Sex Abuse: Witness Leaders Accused of Shielding Molesters
Yet Bowen says when he approached his fellow elders about the situation, they turned a blind eye toward the evidence and did little to help the victim. "I discovered how corrupt this organization was in terms of hurting children," Bowen says. In protest to the elders' response, Bowen, 43, resigned his position as an elder. He is part of a growing group of former and current Jehovah's Witnesses speaking out against a policy they claim is protecting child molesters in Jehovah's Witness circles nationwide.
A reluctance to report
Bowen says that to avoid embarrassment or shame, Witness leaders discourage followers from reporting any incident of sexual misconduct to authorities, even if the law requires it, citing the November 1995 issue of the organization's magazine, The Watchtower. The publication says that Witnesses must follow the biblical standard of finding two or three eye-witnesses to verify a claim before making an accusation of abuse (referencing 2 Cor. 13:1 and 1 Tim. 5:19).
Otherwise, it says, the matter should be dropped, and the accused should be treated as innocent. For those who recall repressed memories of sexual abuse, The Watchtower statement said, "The nature of these recalls is just too uncertain to base judicial decisions on them without other supporting evidence."
J. R. Brown, director of the public affairs office of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS) in Brooklyn, says he shares Bowen's concern. "We abhor what [molestation] does to children," he tells Christianity Today.
Critics, however, say that the Witness organization uses the policy for all abuse cases, whether they deal with repressed memories or not. Most abuse situations rarely have multiple witnesses, critics argue, adding that local leaders are not appropriately handling alleged abuse and have a bias toward protecting their congregations.
Jim Whitney, 49, formerly a Witness elder, says he discovered meeting notes from other elders regarding abuse cases at a Kingdom Hall in California where he had been active. He said none of these cases were ever turned over to the police.
When he began attending another Kingdom Hall in Oregon, he discovered a similar pattern. "They shield the organization," he says. "They will do anything to protect Jehovah's Witnesses."
Paul Carden, executive director for the Centers for Apologetics Research in San Juan Capistrano, California, says this protective attitude is prevalent in the WTBTS. "There is a fortress mentality," Carden says. "The Watchtower Society is loath to admit wrongdoing of any sort. Because they portray themselves as being Jehovah's sole mouthpiece to mankind, they have sought to present themselves as being above question."
Whitney believes many child molesters make their way into Witness congregations. "It's a fertile ground," he says. "Pedophiles know that any confession they make is concealed. The Witnesses don't want to bring shame to their name."
Witness spokesman Brown says that the incidence of pedophilia is no worse in his religion than in others, but he admits that some elders have not reported suspicions of abuse. In 38 states, the law requires clergy and other professionals to report physical and sexual abuse of children. Some critics argue that even in the 22 states that do not require clergy members to report, Witness elders do not qualify for such a privilege because most are neither professionally trained nor paid employees of the organization.