The recent conviction of a Jehovah’s Witness elder in Wales highlights once again the endemic opportunities for sexual predators within religious institutions, and the difficulty in speaking out against institutional abuse.
Church elder, Thomas Brian Jenkins, denied 20 charges of indecent assault of a young girl in the 1970s within the context of carrying out missionary activities such as “door-to-door missions” to rural properties in the Welsh countryside.
He was accused of forcing his hands up the school girl’s skirt as she sat with him in his car, and during the Bible studies she was forced to do with him. He also tried to digitally penetrate her vagina whilst pretending to teach her to swim.
The alleged assaults happened while the young girl and her family were members of the Brecon congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Wales, where Jenkins was a church elder.Jenkins targeted her following her father’s death, when she was aged between 12 and 14 .
Merthyr Tydfil Crown Court heard that Jenkins’ victim reported him to two other elders (a doctor and ex-police officer) who simply ’grinned’. She tried to leave the Jehovah’s Witness church but instead was reprimanded for not attending meetings or doing the prescribed missionary work. She recalls being scared of the elders, describing one as a “physical and mental bully”. She described feeling ashamed, embarrassed and powerless.
On November 8th, Jenkins was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment after the jury took only one hour to deliver unanimous guilty verdicts in respect of 6 counts of indecent assault. The judge also ordered him to go on the sex offenders register for life.
The court also heard Jenkins was a Jehovah’s Witness elder until 1991, when he was jailed for 21 months at Worcester Crown Court for a series of similar sex offences.
Increased revelations in the UK of sexual abuse in the JW organisation
Revelations of sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness community in the UK are gradually leaking into the public domain. In March this year more than hundred people contacted the Guardian with allegations of child sexual abuse and other mistreatment in Jehovah’s Witnesses communities across the UK . The British nationwide investigation into allegations of non recent child sexual abuse Operation Hydrant stated that they it was dealing with 45 potential victims of child abuse within a Jehovah’s Witness setting.
Religious practice and cultural issues
Although complainants of abuse in the JW community are now trickling forward, historically there is little evidence in the UK that police have been contacted when allegations are made by and about members of the Jehovah’s Witness community. Certain religious practices and culture strongly militate against coming forward.
It has however been widely recorded that child abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness organisation is seen as a wrong that can be dealt with “in-house”, often by simply reprimanding the perpetrator and praying for both the victim and the perpetrator.
The two witness rule
Misdemeanours within the Jehovah’s Witness community are dealt with by the ‘two witness’ rule. Allegations of sexual abuse are supposed to be reported to church elders (who are always men), who will take further action if there is a second witness to the offence. If the perpetrator admits the abuse or if there is a second witness they will be called before a judicial committee. This can cause further angst and trauma to the victim.
The difficulty with the two witness rule is that there are rarely witnesses to sexual abuse – the nature of sexual abuse and the evil of it is that it happens in secret.
It has been recorded that victims who report sexual abuse can be “disfellowshipped” for making such allegations. In other words, they are forced to leave both their family and the church; disclosure is therefore prohibitive.
Criticism by the Australian Child Abuse Enquiry
Abuse in the Jehovah’s Witness community in Australia was examined by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and came under heavy criticism.
The Royal Commission found that children within that organisation are not adequately protected from the risk of child sexual abuse and did not believe the organisation respond adequately to allegations of child sexual abuse.
The Royal Commission considered that the JW organisation relied on outdated policies and practices and was critical of the two witness rule which the Royal Commission stated showed a “serious lack of understanding of the nature of child sexual abuse”. It considered the organisation’s general practice of not reporting serious instances of child sexual abuse to authorities, demonstrated a serious failure on its part to provide for the safety and protection of children.
Charities Commission investigation – Manchester Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses
In July 2017, a Charities Commission investigation found that allegations of child sexual abuse against a trustee of a Manchester JW congregation were not dealt with adequately. That individual was subsequently convicted of two counts of indecent assault. The report acknowledged that as a result of the inquiry, the organisation had improved its child safeguarding policy.
Civil compensation claims
Where a person in leadership within the Jehovah’s Witness community is convicted, it may be open to their victim to sue the relevant JW congregation. The victim of abuse by an elder or a ministerial servant may be compensated in monetary terms for the abuse itself and the consequences of it.
In 2015, the first civil case in the UK of non recent sexual abuse was brought against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The High Court found the organisation failed to protect the victim from sexual abuse by a ministerial servant, and to be to be legally responsible for his actions. The abuse took place in locations such at the victim’s Kingdom Hall which is the meeting place for worship. The court awarded damages of £275,000 in compensation to the victim who was said to have suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and attempted suicide.
Jehovah’s Witness Safeguarding
A scour of the internet identified Jehovah’s Witnessess’ Scripturally Based Position on Child Protection. In this two page document, there is no reference to reporting to the police.
For all its laudable qualities, organised religion once again demonstrates that it can provide the ideal mask for abuse. The seemingly closed and controlled culture of the Jehovah’s Witness organisation has meant that there has been little exposure of sexual abuse in that community until recently. And the culture and religious practices make it easy for a predator to thrive.
The population of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Britain is cited at over 64,000 people, with over 137,000 ‘ministers who teach the Bible’ and 1,626 congregations. As the lid of silence breaks, it is estimated that there are many more to speak out.
No religious organisation should be exempt from proper, transparent and vigilant safeguarding. It is noteworthy that the IICSA have not selected the Jehovah’s Witness organisation to be examined on their safeguarding failings and this is a notable omission.