New York Times, Aug. 11, 2002
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
William Bowen always considered himself a devout Jehovah’s Witness. As a child, he felt it was his duty to go door to door passing out the church’s magazine, The Watchtower. Later, as an elder in his Kentucky congregation, he said he saw it as his duty to inform church officials that a fellow elder had abused a child.
But when Mr. Bowen contacted the church’s headquarters in Brooklyn, he says, he was rebuffed.
Frustrated by the church’s inaction and by its confidentiality provisions, which he said prevented him from sharing the information with others, Mr. Bowen resigned as an elder in December 2000. A year later, he started a group to monitor child sexual abuse in the church.
Late last month, Mr. Bowen, 44, was excommunicated from the church. Behind a locked door, with plastic bags taped over the windows to ward off onlookers, he said, three church elders meeting at the church’s Kingdom Hall in Draffenville, Ky., found him guilty of “causing divisions.”
The punishment was “disfellowshiping” — complete shunning.
In the past three months, four other people have been expelled from the Jehovah’s Witnesses after accusing it of covering up the sexual abuse of children by its members. For Mr. Bowen and other critics of church policies on sexual abuse, the expulsions are part of a concerted effort to keep such abuses quiet.
Expelled Witnesses say the church’s own policies and culture conspire to conceal abuse. A panel of church elders, all men, meets in secret to decide each case, a procedure which critics say prevents members from knowing there is an abuser in their midst. To prove an accusation, a child must have a witness to the incident, a condition that is usually impossible to meet.
“This is evidence for the world to see how the Jehovah’s Witnesses treat abuse survivors and those who try to protect them,” said Mr. Bowen. “They silence them with the threat of disfellowshiping.”
J. R. Brown, director of the public information office at church headquarters, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, in Brooklyn, said the church had exemplary policies for handling sexual abuse, which were based on biblical standards and had been widely published in church magazines.
While the Roman Catholic Church has been engulfed in its own sexual abuse scandal, the same issue is beginning to plague the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a denomination that claims one million members in the United States and six million worldwide.
The scope of abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a matter of considerable debate. The church has recently been sued by eight plaintiffs in four lawsuits alleging abuse, one filed in July in Minnesota. Mr. Bowen says that his victims support group, “silentlambs,” has collected reports from more than 5,000 Witnesses contending that the church mishandled child sexual abuse.
The church keeps a database of members and associates who have been accused or found guilty of child abuse. Mr. Bowen said church sources had told him the database contained the names of more than 23,000 people in the United States, Canada and Europe. The church says the number is “considerably lower,” but will not say what it is.
The church has a firm framework for handling sexual abuse cases. Members who suspect abuse are advised to go first to the elders, who are considered spiritual and moral leaders to whom the members are to turn with their personal problems. Mr. Brown said that the church’s legal department advised elders to follow the law in states that have mandatory reporting laws, and in cases in which children appear to be in danger.
The elders are the ones required to judge whether someone has committed a sin like child abuse. If the abuser confesses and is forgiven, the only notice given to the congregation is an announcement that the person has been disciplined. No reason is announced. However, the elders report the person’s name to headquarters, where it goes into the database so that abuser is banned from serving in a position of authority.
The church spokesman, Mr. Brown, said: “We view such judicial hearings as an extension of our shepherding work as ministers. In other words, we’re there to save a person’s soul. In these cases we are not going to be vindictive because these are our brothers, and we would hope that they would change.”
If the accused denies the allegation, the victim’s testimony alone is not sufficient unless there is at least one other witness to the act. The church says its policy is based on a scriptural injunction in Deuteronomy 19:15 that says two or three witnesses are necessary to prove a man has sinned.
Carl A. Raschke, a professor of religious studies at the University of Denver who has written about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the group was no different from many other insular religions that aspire to theological and moral purity.
“Groups that tend to be very tight-knit and in-grown historically have a higher incidence of sexual abuse and incest,” Dr. Raschke said. “That’s an ethnological fact. When a religion tries to be thoroughly holy or godly, it’s not going to acknowledge that people aren’t living up to the ideals of the faith.”