The Jehovah’s Witnesses Church in Australia failed to report more than 1,000 reports of child sexual abuse since 1950, according to testimony presented at a government inquiry into the claims.
On Monday, Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse began to hear two cases of child sexual abuse which will be used to examine how the church has historically dealt with such claims.
The first case presented was that of a 47-year-old church member who said she first began to suffer sexual abuse at the hands of a church elder when she was 15 years old.
Identified only as BCB, the alleged victim stated that she often spent weekends at the house of Bill Neill, a church elder and the father of one of her friends. She stayed with the Neill family on and off during her teens because her own family lived an hour away from the Jehovah’s Witnesses Church in Corrigin.
One night, she said, after she said goodnight to Neill, “he kissed me goodnight on the lips. Initially, this did not seem unusual to me, but he then stuck his tongue into my mouth. I pulled away and looked at him in shock. He looked at me and gave me a queer smirk-type smile.”
Such “tongue-kissing” became a routine occurrence. BCB said she did not feel she could tell anyone about because of Neill’s position in the Church as an elder.
“I felt that if I told someone, it would upset [Neill’s family] as well as the members of the congregation,” she said.
Over the next few years, the abuse worsened and BCB reported that he broke into the bathroom while she was showering and watched her one occasion, and forcibly performed oral sex on her in a separate incident.
When BCB mentioned to Neill’s daughter that she had begun “seeing a couple of boys,” Neill found out and asked to meet with her.
“I understood that I was being asked to see [Neill] in his capacity as an elder and that I had to do as I was told. I would never have chosen to speak to [him] about my relationships with boys otherwise,” she said.
Even though she had expected a formal discussion of her relationships with someone who occupied an authority position in the church, she was instead met with more abuse.
“I feel like [Neill’s] position as an elder contributed to his power over me. I now think that I was brainwashed Into thinking that speaking to people outside the church…would bring reproach upon Jehovah’s name.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses Church did not reply to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.
However, a 2009 statement from the church notes that congregation elders are expected to investigate allegations of child abuse. Two witnesses must corroborate the claim in order for the alleged perpetrator to be sanctioned by the church.
When any one of Jehovah’s Witnesses is accused of an act of child abuse, the local congregation elders are expected to investigate. Two elders meet separately with the accused and the accuser to see what each says on the matter. If the accused denies the charge, the two elders may arrange for him and the victim to restate their position in each other’s presence, with elders also there. If during that meeting the accused still denies the charges and there are no others who can substantiate them, the elders cannot take action within the congregation at that time.
This procedure seems consisted with BCB’s account. After she formally came forward with her claims of abuse, she was asked to meet with Neill, Church Elder Max Horley, and another church official as well as and her husband. She recalled receiving defiant stares from Neill over the course of the meeting and said in her statement that the environment did not allow her to openly discuss her abuse.
It was already very hard to talk about sex in a room full of men. It was especially hard to talk about what [Neill] had done to me while he was sitting there in front of me. I didn’t feel llke it was a safe environment and I was scared of what the consequences would be If I told the whole truth. Perhaps if a Sister who I was comfortable with had been there too, it might have been easier
Max Horley stated in his testimony that the church was unable to find what he called “clear proof” of the abuse.
“[Neill] denied that he had deliberately done anything improper and, if anything had happened, it had been unintentional,” he said. “Due to the lack of clear proof from either party, it became a case of one person’s word against another. However, it had cast a cloud over the qualifications for [Neill] to remain an elder.”
“I knew it wasn’t right,” Horley said. “I didn’t realise it might have been a criminal matter.”
While Neill stepped down as a church elder soon after that meeting with BCB, Horley, and others, the reason for his resignation was not made clear to church members.
“Although I understood the reasons for privacy, I have since felt that people in the congregation should have been warned about someone like [Neill],” BCB said.
It does not appear that they reported BCB’s claims to authorities as may have been required by Australian laws on the “mandatory reporting” of child abuse and neglect. Sometime after Neill stepped down from his position as elder, he moved along with his family from Corrigin to Perth. It was only after he died that BCB reported her abuse to the Royal Commission.
The 2009 Chuch statement on child protection affirmed that “elders may be required by law to report even uncorroborated or unsubstantiated allegations to the authorities.”
According to the Royal Commission, even when members were officially sanctioned by the church for child abuse, they were later allowed to return. The Commission found that since 1950, the church expelled 401 members after its internal hearings on allegations of abuse. It subsequently allowed 230 of them to return to the church. Thirty-five were welcomed back on multiple occasions.
While church members who have confessed to child sexual abuse may be allowed to return to their congregations if they are deemed sufficiently repentant, a 1997 article from The Watchtower, a magazine put out by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, suggested that they should not be allowed to assume authority positions.
“For the protection of our children, a man known to have been a child molester does not qualify for a responsible position in the congregation. Moreover, he cannot be a pioneer [full-time missionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses] or serve in any other special, full-time service.”