices of goods escalate, as ‘punished’ corporations pass along their costs to the consumer. Few would assert that compensation is wrong, but few would deny its overall effects, either.
Witness policy has likely evolved to the extent they feel possible, given their Bible outlook, and they plead for a circumstance in law that is unlikely ever to be realized. Here law mandates that allegations be reported to police, there it does not mandate it, and the default law kicks into place that it is likely forbidden, as it can constitute a violation of ‘clergy-penitent confidentiality,’ an idea as much enshrined into law as doctor-patient confidentiality and attorney-client confidentiality. The Witness attorney pleaded for understanding before an investigating Australian Royal Commission (and got none) that Witnesses were having a hard time navigating this patchwork of laws, as they sought to fulfill a biblically-mandated duty that others do not take seriously. Three times before the ARC, a member of the Witnesses’ Governing Body pleaded for universal mandatory reporting laws, across all territories, with no exceptions. Then it wouldn’t matter if a given congregation member, for whatever reason, declined to go to the police. Elders would be enabled do it regardless. Most of the cases reported today are from 20 or more years previous, and the “crime” alleged is failing “to go beyond the law” with regard to reporting. Nothing is more telling of society’s overall desperation at losing the war against child sexual abuse than the moral imperative to “go beyond the law.” If it is so imperative to go beyond the law, then surely that should become the law. Otherwise, that lapse becomes simply a means of Monday-morning quarterbacking to target unpopular groups.
Such universal change in law would make possible both the aims of the congregation and those of outside authorities. Roundly condemned is Jehovah’s Witnesses insistence on a “two-witness rule” in connection with their religious investigations. The Philadelphia Inquirer misrepresents this rule as though Jehovah’s Witnesses, intent on nurturing molesters, demand two spectators for every abuse incident, and let perpetrators off with a wink and a nod in their absence. Various accommodations Witnesses have made to work around this obvious difficulty are ignored by the Philly reporter.
The reason one ought not be too quick to give up a “two-witness rule” emerges every time someone is exonerated by DNA evidence, the latest advance of criminal science, after serving decades in prison, having been convicted over less strenuous proof. Outside authorities have their own standards for proof, and with universal mandatory reporting laws, both agencies can fulfill their duties simultaneously. Why was this not done long ago—passing universal mandatory reporting laws? Given the crusade to punish child sexual abuse, one would think that no task would have been easier.
Since the present legal climate makes the Witnesses’ duty in policing its own, according to biblical standards, almost impossible, the situation could be framed as an encroachment of state upon church. “Preach to them on Sunday, and be done with it,” is the only liability-free policy. “It’s none of your business whether they apply it or not.’’ And yet, to those determined to live by Bible principles as best they can, it clearly is their business. Is it possible that the Witnesses’ underlying “crime” is the resolve to stay separate from the overall world, today portrayed as being “insular?” The Jews’ historical determination to stay separate, which has moderated only in recent times, contributed towards many a pogrom over the centuries.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are overall pretty good at allowing the repercussions of life to serve as discipline, even if they are not intended that way. “It is for discipline that you are enduring,” says Paul, adding, “no discipline seems for the present to be joyous, but it is painful; yet afterwards it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Witness leaders are without doubt humbled and chastened by events. They may not state it to those they perceive as their enemies—because the goals of the latter go well beyond humbling—but it is undoubtedly so.
Meanwhile, when sued, they must defend themselves in court where determining what is right is complex and impartiality cannot be assumed. The reason there is an uproar with every new Supreme Court justice nominee is the universal understanding that even judges are not impartial; they interpret the law in the light of overriding philosophy and pre-existing bias; it is not enough simply to find an honest one who knows how to swing a gavel. And no topic can trigger overriding philosophy and pre-existing bias more than child sexual abuse.
Stories of Jehovah’s Witnesses and child sexual abuse are certainly not nothing, and it is easy to see why a journalist might go there. However, by being so selective in what he reports, the Inquirer writer maligns a faith whose overall record of producing fine people of integrity has already been mentioned, by a harsh critic, no less. As the “if it bleeds it leads” theme fails to excite a hardened public in the way that it once did, the Philly source appears to have found a more potent substitute.
*The frequency of child sexual abuse within a religious laity is almost impossible to compare because it has never been tracked by denomination, save for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who did so for purposes of protection and discipline. Still, from time to time there are clues. During his lifetime, Ray Franz was a hero to Witness detractors. He was once a high-ranking member, he separated over various disputes, and thereafter never ceased to criticize those he once rubbed shoulders with. He has proven decidedly unhelpful to them, however, with regard to the topic of child sexual abuse. When specifically asked by a Witness opponent, he replied that he really didn’t think there was much of a problem at all, and that it had all been blown out of proportion in the media.
**Case Study 54 of the Australian Royal Commission mentions reports of abuse from the JW community within the period extending from the ARC’s initial investigation to its final report. It is possible to work out ratios, compare them to the non-Witness community, and conclude that the Witness organization’s vigilance has paid off, perhaps by as much as a factor of six, though there are many factors making this less than a fine science. During a time interval in which there were 27,058 reports of child sexual abuse in a greater Australian population of 23,968,973, there were 12 of such in an Australian Witness population of 67,418. For various reasons, it is not a comparison of oranges to oranges—the reports are at different stages of investigation, for example—but neither is it oranges to apples. Call it oranges to tangerines. If any other group had bothered to track the crime within its community, there would be more to go on.
From the book TrueTom vs the Apostates!