12 March 2021: Jehovah's Witnesses finally agree to join the National Redress Scheme (NRS)

In 2015, we reported that we were finally starting to see survivors of sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW’s) coming forward.

Six years later we have made little progress in bringing the JW’s to account. This is partly because in our experience the organisation is difficult and recalcitrant to deal with. Unlike most other churches we have not found the JW’s prepared to acknowledge, and compensate for, child sex abuse within the organisation even when legal barriers mean the claims may be difficult to pursue in court. Also, unlike most other churches, we have found that the incidence of child sex abuse in the JW’s is often inextricably linked with family and the JW’s always distance themselves from responsibility even where the abuse is by Elders or other senior people in the church and where the church had knowledge of the abuse and failed to act.

That is why it has been even more important that the JW’s join the NRS, a point to which they have finally been dragged kicking and screaming, not because they care about abuse survivors but because of  Federal Government threats to revoke their charitable status if they did not join. The announcement was of course disingenuous, "Now that the law requires charities to join the scheme, Jehovah's Witnesses will comply," the JW’s said in a statement to AAP on Wednesday. "Jehovah's Witnesses believe that it is their responsibility before God to respect and co-operate with the authorities."

Actually the law does not require that the JW’s join the scheme, the law requires that they will lose their charitable status if they don’t, which is ultimately what cynically drove the JW’s to join the scheme.

However, being able to access the NRS scheme will not necessarily mean that JW survivors will get some form of compensation and acknowledgement. To be eligible for compensation the Scheme requires that the institution was responsible for bringing a survivor into contact with the person who abused them.  As referred to above, in our experience at least, the child abuse in the JW’s can by and large also be linked to family members. No doubt the JW’s will seek to argue that they are not responsible for the “contact” with the abuser if he or she also happens to be a family member. This attitude was reflected in a key submission by the JW’s to the Royal Commission Case Study into the JW’s:

 “Familial child sexual abuse is not institutional sexual abuse, as has been acknowledged by the Commission. Similarly it is self-evident that when child sexual abuse occurs outside ‘institutional’ contexts as defined, the response to it does not fall within the Terms of Reference of this Commission. The Commission proceeds on the basis that when an allegation of familial sexual abuse becomes known to an elder and is subsequently Scripturally investigated by congregation elders, it ceases to be familial abuse and becomes institutional abuse. This conflation of familial and institutional sexual abuse does not accord with the Terms of Reference.”

 In response the Royal Commission found:

“We do not accept that the child sexual abuse revealed in this case study has no connection with the activities of the Jehovah’s Witness organisation. This is so for two reasons:

  • First, in each of the two complaints of child sexual abuse considered during the public hearing of this case study, an official of the organisation perpetrated the abuse (see sections 4 and 5). The Jehovah’s Witness organisation’s policies then (and now) encouraged reporting of both familial and non-familial child sexual abuse to officials of the organisation (see section 3). The organisation received and responded to each of the two complaints. The subject of the Royal Commission’s inquiry was the organisation’s response to those complaints.
  • Secondly, since at least 1950, the Jehovah’s Witness organisation has systematically recorded allegations of child sexual abuse made against its members, regardless of whether or not those allegations concerned familial or non-familial abuse (see section 6).663 This case study examined the way that the Jehovah’s Witness organisation has responded to allegations of child sexual abuse and how it has managed the risk of child sexual abuse that those allegations should bring to the organisation’s attention.”

 

By Angela Sdrinis 
Director, Angela Sdrinis Legal

Law Institute Victoria Accredited Personal Injury Specialists

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