A new policy letter dated September 1, 2017 covering child abuse in the Organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses has just been released to the Bodies of Elders in Australia. At the time of this writing, we do not yet know if this letter represents a worldwide policy change, or if it is merely in place to address issues raised by the Australia Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
One of the findings of the ARC was that Witnesses did not have an adequate policy in writing distributed to all congregations on methods for properly handling child sexual abuse. Witnesses claimed to have a policy, but this was apparently an oral one.
What Is Wrong with an Oral Law?
One of the issues that came up frequently in the confrontations Jesus had with the religious leaders of this day involved their dependence on the Oral Law. There is no provision in Scripture for an oral law, but for the scribes, Pharisees, and other religious leaders, the oral law often supplanted the written law. This had a major benefit for them, because it gave them authority over others; authority they would otherwise not have had. Here’s why:
If an Israelite only relied on the written law code, then the interpretations of men did not matter. The ultimate and indeed only authority was God. One’s own conscience determined to what extent the law applied. However, with an oral law, the final word came from men. For instance, God’s law said that it was unlawful to work on the Sabbath, but what constitutes work? Obviously, labouring in the fields, plowing, tilling, and sowing, would constitute work in anyone’s mind; but what about taking a bath? Would swatting a fly be work, a form of hunting? How about self-grooming? Could you comb your hair on the Sabbath? What about going for a stroll? All such things were regulated by the Oral Law of men. For example, one could only walk a prescribed distance on a Sabbath, according to the religious leaders, without fear of breaking God’s law. (See Acts 1:12)
Another aspect of an Oral Law is that it provides some level of deniability. What was actually said blurs as time goes by. With nothing written down, how can one go back to challenge any wrong direction?
The shortcomings of an oral law was very much on the mind of the Chair of the ARC at the March 2017 Public Hearing (Case Study 54) as this excerpt from the court transcript demonstrates.
MR STEWART: Mr Spinks, while the documents now make it clear that survivors or their parents should be told that they have, as it is put, an absolute right to report, it’s not the policy to actually encourage them to report, is it?
MR SPINKS: I think that’s again not correct, because, as the reports on each matter that has been reported to us since the public hearing – both the Legal Department and the Service Department use the same expression, that it’s their absolute right to report, and the elders will fully support you in doing that.
THE CHAIR: Mr O’Brien, I think the point that is being made is that it’s one thing to have responded, since we looked at you; another thing as to what you will be doing in five years time. Do you understand?
MR O’BRIEN: Yes.
MR SPINKS: Five years future, your Honour?
THE CHAIR: Unless the intent is reflected clearly in your policy documents, there is a very good chance you will just fall backwards. Do you understand?
MR SPINKS: The point is well taken, your Honour. We’ve put it in the most recent document and, retrospectively, it has to be adjusted in the other documents. I take that point.
THE CHAIR: We discussed a moment ago your reporting obligations even in relation to an adult victim. That is not referred to in this document either, is it?
MR SPINKS: That would be a matter for the Legal Department, your Honour, because every state is —
THE CHAIR: It might be, but surely it is a matter for the policy document, isn’t it? If that’s the policy of the organisation, that’s what you should follow.
MR SPINKS: Could I ask you to repeat the specific point, your Honour?
THE CHAIR: Yes. The obligation to report, where the law requires knowledge of an adult victim, is not referred to in here.
Here we see the Organization’s representatives appearing to acknowledge the need to include in their written policy directives to the congregations the stipulation that elders should report cases of actual and alleged child sexual abuse where there is an explicit legal requirement to do so. Have they done this?
Apparently not, as these excerpts from the letter indicate. [boldface added]
“Therefore, the victim, her parents, or anyone else who reports such an allegation to the elders should be clearly informed that they have the right to report the matter to the secular authorities. Elders do not criticize anyone who chooses to make such a report.—Gal. 6:5.” – par. 3.
Galatians 6:5 reads: “For each one will carry his own load.” So if we are to apply this scripture to the issue of reporting child abuse, what about the load that the elders carry? They carry a heavier load according to James 3:1. Should they not also report the crime to authorities?
“Legal Considerations: Child abuse is a crime. In some jurisdictions, individuals who learn of an allegation of child abuse may be obligated by law to report the allegation to the secular authorities.—Rom. 13:1-4.” – par. 5.
It appears that the Organization’s position is that a Christian is only required to report a crime if specifically ordered to do so by the government authorities.
“To ensure that elders comply with child-abuse reporting laws, two elders should immediately call the Legal Department at the branch office for legal advice when the elders learn of an accusation of child abuse.” – par. 6.
“The Legal Department will provide legal advice based on the facts and the applicable law.” – par. 7.
“If the elders become aware of an adult associated with a congregation who has been involved with child pornography, two elders should immediately call the Legal Department.” – par. 9
“In the exceptional event that the two elders believe it is necessary to speak with a minor who is a victim of child sexual abuse, the elders should first contact the Service Department.” – par. 13.
So even if the elders know that the law of the land requires them to report the crime, they still must first call the legal desk to be handed down the oral law on the matter. There is nothing in the letter suggesting or requiring elders to report the crime to the authorities.
“On the other hand, if the wrongdoer is repentant and is reproved, the reproof should be announced to the congregation.” – par. 14.
How does this protect the congregation? All they know is that the individual sinned in some manner. Maybe he got drunk, or was caught smoking. The standard announcement gives no hint as to what the individual has done, nor is there any way for parents to know that their children might be in danger from the forgiven sinner, who remains a potential predator.
“The elders will be directed to caution the individual never to be alone with a minor, not to cultivate friendships with minors, not to display affection for minors, and so forth. The Service Department will direct the elders to inform family heads of minors within the congregation of the need to monitor their children’s interaction with the individual. The elders would take this step only if directed to do so by the Service Department.” – par. 18.
So only if directed to do so by the Service Desk are elders allowed to warn parents that there is a predator in their midst. One might think this statement reveals the naivete of these policy makers, but that is not the case as this excerpt demonstrates:
“Child sexual abuse reveals an unnatural fleshly weakness. Experience has shown that such an adult may well molest other children. True, not every child molester repeats the sin, but many do. And the congregation cannot read hearts to tell who is and who is not liable to molest children again. (Jeremiah 17:9) Hence, Paul’s counsel to Timothy applies with special force in the case of baptized adults who have molested children: ‘Never lay your hands hastily upon any man; neither be a sharer in the sins of others.’ (1 Timothy 5:22).” – par. 19.
They know that the potential to repeat-offend is there, and yet they expect that a warning to the sinner suffices? “The elders will be directed to caution the individual never to be alone with a minor.” Isn’t that like putting a fox among the chickens and telling it to behave?
Notice in all this that the elders still are not given permission to act under their own discretion. Loyalists will argue that the injunction to call the branch office first is merely to get the best legal advice before calling the authorities, or perhaps to ensure that inexperienced elders do the right thing legally and morally. However, history paints a different picture. In reality, what the letter enforces is the absolute control over these situations that the Governing Body wants the branches to continue to exercise. If the elders were just getting sound legal advice prior to contacting the civil authorities, then why were none of them advised to contact the police in Australia in over 1,000 cases of child sexual abuse? There was and is a law on the books in Australia requiring citizens to reports crime, or even the suspicion of a crime. That law was disregarded over a thousand times by the Australia branch office.
The Bible does not say that the Christian congregation is some sort of nation or state, similar to but apart from the secular authorities with its own government run by men. Instead, Romans 13:1-7 tells us to submit to the “superior authorities” which are also called “God’s minister for you for your good.” Romans 3:4 continues, “But if you are doing what is bad, be in fear, for it is not without purpose that it bears the sword. It is is God’s minister, an avenger to express wrath against the one practicing what is bad.” Strong words! Yet words the Organization seems to ignore. It appears that the position or unspoken policy of the Governing Body is to obey the “worldly governments” only when there is a specific law telling them precisely what to do. (And even then, not always if Australia is anything to go by.) In other words, Witnesses do not need to submit to the authorities unless there is a specific law telling them to do so. Otherwise, the Organization, as a “mighty nation” in its own right, does what its own government tells it to do. It seems the Governing Body has misapplied Isaiah 60:22 for its own purposes.
Since the Witnesses view worldly governments as evil and wicked, they feel no moral requirement to obey. They obey from a purely legalistic viewpoint, not a moral one. To explain how this mentality works, when brothers are offered alternative service to being drafted into the military, they are directed to refuse. Yet when they are sentenced to jail for their refusal, and required to do the same alternate service they turned down, they are then told they can comply. They feel they can obey if forced to, but to willingly obey is to compromise their faith. So if there is a law forcing Witnesses to report a crime, they obey. However, if the requirement is voluntary, they seem to feel that reporting the crime is like supporting Satan’s wicked system with its evil governments. The thought that by reporting a sexual predator to the police they might actually be helping to protect their worldly neighbors from harm never enters into their mind. In fact, the morality of their actions or their inaction is simply not a factor that is ever considered. Evidence of this can be seen from this video. The red-faced brother is totally flummoxed by the question put to him. It is not that he willfully disregarded the safety of others, or knowingly put them in danger. No, the tragedy is that he never even gave the possibility any thought.
This brings me to a shocking realization. As a life-long Jehovah’s Witness, I was proud of the thought that we did not suffer from the world’s prejudices. No matter your nationality nor your racial ancestry, you were my brother. That was part and parcel of being Christian. Now I see that we also have our own prejudice. It enters the mind subtly and never quite makes it to the surface of consciousness, but it is there all the same and affects our attitude and actions. “Worldly people”, i.e., non-witnesses, are beneath us. After all, they have rejected Jehovah and will die for all time at Armageddon. How can we reasonably be expected to view them as equals? So if there is a criminal who might prey on their children, well that’s too bad, but they’ve made the world what it is. We, on the other hand, are not part of the world. As long as we protect our own, we’re good with God. God favors us, while he will destroy all those in the world. Prejudice means literally, “to pre-judge”, and that is precisely what we do and how we are trained to think and to live our life as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The only concession we make is when we attempt to help these lost souls to a knowledge of Jehovah God.
This prejudice is manifest at times of natural disaster such as what has just transpired in Houston. JWs will care for their own, but mounting major charity drives to assist other victims is viewed by Witnesses as re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The system is about to be destroyed by God in any case, so why bother? This isn’t a conscious thought and certainly not one to be expressed, but it lingers just under the surface of the conscious mind, where all prejudice resides—all the more persuasive because it goes unexamined.
How can we have perfect love—how can we be in Christ—if we will not give our all for those who are sinners. (Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 5:6-10)