This article will discuss how the Governing Body (GB) of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW), just like the younger son in the parable of the “Prodigal Son”, squandered a precious inheritance. It will consider how the inheritance came about and the changes that lost it. Readers will be presented with data from “The Australian Royal Commission (ARC) into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse”[1] to examine and to draw conclusions. This data will be laid out on the basis of six different religious institutions. This case will exemplify how detrimental the changes have become to individuals. Finally, in the light of Christian love, the GB will be offered suggestions to encourage a more Christ-like approach to dealing with these matters.

Historical Context

Edmund Burke had grown disillusioned with the French Revolution and in 1790 wrote a pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France in which he defends constitutional monarchy, the traditional church (Anglican in that case) and the aristocracy.

In 1791, Thomas Paine wrote the book The Rights of Man. Europe and North America were in upheaval. The 13 colonies had gained their independence from Britain, and the aftereffects of the French Revolution were being felt. The old order was threatened by the revolution and the beginnings of the concept of democracy in Europe and North America. For those challenging the old order, the question arose of what this means for the rights of each individual.

Those who embraced the New World saw in Paine’s book and its ideas, the basis of a new world that they could create through a republican democratic system. Many of the rights of men were discussed but the concepts were not necessarily defined in law. At the same time, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, which complemented Paine’s work.

In the 20th century Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) played a major role in enshrining many of these rights in law. In the USA from the late 1930s to the 1940s, their fight to practice their faith according to their conscience led to many court cases with a considerable number decided at the Supreme Court level. Hayden Covington the lawyer for JWs presented 111 petitions and appeals to the Supreme Court. In total, there were 44 cases and these included door-to-door distribution of literature, compulsory flag salutes etc. Covington won more than 80% of these cases.  There was a similar situation in Canada where JWs also won their cases.[2]

At the same time, in Nazi Germany, JWs took a stand for their faith and faced unprecedented levels of persecution from a totalitarian regime. JWs were unusual in the concentration camps by the fact that they could leave anytime if they chose to sign a document renouncing their faith. The vast majority did not compromise their faith, but the leadership at the German Branch was willing to compromise.[3]  The stand of the majority is a testament of courage and faith under the most unimaginable horrors, and ultimately victory over a totalitarian regime. This stand was repeated against other totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union, Eastern Bloc countries, and others.

These victories, along with the tactics employed, were used by many other groups fighting for their liberties in the decades to come.  JWs were helping define and play a significant role in establishing the rights of human beings. Their stand was always based on the rights of individuals to exercise their personal conscience in matters of worship and citizenship.

Human Rights were established and enshrined by law, and this can be seen in numerous cases brought before the Supreme Courts by JWs in many nations around the world. Though many found the proselytizing of JWs and the tone of their literature distasteful, there was a grudging respect for their stand and faith. The right of each person to fully exercise their conscience is a fundamental tenet of modern society. This was an endowment of immense value along with the heritage of many sound Bible teachings from the Bible Student Movement of the 1870s onwards. The individual and their relationship with their Creator and the use of a personal conscience was at the heart of each JW’s struggle.

The Rise of the Organisation

When the congregations were first formed in the 1880/90s, they were congregational in structure. All congregations (the Bible Students in Russell’s time called them ecclesia; a transliteration of the Greek word commonly translated “church” in most bibles) were provided with a guideline on structure, purpose, etc.[4] Each of these Bible Student congregations were stand-alone entities with elected elders and deacons. There was no central authority and each congregation functioned for the benefit of its members. Congregation discipline was administered at a meeting of the entire ecclesia as outlined in Studies in Scriptures, Volume Six.

From the early 1950s, the new leadership of the JWs decided to embed Rutherford’s concept of the Organisation[5] and moved to becoming a corporate entity. This involved creating rules and regulations that had to be followed—that would keep the Organisation “clean”—along with the new judicial committee arrangement to deal those who committed “serious” sins[6]. This involved meeting with three elders in a closed, secret meeting to judge whether the individual was repentant.

This significant change cannot be scripturally based as demonstrated in an article titled “Are You Also Excommunicated?”[7] There, the Catholic Church’s practice of excommunication was shown to have no scriptural basis, but to be based purely on “canon law”. Subsequent to and despite that article, the Organisation decided to create its own “canon law”[8].

In the years following, this has led to a very autocratic form of leadership with many decisions that have caused a great deal of pain and suffering to individuals. A most fascinating issue was on refusing military service. The Bible Students faced this challenge during the First World War. There were articles written by the WTBTS that gave guidance but importantly highlighted that each one must use their own conscience. Some served in the Medical Corps; others would not put on military uniform; some would undertake civilian service and so on. All were united in not taking up arms to kill their fellow man, but each exercised his own conscience on how to tackle the problem. An excellent book titled, Bible Student Conscientious Objectors in World War 1 – Britain by Gary Perkins, provides excellent examples of the stand.

In contrast, later during the presidency of Rutherford, very specific rules were issued where JWs could not accept civilian service. The impact of this can be seen in the book titled, I Wept by the Rivers of Babylon: A Prisoner of Conscience in a Time of War by Terry Edwin Walstrom, where as a JW, he outlines the challenges that he faced and the absurdity of not accepting civilian service in a local hospital. Here, he explains in detail how the Organisation’s position had to be supported, whilst his own conscience could not see a problem with civilian service. Interestingly, as of 1996, it has been deemed acceptable for JWs to undertake alternative civilian service. This means that the GB now allows the individual to exercise their conscience once again.

The teachings issued by the Governing Body, created in 1972 and fully functioning since 1976[9], must be accepted as “present truth” until “new light” is revealed by them. There has been a plethora of rules and regulations for the flock in every aspect of life, and those who do not comply are viewed as “not exemplary”. This often leads to a judicial hearing, as outlined earlier, and possible disfellowshipping. Many of these rules and regulations have undergone a 180-degree reversal, but those disfellowshipped under the former rule have not being reinstated.

This trampling on the personal conscience of individuals reaches the point where one must question if the GB really understands the human conscience at all. In the publication, Organized to Do Jehovah’s Will, published 2005 and 2015 in chapter 8, paragraph 28, states in full:

“Each publisher must follow his Bible-trained conscience when prayerfully determining what constitutes a witnessing period. Some publishers preach in densely populated areas, whereas others work territories where there are few inhabitants and considerable travel is required. Territories differ; publishers differ in the way they view their ministry. The Governing Body does not impose its conscience on the worldwide congregation as to how time spent in field service is to be counted, nor has anyone else been appointed to make a judgment in this matter.​—Matt. 6:1; 7:1; 1 Tim. 1:5.”

To state that a collective body of men (GB) would have a single conscience makes no sense. The human conscience is one of the great gifts of God. Each one is unique and shaped according to a variety of factors. How can a group of men have the same conscience?

A disfellowshipped person will be shunned by individuals in the JW community and family members. Since 1980, this process has become much more hard-line with many videos showing the flock on how to reduce or avoid contact altogether. This instruction has been particularly focused on immediate family members. Those who do not comply are viewed as spiritually weak and association with them is kept to a minimum.

This clearly goes against the fight many individual JWs had with various judiciaries in establishing that the human conscience must be allowed to flourish. In effect, the Organisation was dictating on how an individual should use their conscience. Congregation members could have no details of the hearing, could not talk to the individual, and were kept in the dark.  What was expected of them was complete trust in the process and the men responsible for the hearing.

With the advent of Social Media, many ex-JWs have come forward and demonstrated—in many cases with recordings and other evidence—the sheer injustice or unfair treatment they have received in these judicial hearings.

This rest of this article will highlight how this Governing Body, just like the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, squandered an enormous inheritance, by considering some of the findings of The Australian Royal Commission (ARC) into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The Australian Royal Commission (ARC)

The ARC was set up in 2012 to gauge the extent and causes of institutional child abuse, and in the process to study the policies and procedures of various organisations. This article will focus on religious institutions.  The ARC completed its function in December 2017 and produced an extensive report.

“The Letters Patent provided to the Royal Commission required that it ‘inquire into institutional responses to allegations and incidents of child sexual abuse and related matters’. In carrying out this task, the Royal Commission was directed to focus on systemic issues, be informed by an understanding of individual cases and make findings and recommendations to better protect children against sexual abuse and alleviate the impact of abuse on children when it occurs. The Royal Commission did this by conducting public hearings, private sessions and a policy and research program.[10]

A Royal Commission is the highest level of inquiry in Commonwealth countries and has a vast range of powers to request for information and individuals to cooperate. Its recommendations are studied by the Government, and they will decide on legislation to enforce the recommendations. The Government does not have to accept the recommendations.

Methodology

There are three main methods used. These are as follows:

1.      Policy and Research

Each religious institution provided the data that it held on reports and dealings of child abuse. This information was studied, and specific cases were chosen to conduct a public hearing.

In addition, the ARC consulted with government and non-government representatives, survivors, institutions, regulators, policy and other experts, academics, and survivor advocacy and support groups. The broader community had an opportunity to contribute to consideration of systemic issues and the responses through the public consultation processes.

2.      Public hearings

I will provide the paragraphs from Final Report: Volume 16, page 3, sub-heading “Private hearings”:

“A Royal Commission commonly does its work through public hearings. We were aware that sexual abuse of children has occurred in many institutions, all of which could be investigated in a public hearing. However, if the Royal Commission was to attempt that task, a great many resources would need to be applied over an indeterminate, but lengthy, period of time. For this reason the Commissioners accepted criteria by which Senior Counsel Assisting would identify appropriate matters for a public hearing and bring them forward as individual ‘case studies’.

The decision to conduct a case study was informed by whether or not the hearing would advance an understanding of systemic issues and provide an opportunity to learn from previous mistakes so that any findings and recommendations for future change the Royal Commission made would have a secure foundation. In some cases the relevance of the lessons to be learned will be confined to the institution the subject of the hearing. In other cases they will have relevance to many similar institutions in different parts of Australia.

Public hearings were also held to assist in understanding the extent of abuse that may have occurred in particular institutions or types of institutions. This enabled the Royal Commission to understand the ways in which various institutions were managed and how they responded to allegations of child sexual abuse. Where our investigations identified a significant concentration of abuse in one institution, the matter could be brought forward to a public hearing.

Public hearings were also held to tell the stories of some individuals, which assisted in a public understanding of the nature of sexual abuse, the circumstances in which it may occur and, most importantly, the devastating impact that it can have on people’s lives. Public hearings were open to the media and the public, and were live streamed on the Royal Commission’s website.

The Commissioners’ findings from each hearing were generally set out in a case study report. Each report was submitted to the Governor-General and the governors and administrators of each state and territory and, where appropriate, tabled in the Australian Parliament and made publicly available. The Commissioners recommended some case study reports not be tabled at the me because of current or prospective criminal proceedings.”

3.      Private sessions

These sessions were to provide victims an opportunity to tell their own personal story of child sex abuse in an institutional setting. The following is from Volume 16, page 4, sub-heading “Private sessions”:

“Each private session was conducted by one or two Commissioners and was an opportunity for a person to tell their story of abuse in a protected and supportive environment. Many accounts from these sessions are told in a de-identified form in this Final Report.

Written accounts allowed individuals who did not end private sessions to share their experiences with Commissioners. The experiences of survivors described to us in written accounts have informed this Final Report in the same manner as those shared with us
in private sessions.

We also decided to publish, with their consent, as many individual survivors’ experiences as possible, as de-identified narratives drawn from private sessions and written accounts. These narratives are presented as accounts of events as told by survivors of child sexual abuse in institutions. We hope that by sharing them with the public they will contribute to a better understanding of the profound impact of child sexual abuse and may help to make our institutions as safe as possible for children in the future. The narratives are available as an online appendix to Volume 5, Private sessions. “

It is important to fully understand the methodology and sources of data. No religious institution can claim bias or false information, as all the data came from within the organisations and from the testimony of the victims. The ARC analysed the available information, checked with representatives of the various religious institutions, corroborated with victims, and presented its findings along with recommendations for specific institutions, and as a whole.

Findings

I have created a table showing the key information on six religious institutions the ARC investigated. I would recommend reading of the reports.  They are in 4 parts:

  • Final Report Recommendations
  • Final Report Religious Institutions Volume 16: Book 1
  • Final Report Religious Institutions Volume 16: Book 2
  • Final Report Religious Institutions Volume 16: Book 3

 

Religion & Adherents Case Studies Alleged Perpetrators & Positions Held Total Complaints

 

Reporting to Authorities & Apology to Victims Compensation, Support & National Redress Scheme
Catholic

5,291,800

 

 

15 Case studies in total. Numbers 4,6, 8, 9, 11,13,14, 16, 26, 28, 31, 35, 41, 43, 44

2849 interviewed

1880

alleged perpetrators

693 Religious brothers (597) and sisters (96) (37%)

572 priests including 388 diocesan priests and 188 religious priests (30%)

543 lay people (29%)

72 with religious status unknown (4%)

4444 Some cases were reported to civil authorities. Apology given.

In 1992 first public statement acknowledging abuse had happened. From 1996 onwards, apologies were made and from Towards Healing (2000) provided a clear apology to all victims by clergy and religion. Also, in 2013 in” Issues paper …” a clear apology was given.

2845 claims of child sex abuse to February 2015 resulted in $268,000,000 paid of which $250,000,000 was in monetary payment.

Average of $88,000.

Set up a “Towards Healing” process to help victims.

Will consider paying into National Redress Scheme.

 

Anglican

3,130,000

 

 

 

7 Case studies in total. Numbers 3, 12, 20, 32, 34, 36, 42

594 interviewed

 

569

alleged perpetrators

50% Lay People

43% Ordained Clergy

7% Unknown

1119 Some cases were reported to civil authorities. Apology given.

In 2002 Standing Committee of the General Synod issues a National Apology. In 2004 General Synod apologised.

472 complaints (42% of all complaints). To date of December 2015 $34,030,000 at average of $72,000). This includes monetary compensation, treatment, legal and other costs.

Set up a Child Protection Committee in 2001

2002-2003- Set up Sexual Abuse Working Group

Various outcomes from these groups.

Will consider paying into National Redress Scheme

 

Salvation Army

8,500 plus officers

 

 

4 Case studies in total. Numbers 5, 10, 33, 49

294 interviewed

Not possible to quantify alleged perpetrator numbers Some cases were reported to civil authorities. Apology given.

 

Will consider paying into National Redress Scheme
Jehovah’s Witnesses

68,000

 

2 Case studies in total. Numbers 29, 54

70 interviewed

1006

alleged perpetrators

579 (57%) confessed

108 (11%)were Elders or Ministerial Servants

28 were appointed Elders or Ministerial Servants after first instance of alleged abuse

1800

alleged victims

401 (40%)perpetrators were dis-fellowshipped.

230 reinstated

78 disfellowshipped more than once.

 

No cases were reported to civil authorities and no apology to any of the victims. None.

New policy that informs victims and families that they have a right to report to authorities.

No statement on National Redress Scheme.

Australian Christian Churches (ACC) and affiliated Pentecostal churches

 

350,000 + 260,600 = 610,600

 

2 in total. Numbers 18, 55

37 interviewed

Not possible to quantify alleged perpetrator numbers During the Australian Christian Churches public hearing Pastor Spinella apologised to the victims. Will consider paying into National Redress Scheme
Uniting Church in Australia (Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian) 1,065,000 5 in total

Numbers 23, 24, 25, 45, 46

91 interviewed

Not given 430 Some cases were reported to civil authorities. President of General Assembly Stuart McMillan made it on behalf of the Church. 102 claims made against 430 allegations. 83 of thee 102 received a settlement. Total amount paid is $12.35 million. Highest payment is $2.43 million and lowest $110. Average payment is $151,000.

Will consider paying into National Redress Scheme

Questions

At this point, I do not propose to give my personal conclusions or thoughts. It is more useful for each person to consider the following questions:

  1. Why did each institution fail?
  2. How and what redress has each institution provided for the victims?
  3. How can each institution improve its policy and procedures? To achieve this what must be the key objectives?
  4. Why did the JW Elders and Institution report no case to the secular authorities?
  5. Why do the JWs have such a large number of alleged perpetrators and complaints with respect to its population compared to the others?
  6. For a group that championed the right to exercise conscience, why did no elder step forward and speak out? Does this give an indication of the prevailing culture?
  7. With a history of resisting totalitarian authorities, why did individuals within the JW institution not speak out or break ranks and report to the authorities?

There are many more questions that could be considered. These will suffice for starters.

Way Forward

This article is written in a spirit of Christian love.  It would be remiss to point out failings and not provide an opportunity to make amends.  Throughout the Bible, men of faith sinned and needed forgiveness. There are many examples for our benefit (Romans 15:4).

The shepherd and poet, King David, was dear to Jehovah’s heart, but two great sins are recorded, along with his subsequent repentance and the consequences of his actions. In the last day of Jesus’ life, we can see the failings in Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, two members of the Sanhedrin, but we also see how they made amends at the end.  There is the account of Peter, an intimate friend, whose courage failed him when he denied his friend and Lord three times. After his resurrection, Jesus helps restore Peter from his fallen state by giving him the opportunity to demonstrate his repentance by reaffirming his love and discipleship. All the apostles fled on the day of Jesus’ death, and they all were given the opportunity to lead the Christian congregation at Pentecost. Forgiveness and good will is provided in abundance by our Father for our sins and failings.

A way forward after the ARC report is to admit the sin of failing the victims of child abuse. This requires the following steps:

  • Pray to our heavenly Father and ask for his forgiveness.
  • Demonstrate the sincerity of the prayer through specific actions to gain his blessings.
  • Unreservedly apologise to all the victims. Set up a spiritual and emotional healing programme for victims and their families.
  • Immediately reinstate all the victims who have been disfellowshipped and shunned.
  • Agree to financially compensate the victims and do not put them through court cases.
  • Elders should not deal with these cases as they do not have the required expertise. Make it mandatory to report all allegations to the civil authorities. Be in subjection to ‘Caesar and his law”. A careful reading of Romans 13:1-7 shows that Jehovah has put them in place to deal with such matters.
  • All known offenders should not be allowed to undertake any public ministry with the congregation.
  • The welfare of children and victims should be at the centre of all policies and not the reputation of the organisation.

The above suggestions would make a good start and might initially disturb the flock, but by sincerely explaining the mistakes and demonstrating a humble attitude, a good Christian lead would be set. The flock would appreciate this and respond over time.

The younger son in the parable returned home repentant, but before he could say anything, the Father welcomed him with such a large heart. The older son was lost in a different way, because he did not really know his Father. The two sons can provide invaluable lessons for those taking the lead, but the most important one is what a marvelous Father we have in our God. Our wonderful King Jesus imitates his Father perfectly and is keenly interested in the well-being of each one of us. He is the only one with the authority to govern each and every one of us. (Matthew 23:6-9, 28:18, 20) Build up the flock through use of the scriptures and let each one exercise their conscience on how best to serve our Lord and King.

____________________________________________________________________

[1] https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au The entire scope and programme of investigation from November 2012 to December 2017 when the final reports were submitted to the Australian Government

[2] See James Penton’s Jehovah’s Witnesses in Canada: Champions of Freedom of Speech and Worship. (1976). James Penton is an ex-Jehovah’s Witness who has since written two books on Watchtower history.

[3] See Detlef Garbe’s Between Resistance and Martyrdom: Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Third Reich (2008) Translated by Dagmar G. Grimm. In addition, for a more biased account, please see the Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 1974 published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

[4] See Studies in Scriptures: The New Creation Vol 6, Chapter 5, “The Organisation” By Pastor Charles Taze Russell in 1904. In earlier editions of Zion’s Watchtower, many of these suggestions and thoughts had also been covered.

[5] Interestingly, Rutherford’s use of the words ‘Organisation’ and ‘Church’ could be interchangeable. Since the Bible Student movement did not accept a centralised church structure, it apparently seemed more prudent to Rutherford to use the term ‘Organisation’ and ‘President’ with absolute powers. By 1938, the Organisation was fully in place and the Bible Students who disagreed had left. It is estimated that about 75% of Bible Students from Russell’s time left the Organisation from 1917 to 1938.

[6] This new method of dealing with congregation sins was first introduced in the March 11952 Watchtower magazine pages 131-145, in a series of 3 weekly study articles. During the 1930s, there were two high profile cases with individuals prominent in the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society (WTBTS) organisation: Olin Moyle (Legal Counsel) and Walter F. Salter (Canada Branch Manager). Both left the respective headquarters and faced a trial by the entire congregation. These trials were supported by scriptures but were viewed as causing disunity within the ranks.

[7] See Awake 8, January 1947 pages 27-28.

[8] This might have been due to the removal of two high profile individuals, Olin Moyle (WTBTS Lawyer) and Walter F. Salter (Canadian Branch Manager) from the Organisation. The process used was of the whole local ecclesia meeting to make a decision. As in both cases, the issues arose with the President (Rutherford) and to have this discussed openly would have brought further questions from the flock

[9] The current claim is a major departure in teaching, whereby it is stated that the Governing Body has been in place since 1919, and is the same as the Faithful and Discreet Slave as outlined in Matthew 24:45-51. No evidence is offered for either of these claims, and the claim that this GB has been in place since 1919 can be easily refuted, but this is not within the scope of this article. Please see the ws17 February p. 23-24 “Who Is Leading God’s People Today?”

[10] Direct quote from Final Report: Volume 16 preface page 3

Eleasar

JW for over 20 years. Recently resigned as an elder. Only God's word is truth and cannot use we are in the truth anymore. Eleasar means "God has helped" and I am full of gratitude.