March 6, 2020

HJ Talks About Abuse: IICSA – Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is commencing its investigation into Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings on 16 March 2020.

This is a wide ranging investigation into child protection practices in religious organisations which have more than a trivial presence in England and Wales.

The hearings will run for two weeks and will conduct an investigation into the adequacy of child protection practices in, for example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Jewish orthodox community, Scientology and Paganism. 

Hugh James represents an advocacy group of current and former members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses called the EX-JW Advocates Opposing Crimes Against Children (the “Group”).  To explain, the Group:

  1. Is made up of survivors of childhood sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses UK, former elders of Jehovah’s Witnesses UK with deep knowledge of practices adopted by bodies of elders at congregations across the UK and former member activists who assist survivors across the UK;
  2. Certain members of the Group maintain a website and Facebook group with resources and immediate help for those who have been affected by Jehovah’s Witnesses UK and access to the site administrator who can speak with the member or ex-member in confidence;
  3. Advocates for change within Jehovah’s Witnesses UK in respect of, amongst other things, the 2017 safeguarding policy, internal practices and procedures following the disclosure of child sexual abuse within a congregation, support to survivors of child sexual abuse within Jehovah’s Witnesses UK and understanding of child sexual abuse not as a ‘sin’ but a crime; and
  4. Raises awareness in respect of Jehovah's Witnesses UK reluctance to co-operate with secular authorities in investigations and prosecutions members who have committed an act of child sexual abuse and the failure to bring those allegations to the attention of the police at first instance.

The Group is focussed on highlighting to the Inquiry the cultural issues within the Jehovah’s Witnesses which inhibits reporting of allegations of child sexual abuse to the police and stifles proper safeguarding at an institutional level.  The primary point of concern is the recent policy shift within the Jehovah’s Witnesses of deflecting safeguarding responsibility onto parents within the religion rather than the institution itself. 

Whilst it is of course a parent’s responsibility to care for their children, it is bad practice on an institutional level to take an “arm’s length” approach to safeguarding by passing total responsibility to parents.  This is particularly the case in inward facing and isolationist religions like the Jehovah’s Witnesses which restrict a child’s interaction with the outside world.

Other cultural issues which inhibit proper safeguarding include shunning, the two witness rule, scriptural investigations, a view of society’s laws as “Caesar’s laws” and reputational concerns.  These issues are not all specific to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and practice like shunning and the two witness rule is practiced in other religions, like certain sects of Jewish orthodoxy.

Overall, the Group advocates for mandatory reporting along with external regulation and training.  In the course of the investigations conducted by the Inquiry it has become very apparent that religious institutions are almost incapable of properly self-regulating and appropriately reporting allegations of child sexual abuse or individuals who pose a risk of harm to children to authorities.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses as an organisation has been exposed in the respect in a recent High Court decision called Lancashire County Council v E & F & Ors [2020] EWHC 182. The “choice” to report must be taken away from these organisations.   

Another issue of great concern which again is not specific to the Jehovah’s Witnesses is the lack of external oversight and input in regard to safeguarding training and it is clearly the case that if bad practice is the basis of training, it will create a systemic issue which is difficult to correct.  All religious organisations in the UK should be legally required to meet mandatory minimum standards but for those with charitable status there should be sanctions for failing to do so. 

The Inquiry will hopefully be able to recommend meaningful change but it has taken on a monumental task over a short period of time.

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