The Jehovah’s Witnesses Church in Australia failed to report to police more than 1,000 cases of child sexual abuse going back more than 60 years, a government investigation into abuse and its aftermath heard on Monday.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, which was launched in 2013 amid allegations of serial child abuse inside the Catholic Church in Australia, has a broad mandate to examine religious and secular organisations.
At the opening hearing into the Jehovah’s Witnesses on Monday, Angus Stewart, senior council assisting the commission, described the church as an insular sect with rules designed to stem the reporting of sexual abuse.
“Evidence will be put before the Royal Commission that of the 1,006 alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse identified by the Jehovah’s Witness Church since 1950, not one was reported by the church to secular authorities,” he said.
“This suggests that it is the practice of the Jehovah’s Witness church to retain information regarding child sexual abuse offences but not to report allegations of child sexual abuse to the police or other relevant authorities.”
The U.S.-based Jehovah’s Witnesses number about 8 million worldwide and are known for their foreign ministries as well as their door-to-door campaigns. There are about 68,000 members in Australia, Stewart said.
Two church members, identified as BCB and BCG, are expected to give testimony containing allegations that they were discouraged by church elders from reporting their abuse.
Stewart outlined multiple institutional failures to protect children or censure alleged abusers, including doctrine releasing church elders from their responsibility to report abuse where there was no mandatory legal obligation to do so.
Although the church expelled 401 members after internal abuse hearings, it allowed 230 of them to return to the fold. Thirty-five were welcomed back on multiple occasions.
The church also erected high barriers to its internal process, requiring that two or more witnesses be produced before proceeding to a church “judicial committee”. This blocked 125 allegations from being heard, Stewart said.
The royal commission has kept Australians riveted with airings of abuse allegations and cover-ups in the highest ranks of its Orthodox Jewish and Roman Catholic communities going back decades.
They have reached even into the Vatican, where Australian Cardinal George Pell, now in charge of reforming the Vatican’s economic departments, has come under scrutiny over allegations he failed to take action to protect children years ago.
Pell dismissed as “false”, and “outrageous” allegations heard before the commission that he had little regard for victims.