Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Leave it to Jehovah"

A middle-aged sex offender, dressed conservatively enough to impress, trudges from house to house in an unfamiliar neighborhood. He rings doorbells and quietly delivers his memorized spiel to any adults who answer.

He's not fulfilling his legal obligation to notify new neighbors that he's a convicted sex offender. He's a Jehovah's Witness. He has never spent a day in jail.

As reported by CBC's investigative news program the fifth estate ("Spiritual Shepherd"), Jehovah's Witnesses are experiencing many of the same child-molestation issues as the Catholic Church, thanks to a lax policy in reporting child sexual abuse to the proper authorities. Church elders are routinely instructed to contact their country's JW headquarters when alleged abuse is reported to them. The legal department will then instruct them to follow official protocol: Ask the accuser and accused if the allegations are true. If the accuser confesses, he/she should be counselled to repent. If the allegations are denied, "Leave it to Jehovah." The only way an alleged abuser can be considered guilty without confessing to his/her crime is if at least two witnesses saw the abuse occuring. This policy, in most U.S. states and throughout Canada, violates laws requiring citizens to report suspected child abuse to child welfare and/or police.

This policy - though denied by the church - has apparently been in place for decades, and is still in place today. Victims of sexual abuse have reported that their claims were minimized, refuted, or ignored by church authorities, and they're speaking out.

Accused child molestors who are not considered guilty by church authorities are still allowed to proselytize door-to-door, and to work one-on-one with children.

What to do if you suspect a church member has or is abusing a child:

1. Do not rely on church elders to resolve the problem. Go directly to the proper authorities. Jehovah may be in charge, but it's your legal responsibility to report suspected child abuse. If you don't, you may be aiding and abetting the sexual exploitation of children. This applies even if the suspected perpetrator is your own spouse, sibling, parent, friend, church elder, etc.

2. Notify church authorities after you've contacted child welfare or the police. Request that the accused not be allowed one-on-one contact with children in the church until the matter has been legally resolved, for the protection of the children and the church. If you are told that the matter should be resolved only within the church, point out that this is in violation of the law and could leave the church vulnerable to legal action.

3. Find out your church's policy on abuse claims. If it is not in line with the law, demand changes. Tell your fellow church members about the policy and encourage them to demand changes, as well. This is in the best interests of your children, your spiritual community, and your community in general.

What to do if have been or are you are a victim of sexual abuse by a church member:

1. Do not expect action from church authorities. Go to a social worker, trusted friend or family member, teacher or school staff member, a doctor or health worker, child welfare, the police, or other authority figure outside the church first. You can go to the church after you have turned to someone who is in a position to help you legally.

2. If someone in the church, even an elder, tries to minimize the abuse you have suffered, accuses you of lying, or tells you that it is in the best interests of everyone to keep the abuse a secret, do not accept this. You are the victim of a crime. You deserve to be heard and to have your claims investigated in a timely, legal, appropriate fashion.

3. If questioned by a church member about details of the abuse, do not give information you are not comfortable giving. You are not obligated, legally or spiritually, to give details that you do not want to reveal.

For more information on Jehovah's Witness child abuse, please visit silentlambs.org. This is an online community by and for victims of abuse whose claims were covered up or ignored by church authorities, and it provides a wealth of information on the issue. This is not just a JW problem. It affects our children and our communities. It's up to all of us to make sure that child sexual abuse is not tolerated for any reason.

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