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Elizabeth Grace - AdvocateDaily.com

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ sexual abuse response raises concerns

Recently, CBC News reported on a Radio-Canada investigation that alleged Jehovah’s Witnesses are not only failing to protect children who have been sexually abused by their members, including by elders in leadership positions, but are also failing to deal appropriately with allegations of child sexual abuse when they do surface.

CBC News described how Jehovah’s Witnesses’ internal policies and practises discourage reporting of sexual abuse. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses are reported to require corroboration by a second witness in order for the allegation to be considered by their internal judicial system. CBC News also reported that, as recently as the summer of 2016, alleged victims were being forced to confront their alleged abusers before a panel of elders.

According to CBC News, reporting to outside authorities, such as the police or children’s aid societies, is also discouraged by the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ preference for dealing with matters in-house. A recent royal commission in Australia apparently found that not one of the recorded allegations of child sexual abuse against more than 1,000 Jehovah’s Witness members had been reported to authorities outside the church.

Sadly, it appears that those allegedly victimized within the Jehovah’s Witness community may have been indoctrinated to believe their abusive experience are shameful and should be kept secret, leaving them with a sense that they have few, if any, places to turn for protection and vindication.

Such a culture of secrecy is very unhealthy for individual victims and their supportive family members and friends. It is well accepted that acknowledgment, acceptance and genuine support go a very long way to helping a victim of childhood sexual abuse heal and overcome what can otherwise be long-lasting and profound harm.

Is their treatment of sexual abuse different from other organized religions? Based on what’s been reported by the CBC, it sounds to me like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and particularly their leaders, have been slower than many other religions to accept that sexual abuse happens, is deeply harmful, and needs to be openly confronted in the interest of healthier individuals and a healthier community.

I encourage individuals who belong or previously belonged to the Jehovah’s Witness organization and may have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of another Jehovah’s Witness member and kept silent about it, or were deterred from seeking or denied redress, to obtain independent legal advice about their options.

Even this simple act of getting information about one’s legal rights can be empowering. For the Jehovah’s Witness constituent organizations – including The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society Inc. and their national and local branches – this may sound threatening. However, based on my experience in the area of civil liability for sexual assault, external accountability, including through lawsuits if necessary, often serves as an impetus for change for the better within close-knit and inward-looking communities like the Jehovah’s Witness organization.

Elizabeth Grace is a civil sexual abuse lawyer in Toronto who has specialized in sexual assault matters for more than two decades. She is a partner of the law firm Lerners LLP

This article originally appeared on AdvicateDaily.com

Elizabeth Grace

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