There’s no question whether Jehovah’s Witnesses policies direct elders to keep child abuse secret from police. They do.
And there’s no question whether the religion’s headquarters maintains a database of alleged child sexual abusers going back decades. Or that Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders have violated court orders to hand it over.
It’s been three years since we began investigating the global child sexual abuse cover-up inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization, and even though we’ve learned many key details, questions still remain.
How many child abusers are still active around the world because the Jehovah’s Witnesses did not report them? Which congregations do they attend? And why, even in the face of lawsuits and multimillion-dollar court judgments, do leaders refuse to change their policies in any significant way?
We’ve demonstrated our findings in text, television, radio and virtual reality stories. But we felt there was more to do because of the strong public interest that would be served by answering those questions.
We decided to go back to our sources, people around the world who had fueled our coverage, and try to gather them in one place for a day. As an independent, nonpartisan journalism organization, we would broker a day of speakers, panels and candid discussions about ways to address the Jehovah’s Witnesses child abuse crisis.
We chose London because the Jehovah’s Witnesses are fighting multiple lawsuits and investigations related to their child abuse policies there. The law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp – which has the largest abuse litigation department in England – currently has civil lawsuits against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and brought child abuse experts and survivors from around the U.K.
In all, more than 60 experts and stakeholders showed up. They were lawyers, law enforcement officials, child abuse investigators, academics, journalists, former Jehovah’s Witnesses elders, and survivors of child sexual abuse. They traveled on their own dimes from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Belgium, Spain, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
We invited representatives from the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters to join us, but they did not accept.
At the gathering last Wednesday, a panel of abuse survivors talked about the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ failure to protect them when they were children. A panel of former elders described their struggles to break the silence of the organization.
Journalists from Spain and Canada reported on the crisis in their countries. Attorneys from the U.S., U.K., and Australia discussed legal strategies and challenges to getting the Jehovah’s Witnesses to turn over their child abuse database. Some British law enforcement officials were learning about the cover-up for the first time.
The day closed with a conversation with Mike Rezendes, the Boston Globe reporter who was part of the Spotlight team that blew open the child abuse cover-up in the Catholic Church. Rezendes said the Jehovah’s Witnesses story had many of the hallmarks of the Catholic Church scandal – particularly the organization’s secrecy and the power abusers have over victims.
The gathering sparked renewed interest in the cover-up from the British media. Journalists from the BBC and other media outlets showed up to interview some of those in attendance and have already begun broadcasting new stories.
The Times of London followed that coverage with a story emphasizing calls for a formal investigation into the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ child abuse files by the U.K.’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
“The Inquiry has got the powers to require the production of those documents,” said Laura Hoyano, an associate professor of law at Oxford University who specializes in child abuse issues and attended the London summit. “And I understand they have already taken some steps to ensure the documents are retained and not destroyed.”
There’s no question. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are protecting the identities of alleged child abusers, and shielding them from prosecution. The courts want that information and so do we. The fight to get it is playing out around the world.