Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse Jehovah's Witnesses face abuse hearing Case 29

Jehovah's Witnesses face abuse hearing Case 29

A national inquiry will in July examine the responses of another church, Jehovah's Witnesses, to allegations of child sexual abuse.

Jehovah's Witnesses, the sometimes controversial Christian church, is to face public examination by the royal commission into child sexual abuse in institutions.

A public hearing into the church will be held in Sydney starting on July 27, the commission announced on Monday.

The experience of survivors of child sexual abuse within the Jehovah's Witnesses Church in Australia will be investigated as will its responses and those of its company - the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Australia Ltd - to allegations made against members.

The Witnesses are best known for their door-to-door proselytising as they spread the message of what they believe is the true meaning of the bible. They have sometimes gained publicity for their refusal to accept blood transfusions and have been accused of being a "cult".

In 2012 the church in the United States was involved in a court case in California which tested its obligation to tell parents of the child-abuse history of a member who molested a nine-year-old girl.

In April this year the US appeal court found Jehovah's Witnesses had no duty to reveal to parents or authorities the past history of a member but the Watchtower Society was ordered to pay $US2.8 million compensation to the parents of the girl.

The Australian commission will examine the systems, policies and procedures Jehovah's Witnesses and the Watchtower company have in place deal with child abuse allegations here.

Jehovah's Witness sex abuse claim sounds warning note for Churches

Religious and other institutions are increasingly being held vicariously liable for historic sexual abuse committed not only by their employees but also by laity and other non-employees linked to the institutions, according to a leading lawyer.

Frank Cranmer, author of the Law and Religion blog, spoke after a woman abused for five years by a Jehovah's Witness won £275,000 damages at the high court.

The sexual abuse of "A", aged 29, began when she was just four. Her abuser was Peter Stewart, not an employee of the church but a ministerial servant at Limehurst Congregation in Loughborough. The abuse took place at least once a week during Bible study in the victim's living room or the perpetrator's loft.

It came to an end when Stewart was jailed on other child abuse charges at the Limehouse church.

"A" told her mother about the abuse shortly before Stewart was due to be released after serving his sentence. She spoke to an elder in the congregation but no action was taken so she went to the police. Stewart died in 2001, a month after he was interviewed by police. "A" went to the high court seeking vicarious damages from the Jehovah's Witnesses and from two congregations, Blackbrook and Southwood, that succeeded Limehurst. She claimed successfully that they negligently failed to take reasonable steps to protect her from Stewart once they knew he had sexually assaulted another child in the congregation.

He added: "Throughout, he told the claimant it was their secret and that she should say nothing about what was happening. He told her that she would be damned as a sinner if she said anything to anyone."

Franks Cranmer, a fellow at St John's College Durham and secretary of the churches' legislation advisory service, told Christian Today: "In cases, particularly sexual abuse, the courts seem to be taking the view that if someone was abused as a child and the abuser is dead or without means then there ought to be compensation. The organisation with which the abuser was associated is held vicariously liable."

On his blog he wrote that A v Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is the latest in a line of recent cases in which religious organisations have been held vicariously liable for historic sexual abuse.

He wrote: "Increasingly (and, in my view, rightly) the courts are taking the view that sexual abuse is such a serious matter that where the abuser has disappeared or died, the institution with which he was associated – even if not as an employee (which Stewart was not) – should compensate the victim. A v Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is in line with that way of thinking.

The commission will also ask what the church, which has more than 60,000 disciples in Australia, is doing to prevent child sexual abuse in its organisation.

The Jehovah's Witnesses case is the 29th study by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual abuse. The commission has already held public hearings into the Anglican and Catholic churches as well as other Christian churches, including the Salvation Army.

The organisation has 64,000 active "disciples" in Australia but has also been described as a cult.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe their church is the one true religion and all others are wrong. They are among a number of religious groups which have been examined by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse including the Catholics, Anglicans, Australian Christian Churches and the Salvation Army.

On Monday, the commission called for any person or institution who believes that they have a direct and substantial interest in the Jehovah's Witnesses hearing to lodge a written application for leave to appear at the public hearing by July 10.

Jehovah's Witnesses' silencing techniques: as terrifying as child abuse

Growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness family is different. As a child, I didn’t celebrate birthdays, Christmas or July 4. Nor did I, or anyone I knew, mix with non-Witness families in Little League or Girl Scouts. Instead, I spent much of my time sharing the “good news.” I used to go door-to-door on my own with a big, strong, well liked man in my congregation, named Jonathan. I was just 9 and 10 when he repeatedly sexually abused me.

It is really hard for kids to speak up when they’re abused. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses make it a lot harder.

They have a “2 Witness” rule, which says that anyone who accuses an adult of abuse must have a second witness. If there is no second witness, the accuser is punished for a false accusation - usually by ordering that no Witness may talk with or associate with the “false” accuser. This is called dis-fellowshipping. For a kid raised only with other Witnesses, it was horrifying. Even your parents would have to ignore you. It was more terrifying than Jonathan. 

It was the elders of my congregation who had assigned Jonathan to team up with me. When we separated from the others, he forced me into his pick-up truck and drove us to his house. Then he would say “Let’s play”. It happened too many times. Like everyone else in the congregation, my parents liked “Brother” Jonathan and trusted him in our family.

My parents were consumed with some really huge problems in those years, and later divorced. I was emotionally alone - and wanted to be the best Jehovah’s Witness I could be. That’s why I went out to field service - the door to door ministry that Witnesses are known for.

What my parents didn’t know, was that Jonathan had sexually molested another girl in our congregation. The elders knew this and had kept it a secret. They were following orders from Watchtower leaders, based in the world headquarters in New York, who in 1989 had issued a top-secret instruction to keep known child sex abusers in the congregations a secret. This instruction became Exhibit 1 at my civil trial. 

The elders and the Governing Body all knew that child molesters hide in religious groups and often are people who are likeable and friendly - like Jonathan. They knew molesters would likely do it again. But they chose to ignore the safety of the kids, in favor of protecting their image - and their bank account - from lawsuits. It was all in that 1989 letter.

A recent report by the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that they have continued to issues directives urging silence around child abuse. Last November, elders were instructed to avoid taking criminal matters like child abuse to the authorities. Instead, they were told to handle them internally in confidential committees. The report also showed that Jehovah’s Witnesses evoke the First Amendment to hide sex abuse claims.

It took me learning about Jonathan’s other victims for me to speak up. In 2009, I looked on California’s Megan’s Law website, the state’s official list of registered sex offenders. There, I found he had been convicted a few years before for sexually abusing another 8-year-old girl. I felt horribly guilty that I hadn’t spoken up about him earlier. Now, I need to stop predators from doing this again.

The only way to end this abuse is by lifting this veil of secrecy once and for all.

Woman abused as child by Jehovah's Witness minister wins £275k damages

Peter Stewart admitted to victim’s mother he was a pervert, but when church elders failed to act she went to the police

A woman traumatised by five years of sexual abuse as a child by a Jehovah’s Witness minister has won £275,000 damages at the high court, in what is said to be the first case against the church in the UK.

The woman, now 29, who can only be named as A, was sexually abused from the age of four by Peter Stewart, a ministerial servant at the Limehurst Congregation in Loughborough, where her family worshipped.

The abuse, which began in 1989, stopped in 1994 after Stewart was arrested and jailed for abusing another child in the congregation and another young girl.

The victim remained silent at the time, and her mother gave evidence of Stewart’s good character at his trial. It was only in 1999, just before Stewart’s release, that A told her mother what had happened.

When her mother wrote to Stewart with the allegations, he admitted he was a pervert and told her he was sorry for the hurt and damage he had caused. She contacted an elder at the church and, when nothing was done, she went to the police.

Officers interviewed A in May 2001, but Stewart died a month later.

She claimed that the trustees of the Blackbrook Congregation and the Southwood Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Loughborough, the successors of the Limehurst Congregation, were vicariously liable for the assaults.

She also claimed they were liable for the actions of the Limehurst elders who, in 1990, failed to take steps to protect her once they knew Stewart had assaulted another child in the congregation.

The defendants claimed that because Stewart was now dead, A had brought her claim too late and they were not responsible, although they accepted he did sexually abuse her.

After a hearing in London in February, Mr Justice Globe said on Friday: “In my judgment the relationship between elders and ministerial servants and the Jehovah’s Witnesses is sufficiently close in character to one of employer/employee that it is just and fair to impose vicarious liability.”

James Counsell, the victim’s barrister, said A’s whole family were Jehovah Witnesses. A’s mother trusted and respected Stewart as a ministerial servant of the organisation, and after he befriended her she left him alone with her daughter.

The abuse took place during bible study lessons and involved touching and sex acts in the living room of A’s home and in the loft at Stewart’s home.

The judge said: “Throughout, he told the claimant it was their secret and that she should say nothing about what was happening. He told her that she would be damned as a sinner if she said anything to anyone.”

A has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She had hoped to become a lawyer, but after her mental health deteriorated she did not get the qualifications she had hoped for and has not been able to hold down a steady job.

She said the abuse has affected her relationships, “sexual and otherwise”. She once became pregnant but had an abortion. She eventually married in August 2008, and although she and her husband love each other she feels unable to have children.

Globe said that all of the elders and ministerial servants who had given evidence were horrified by the abuse and showed remorse that a Jehovah’s Witness should have caused such harm to A.

He said that, at the very least, the Limehurst elders assumed a responsibility to warn the congregation about Stewart but, despite their good intentions, A’s mother and her children were either not warned at all or were not adequately warned.

After the judgment, A said: “The procedures the Jehovah’s Witnesses follow for dealing with child sexual abuse are the same as it was when I was abused.The one thing I would like to come from this case is that they will feel forced to change their child safeguarding procedures.”

The damages and an interim payment of £455,000 towards A’s legal costs will be met by the trustees of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

Lawsuit: Jehovah's Witness official molested girls

Annessa Lewis was 4 years old and Miranda Lewis was 5 when the molestations began, the lawsuits stated. The abuse of the two preschoolers allegedly spanned more than a year.

Both women were Jehovah's Witness members at the time, along with their mother, Marina Lewis.

The Jehovah's Witnesses, with 14 million members worldwide, are a close-knit Christian denomination best known for door-to-door evangelism by members and for its Watch Tower and Awake publications.

Zalkin, the lawyer, said his law firm is involved in about 20 cases alleging sexual abuse of children by Jehovah's Witness officials across the country. He said one case, now on appeal in Oregon, resulted in a damage award of $21 million.

Miranda Lewis appeared with Zalkin at the news conference, along with her mother, Marina Lewis, also of Chester. Miranda Lewis told reporters that True abused her for the first time as she was leaving a congregation meeting in Bellows Falls sometime in 1995 or 1996.

"As everyone was leaving, Norton took my hand and held me back," she said. "He waited for the room to clear out, and that's when the abuse started." The initial abuse, the complaint states, involved True touching Lewis inappropriately.

The Burlington Free Press generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual assaults, but the Lewis family is speaking publicly about the case.

Miranda Lewis is shown in this family photo as a young child. Two lawsuits against the Bellows Falls Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Tract Society on New York claim that “ministerial servant” Norton True sexually assaulted Lewis and her sister, Annessa, when the two were girls.  (Photo: Courtesy )

According to the lawsuit, the abuse ended when Lewis' mother saw True trying to isolate Miranda Lewis in his barn during a going-away party for a church member.

Marina Lewis took both of her daughters to her car with True following behind. Miranda Lewis then asked when True was going to touch her again, according to the lawsuit.

True denied inappropriately touching her, at which point Annessa Lewis told her mother she believed her younger sister, because True had done the same thing to her, the lawsuit stated.

According to Annessa Lewis' lawsuit, True first fondled her when she was in his barn and he lifted her up to show her his horses.

The lawsuits also claim True molested at least three other children prior to the abuse of the Lewis sisters, but the elders in the Bellows Falls congregation "chose not to warn ... congregation members of the danger defendant True posed to children."

"The Jehovah's Witnesses have a policy that is grounded in a code of silence when it comes to the protection of children," Zalkin said. "They are more concerned about scandal and the avoidance of scandal than they are the protection of the children that are entrusted to their care."

Marina Lewis, a single mom at the time of the events in question, said she notified church elders about True's conduct. She said no action was taken against True. Instead, she and her daughters were shunned by the church.

"They wanted me to keep quiet about what happened," Miranda Lewis said. "It was very strange. There was almost no support for my family. No understanding at all."

Said Miranda Lewis, "We were told we were liars by a lot of people."