This is a translation of the July 22, 2017 article in Trouw, a Dutch newspaper, which is one in a series of articles reporting on the way Jehovah’s Witnesses handle child sexual abuse. Click here to see the original article.
A Paradise for Pedophiles
The way Jehovah’s witnesses handle abuse is traumatic for the victims, according to the Trouw investigation. Mark (37) was abused as a child and fought for recognition.
Groningen 2010: Mark picks up the phone with damp hands. He’s in the car and the radio is playing quietly. He rings circuit overseer Klaas van de Belt, overseer of the local congregations. Mark, as a sexual abuse victim, has been trying to get justice for the last 15 years. He’s had enough.
If this doesn’t work, he will give up.
The phone rings. Today, Klaas was to have a conversation with Wilbert, the accused. A decisive conversation. He promised Mark he would persuade Wilbert to offer his apologies. That means a lot to Mark. He wants to leave the past behind. He presses the record button, so he can listen to the call later.
Mark: “Hey Klaas, this is Mark.”
Klaas: “Hi Mark, we’ve had a good conversation. A good atmosphere and a willingness from Wilbert’s side. But he needs more help. So we are going to continue with that for now. So we can bring this case to a good end.”
Mark: “Ok, but what will be the timeframe?”
Klaas: “Sorry, I can’t say. The intention is to work real hard.”
Mark: “So you will keep me informed?”
Klaas: “Yes, of course, you are also important. I hope that we can help you.”
Mark: “That would be nice.”
Klaas: “But the other side also needs help. That has become very obvious this afternoon.”
It is 1994, 16 years prior. Mark is 15 and his marks at school are very bad. Ever since the biology class about STDs, he can’t sleep at night. He is afraid he has a disease. When he comes home after a meeting he says: “Mom, I have to tell you something.”
He explains what happened 6 years prior, when the 17-year-old son of the head of the congregation would take him upstairs during the bible study to “play school” or to “read to him”, with a toilet paper roll under his arm.
For 3 years, from Marks 7th to 10th year, Wilbert would close the curtains in Mark’s room and lock the door. Downstairs the congregation members would study Jehovah’s word. It started with masturbation, says Mark. But it slowly became worse.
The abuse was mostly oral satisfaction. That is what he wanted me to do to him. I had to undress and he would touch my penis. He shared his sexual fantasies, about a woman in the hall for example. He used violence. He kicked me, overpowered me.
Wilbert was, at 17 years of age, over 6 ft. tall, says Mark. I looked up to him. That is why I listened to him. As a little boy I thought: ‘This is normal.’ “What “we” do is not proper”, he, Wilbert, would often say. When it was over, he would say, “You can’t tell anyone, because Jehovah would be angry.”
Mark’s mother listened to the story. “We have to go to the sex crime unit of the police”, she says. But first she tells Mark’s dad and the elders in the congregation
For Jehovah’s witnesses, elders are investigator and judge at the same time. They investigate a possible offence and handle it in-house, if there is enough evidence. They consider an offence only if there are 2 witnesses of the abuse, or a confession. If that is not the case, nothing is done
The elders promise to talk to Wilbert. When they confront him with the accusation, he denies everything. Because Mark is the only witness, the case is closed.
Neither the elders nor Mark’s parents file a report. My mother said, “If we go to the police, there will be news articles and headlines. We do not want to smear the name of the local congregation.”
Three pairs of knocking knees on the front step of the kingdom hall (the church name of the Jehovah’s witnesses). It’s 6 months after Mark has told his mother. Mark, his dad and Wilbert were told by the elders to step outside for a moment to talk about the abuse.
When Mark confronts Wilbert about the abuse, he acts as if it was consensual masturbation. Mark remembers being told by the elders to forgive and forget. He finds this to be an impossible assignment.
“I felt very lonely. I couldn’t tell my story anywhere.”
What hurt him the most is the fact that one of the elders called the abuse a children’s game, just horsing around.
In the subsequent years, Mark keeps talking to the elders. He does research on the internet to find information about the way Witnesses handle abuse cases. He makes PowerPoint presentations which he shows the elders. “They do not act upon it”, according to Mark.
In the meantime, Mark falls in love with a girl in the congregation. They marry and escape to Delfzijl. The now 23-year-old Mark suffers from depression. He can’t work and has to be medicated. The abuse is taking a toll.
He decides to start the fight again and approaches the national management of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 2002, he writes a letter. “It is bothering me so much that I dream about it when I’m asleep. I’m terribly anxious.” Letters go back and forth, and again nothing happens according to the correspondence, now in the hands of Trouw.
When Mark, after years of therapy, overcomes his depression, he drops the case—it doesn’t matter anyway. He’s so done with the Jehovah’s Witnesses that he leaves the association.
But after 1 year, 30 years old, he moves back to Groningen, and the memories return. There in the city where it all happened, he decides to fight for justice one more time and calls on circuit overseer Klaas van de Belt.
In August 2009 Mark has a conversation with Klaas and the elders in Stadspark congregation, where Wilbert is still attending. They promise to persuade Wilbert to offer his apologies. He already admitted half-heartedly to the abuse.
In the spring 2010, Klaas has a conversation with Wilbert, approximately 20 years after the abuse. At this moment Mark thinks, if this does not work, I’ll give up the fight.
2010: damp hands, in the car, Klaas on the phone. Record on, the conversation continues.
Mark: “What do you see happening in the future?”
Klaas: “I think there will be a breakthrough. Remorse will be shown for things that went wrong. That’s the point, right Mark. That he understands what happened. The intent was there this afternoon. It is pointless to discuss more right now, more help is needed.”
Mark: “Ok, that is clear. I’ll wait.”
Klaas: “Mark, it looks positive, can I say that? Because of your willingness to talk to us again. If you believe in Jehovah. Mark…. please continue to serve Jehovah.
Mark: “At this time, too much has happened.”
After the telephone conversation, Mark is not contacted for a long time. Until he gets a phone call from one of the elders. They will not take any action against Wilbert because Mark does not adhere to the organizational demands. He is no longer a Jehovah’s witness. When he returns, they will act.
On July 12, 2010 Mark sends a letter to Klaas and the elders. Unfortunately, you have not informed me about the conversations with Wilbert or my case. I know that others, like my parents, are patient. It is honourable. I no longer have the patience. I will go my own way.
Mark is able to leave the past behind. He does think that something has to change fundamentally in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. This is the reason he tells his story. It is a paradise for pedophiles.
These days Wilbert lives in the block next to Mark. In 2015, they meet in the supermarket . Mark does not greet Wilbert; he only looks at him. After all these years of avoiding looking at him, he can look him in the eye.
Investigation Jehovah’s Witnesses
Trouw has extensively investigated abuse among Jehovah’s witnesses in Holland. Yesterday the newspaper published two stories that show how the association handles sexual abuse and the traumatic consequences for the victims. Cases are handled in-house, abuse is almost never reported, according to conversations with the victims, ex-members and documents in hands of Trouw. According to the victims, perpetrators are protected. It creates a very unsafe environment for the children. These findings are in line with the Australian Commission’s report published in November about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Wilbert and Mark are fictitious names, their names are known to the editor. Wilbert declined to tell his side of the story, he wrote a letter: “The things that happened are regretful. I want to leave this behind me and hope you understand.”
The leadership of the Groningen congregation does not want to discuss the case. Circuit overseer Klaas van de Belt states he has tried everything to get Mark and Wilbert together. An apology is very important for the victim. He regrets that Mark has left. He does not want to discuss details of the case. “I think you have to handle these cases well, and it’s great if they can be done internally.”
This article was competed with the help of a large amount of documents, correspondence and conversations with 20 people, consisting of sexual abuse victims, 4 ex-elders, 3 active elders, 5 ex-members, perpetrators of abuse and experts.
The stories of the victims follow the same patterns and are supported by private documents, third-party witnesses and audio recordings that are now in possession of Trouw. The direction as described in the intro article is based on the secret elders handbook and thousands of letters from the Governing Body (the highest echelon within the organization) sent to the local congregations and this has been confirmed by those involved.