Canadian Press, Feb. 6, 2003
By JAMES MCCARTEN
TORONTO (CP) – The Canadian wing of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is standing its ground against a group of disgruntled former members who want the church to release a list of known child molesters within its ranks.
Three former Witnesses, two of them past victims of sexual abuse, have asked Canada’s lawmakers to force the church to allow police to probe what they allege are past cases of abuse within its membership. But while the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada Ltd., the church’s governing body, does keep a list of known abusers on file, it’s not about to hand it over to police, said spokesman Clive Thomas.
Child welfare authorities are notified when abuse is suspected, as is required by law, and they’re free to call police if they feel it’s necessary, Thomas said.
But the church itself isn’t legally obliged to disclose the names of known or suspected abusers, he added.
“We do keep a record of known child molesters, and these are people who have already come to the attention of the (child welfare) authorities,” Thomas said.
“(But) there’s no duty in law, as we understand it, to report matters like this to the police. That’s something that’s not required by law.”
Around the world, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have cultivated a reputation as a virtuous, morally taut group that follows strict interpretations of the Bible and eschews many of the outside world’s institutions and practices.
Blood transfusions, secular holidays, politics, Christmas and even the national anthem are among the “worldly” practices, traditions and institutions in which they choose not to participate.
They have “a clean-cut image,” Thomas said. “We don’t feel it’s just an image; we feel it’s something that Jehovah’s Witnesses are.”
Incidents such as sexual abuse are handled internally, with so-called judicial committees comprised of church elders who gather to hear the allegations, review evidence and decide the proper course of action.
But their philosophy has come under fire in recent years from critics and former members who say countless cases of abuse remain hidden within the insular world of the Witnesses.
Silentlambs, a U.S.-based group of ex-Witnesses and abuse survivors, claims that nearly 24,000 known child molesters are on file with the church’s international headquarters in New York City.
Former Witnesses Kim Sheeler, Lee Marsh and Grace Gough are blitzing Parliament Hill and Canada’s provincial legislatures with an angry letter urging politicians and police to take action.
One fundamental principle requires Witnesses to promote the virtues of their religion by way of in-home Bible studies and door-to-door ministry: spreading the word of God, one house at a time.
“This mandate has applied equally to known, convicted and accused pedophiles associating within the congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” the letter says.
“Some even conduct private Bible studies in the homes of unsuspecting Canadians who unwittingly expose their children to harm because they have no idea that a child molester is sitting in their living room.”
Thomas said the Witnesses keep the list of names on hand to ensure those with a history of abusing children are kept out of positions of authority within their congregations.
“The policy of the church . . . is that no one who has a history of that type of behaviour, which has been established, would be put in a position of trust or responsibility in the congregation,” he said.
“They could remain a member, they could be re-admitted to the church if they are repentant, but that’s not a danger to others.”
Nor are they allowed to go door-to-door by themselves, he added.
But former Witnesses and their allies say it’s all part of a concerted effort on the part of the church to maintain their clean-cut image.
“Because of the silence within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the public has no idea who is at their door looking at their children,” said Andrew Lusk, who’s helping Sheeler, Marsh and Gough in their cause.
Lusk said he’s hoping the issue of sexual abuse within the church, a hot topic in the United States, is gaining prominence in Canada with the civil suit launched against the church last year by ex-Witness Vicki Boer.
Boer accused church elders of failing to obtain adequate treatment for the abuse she suffered as a teenager at the hands of her father in Shelburne, about 100 kilometres northwest of Toronto.
She was required to confront her father and relive the abuse in order to give him the chance to repent his alleged sins in accordance with Biblical principles, the suit alleges.
Her case was eventually reported to Children’s Aid and the police, although her father – who was deemed “spiritually repentant” by the church and rose through the ranks of his congregation, court was told – has never been criminally charged.
For their part, the Witnesses argued that none of the church elders forced Boer to do anything she didn’t want to do and that they gave her every opportunity to seek outside counselling and legal help.
Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy is expected to hand down her decision any day.
For Sheeler, who was 17 when she was assaulted by a family friend in her own living room, countless victims will remain silent and their assailants will go about their lives if nothing is done.
“We want to see people coming forward; we want to see them feeling comfortable in coming forward to talk about what happened to them,” said Sheeler, who left the Witnesses in 1995.
“Maybe it’ll wake this society up and say, ‘Maybe we do have something to work on, maybe we do have a flaw in our policy.’ ”