This is a translation of the July 21, 2017 article in Trouw, a major Dutch newspaper, concerning what is expected of Jehovah’s Witnesses elders when handling cases of child sexual abuse. This is the first of a series of articles exposing the poor way that the Organization handles child sexual abuse. These articles coincided with the annual Regional Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses and were released about the same time that another exposé was broadcast by the BBC.
Click here to view the original article in Dutch.
Elders Are Investigators, Judges, and Psychologists
“Is it normal for a brother to touch her breast”, the 16 year old asks of Rogier Haverkamp. In the middle of the street in a suburban residential area, the elder stops. Did he hear that right? Beside him is a young sister, with whom he has been in service proclaiming Jehovah’s happy message.
“No absolutely not” he says.
The man is not only touching her says the girl. He has also touched others including Rogier’s daughter.
The events of that day in 1999 is the start of a difficult course for Haverkamp (now 53). The Flemish man has been a faithful witness of Jehovah in his congregation. He has been raised in the truth. At 18 years of age he was imprisoned for refusing military service – Jehovah’s witnesses do not serve in the worlds armies. Neither did he.
In House Dealings
Haverkamp wants to investigate this abuse story thoroughly. With the same determination as he goes door to door, he visits brother Henry, who is accused of the inappropriate touching. “I immediately engaged 2 other elders as the case was serious enough”, says Haverkamp 18 years later.
The handling of sexual misconduct is a problem within the association of Jehovah’s witnesses. The handling of these cases takes place in-house and has traumatic consequences for the victims. This is the conclusion Trouw has come to after conversations with victims, members and ex-members. This article is the story of an ex-witness who tried to make a case out of this abuse story.
In a different edition of Trouw will be the story of Marianne de Voogd, regarding the abuse she suffered. Tomorrow is the story of Mark, a male victim.
These stories show that abuse victims do not get the help they deserve. The perpetrators are protected and not much is done to prevent it from occurring again. This creates an unsafe situation for children. The christian association – a sect according to some has approximately 30,000 members in the Netherlands and 25,000 members in Belgium and is also called the Watchtower Society.
Abuse is often swept under the rug, according to those involved. Even if someone would like to help a victim find justice, it is made impossible by the leadership.
The instruction regarding abuse is written in a lot of secret documents,which this newspaper has copies of. A book titled: Shepherd the flock forms the basis. All elders get this book, they are the ones giving spiritual direction in the congregation. It is kept secret from anyone who is not an elder. Regular believers are unaware of the content of the book. In addition to the book there are hundreds of letters from the Governing Body, the highest leadership in the association. It is located in the USA and gives worldwide direction. The letters complement the elder handbook or provide adjustments.
In all of these documents the Jehovah’s witnesses state that they take child abuse very seriously and view it with disapproval. They handle child abuse cases internally; they believe that their own justice system is superior to that of society as a whole. As believers, they are only accountable to Jehovah for their actions. Not accountable to the world’s justice system. Reporting of abuse is seldom done.
After the declaration in service, Rogier Haverkamp looks for proof. According to the elder handbook, a confession from the perpetrator is necessary or the witness of at least two people. All 10 girls, Haverkamp speaks to confirm that Henry abused them: overwhelming proof.
There is a strong basis for a judicial committee: a group of elders that will judge the case. In the worst case, the perpetrator will be expelled . He is then no longer allowed to have any contact with the members of the congregation, not even if they are family. But this only happens if there is enough proof and the perpetrator is not remorseful. If he is remorseful than the Jehovah’s witnesses extend mercy and he is allowed to stay in the congregation but may have to give up some privileges. For example, he would no longer be allowed to pray publicly or have teaching parts. These rules are described in great detail in the elder handbook and the letters from the Governing Body.
A committee has been put together to handle Henry’s case. When the elders of the congregation notify Henry of the accusation, he immediately gets his car. He drives to the Brussel Bethel—head office of the witnesses in Belgium—where he proceeds to cry and shows remorse for his actions and promises to never do it again.
A day after Henry went to the Bethel, Haverkamp is called by the Bethel overseer Louis de Wit. “The remorse Henry showed is sincere”, judges de Wit according to Haverkamp. He remembers that de Wit charged them not to disfellowship Henry. The committee will decide that, Haverkamp objects, de Wit is not allowed to try to influence their decision. But the other two committee members give in to the overseer. Henry’s remorse is real they say. Because they are now in the majority, the case does not continue.
Haverkamp is furious. He remembers that during the conversations with Henry, he charges that Haverkamps’ daughter is partially at fault as she seduced him. This means that his remorse is not real, charges Haverkamp. Someone who is remorseful does not try to blame others for their mistake and actions. Especially not the victim. The committee judges that Henry has to offer his apologies to the girls and proceeds to do so. Haverkamp does not feel that justice has been done. On top of that he fears that Henry will be a repeat offender in the future. “I thought, that the man needs help and the best way to give him help is to report him to the police.”
Making a Report
Going to the police is not a normal practice for witnesses. The organization believes that it is unseemly to bring a brother before the court. Yet the instructions in the elder handbook state that a victim cannot be prevented from going to the police to make a report. This direction is immediately followed by the scripture: Gal 6:5: “For each one will carry his own load.” In practice, victims and those involved are discouraged and sometimes forbidden from going the police, according to a majority of the victims and ex-elders who spoke to Trouw.
Another ex-elder, who handled an abuse case in the past stated that reporting to the police did not warrant consideration. No elder would take the initiative to make a report. We have to protect Jehovah’s name, to prevent a stain on his name. They are afraid to have their dirty laundry known by all. Because this ex-elder is still a witness, his name has been withheld.
The overseers at the Bethel heard a rumour that Haverkamp is considering making a police report about Henry. He is called right away. According to Haverkamp, overseer David Vanderdriesche tells him it’s not his job to go the police. If anyone is going to the police it should be the victim. And they should not be encouraged to go, says Vanderdriesche.
Haverkamp protests, something has to happen to protect the other children in the congregation. According to him, Vanderdriesche tells him straight up that the Bethel overseers have decided that no report is to be made. If he goes ahead, he, Haverkamp, will lose all of his privileges.
Haverkamp is an elder and has many leadership and teaching responsibilities. In addition he is a pioneer, a title you get when you spend more than 90 hours per month in service. Haverkamp: “I gave in to the pressure of that threat”.
Neither De Wit, nor Vanderdriesche from the Brussels Bethel reacts to these events. The judicial department of the Brussels Bethel states that due to deontological reasons (ethical reasons) they cannot comment on specific cases.
Rogier Haverkamp is serious in performing his tasks in his congregation. He is aware of all the rules, even teaches other elders. But even an experienced elder such as Haverkamp cannot explain the proper handling of abuse cases to himself. A diagram based on the elder handbook and the letters from the Governing Body, stretching over 5 pages, should convince him that he has not made any mistakes. The men who lead the committee and render judgement over intricate cases such as abuse, are electricians or bus drivers in their regular life. However for the Witnesses they are an investigator, judge and psychologist all in one. The elders are barely familiar with the rules says Haverkamp. “The majority of them are completely unsuitable to handle these cases. It’s as if you ask a roofer, ‘Would you like to be a judge?'”
Henry moves out of Vlaanderen after these events, although he remains a Witness. In the years that follow, he divorces his wife and marries someone else, he gets disfellowshipped because of this. In 2007, he wants to return to the congregation. Henry writes a letter to the Bethel in Brussels: I offer my sincere apologies for the sorrow I have caused in the congregation and on Jehovah’s name.
Henry moves back to his old town but this time he visits a different congregation. Haverkamp is still in the same congregation and hears of Henry’s return and that he is studying with two young girls together with Henry’s daughters.
Haverkamp is very surprised. He asks an elder in Henry’s congregation, if they are aware of his past child abuse. The elder is not aware of this and also does not believe Haverkamp. After he makes an inquiry, the city overseer confirms the truthfulness of the statement. Yet Henry is allowed to continue with his Bible study and the elders in Henry’s congregation are not made aware of his past. “I’ll keep an eye on him”, says the city overseer.
Anyone who is accused of abuse, proven or not, has to be watched—so state the rules in the elder handbook. They are not allowed close contact with children; also in the case of a move, a file has to be sent along to the new congregation so they are aware of the situation—unless the Bethel decides after thorough examination that the perpetrator is no longer a danger.
In 2011, 12 years after that service day, Rogier Haverkamp leaves the Jehovah’s witness organization. He decides to report Henry. The police investigate. An inspector visits all the grown up women Henry abused. They are still Jehovah’s witnesses. It’s clear to the inspector that something happened, he tells Haverkamp. But none of the women wants to talk. They do not want to testify against their brother, they say. On top of that the abuse case is too old to go to court. The police even investigate if anything more recent has happened so a court case can still be made, but there is no proof to be found.
Rogier Haverkamp still regrets that he did not go to the police back then. Haverkamp: “I was of the opinion that the responsibility was de Wit and Vanderdriesche’s. I thought, I had to recognize their god-given authority.”
(The names have been changed for privacy reasons. Their real names are known to the journalist.)