Jehovah's Witnesses accused of building 'paedophile paradise'

Scottish branch of world church alleged to have sheltered abusers and kept information from police

Sunday Herald/July 14, 2002
By Torcuil Crichton

The Jehovah's Witnesses Church in Scotland stands accused of sheltering child abusers and keeping secret files of known paedophiles within the organisation which it refuses to share with police. After a successful prosecution over child abuse within a Jehovah's Witnesses family in Ayrshire, Scottish police are understood to be preparing to bring a further case to court in the northeast.

The Jehovah's Witnesses church, which has six million members around the world, has been convulsed by revelations that its elders have protected sex offenders, failed to report accusations to the police and even punished children and families making accusations.

The Watch Tower, the church's worldwide head quarters in Brooklyn, is struggling to regain its battered authority after a string of child abuse cases stretching from the US to Scotland. An investigation by the BBC's Panorama programme has discovered that the Watch Tower Society keeps a worldwide database of members accused of child abuse. The list, which is claimed to contain more than 20,000 names, is based on details held by each Jehovah's Witnesses congregation and many of the names on that list have never been reported to the police.

Allegations of child abuse within the church first emerged in Scotland in the quiet seaside town of Stevenson in Ayrshire when 19-year-old Alison Cousins went to the police after being branded a liar by church elders to whom she had turned for help.

Cousins, who was brought up in the Jehovah's Witnesses, went to her church elders three years ago with the shocking allegation that her father, a respected member of the congregation, had been sexually abusing her.

Cousins, who followed the strict church rules that any allegations of wrongdoing must be dealt with within the congregation, broke down as she told her story to the men who dispensed moral guidance to the flock. In return she was told that she should do nothing.

'They told me that one of the scriptures in the Bible was that you should never take your brother to court,' Cousins told Panorama. 'And I said to them, 'Well what are you meant to do then if he's doing something wrong?' And they said, 'Come to us and we'll deal with it.''

The church law which dictates that members must turn to elders rather than the police also demands that there must be two witnesses to a crime before taking any action. The biblical citation for this is found in Deuteronomy 19:15: 'No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin. At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good.'

In instances of child abuse, where there are no witnesses other than the child involved, critics of the church say the guide lines amount to a 'paedophile paradise'.

Eventually, because she didn't have corroborating witness state ments for the elders, Cousins went to the police last year and as their investigation began, she made a shocking discovery. Church elders had known for three years that her father had been abusing her older sister, that he had confessed to the church but that no action had been taken.

Her father, Ian Cousins, who has since been prosecuted and sentenced to five years in jail, had merely been reprimanded by the elders and sent home where his abuse simply shifted from one sister to the other.

The way Cousins's case was dealt with by the church is not an isolated incident. The Jehovah's Witnesses are now reeling from a series of scandals worldwide and allegations that its self-styled Child Protection Policy does nothing but protect abusers and fails to ensure allegations of abuse are reported to the authorities.

According to its critics, child abusers within the organisation are protected by its strict biblical laws and the threat that any member disregarding the advice of elders by going to the police faces the prospect of being denounced and cast out of the congregation.

The organisation insists that it has a strict child protection policy and defends the database of self-confessed offenders as part of its strategy of dealing with abuse without referring to the judicial system.

The church keeps the existence of the list a closely guarded secret. Watch Tower states that it uses the list to monitor the activities of the men who stand accused of raping and molesting children. But former members of the church claim that keeping the list secret effectively shields abusers and allows abuse to continue. In the American Bible belt of Kentucky, Bill Bowen, who has spent his lifetime as a Jehovah's Witness and more than 20 years as an elder, claims the organisation covers up abuse by keeping this database secret.

According to Bowen, who has become a thorn in the flesh of the organisation, his sources inside Watch Tower indicate there are 23,720 abusers on the secret list -- who are protected by the system.

'Every detail is written down about what happened ,' said Bowen. ' If this man moves anywhere, then if any allegation surfaces again, this is the way they monitor these people.'

The church in the UK and the US refuses to discuss the list or its details with anyone not personally involved in a case. It was that wall of anonymity that allowed Cousins's father to remain at home and unchecked with his daughters at risk.

Bowen began his campaign to expose the church after having to handle an abuse case in his own congregation and becoming disturbed by the pressure it puts on the victim.

'When an allegation of abuse happens, parents are required to go to the elders first,' said Bowen. ' If the abuser denies the charge, they will turn back to the child and say, 'Do you have two eye witnesses to what happened?' That means the child and one other witness .'

According to Bowen, if there is not a basis to establish the allegation with two witnesses, the pressure is then turned on the accuser. If there is no corroborating evidence, the members making the allegations are warned not to repeat them against an 'innocent' or cause division in the church on pain of being 'disfellowshipped' -- effective lifetime exile.

'They're told if they don't obey these elders that God will kill them, and how God kills them is that when you're disfellowshipped, you're viewed as being dead,' said Bowen. 'It's like the biblical edict of stoning. Your own mother and father will not acknowledge you in public. Your own children will not speak to you.

'And they have a choice, they can be silent and retain their family and every friend they've known for the last 40 years, or, if they speak out, they will lose all that overnight.'

The wall of silence around abuse cases and the stipulation that there must be two witnesses before any action is taken has prevented thousands of prosecutions, according to US police.

Jack Zeller, a US police officer who dealt with several child abuse cases sees the irony. 'Unfortunately, most kids don't have several witnesses observing them get raped,' he said.

The same levels of obstruction and unco-operativeness have been encountered by police in the UK tackling allegations of child abuse within the church. Police investigations into allegations of sexual abuse within the Jehovah's Witnesses community in Birmingham were frustrated for a long time by elders in the church.

Steve Colley, an investigating officer with West Midlands police, was shocked by the determination of elders not to co-operate with his inquiries into allegations of abuse in a Birmingham congregation.

'I was surprised,' said Colley. 'They actually said to me unless I could provide two Jehovah's Witnesses who'd actually seen the offence, then as far as they were concerned the offence hadn't taken place.'

Despite this, each congregation keeps copious records regarding any spiritual infraction or wrongdoing committed within the church. Records of Ian Cousins's abuse of his eldest daughter were lodged but were only obtained by Cousins under data protection legislation. The papers show that the Jehovah's Witnesses in Ayrshire and in the organisation's headquarters knew for three years before she asked them for help that her father was a self- confessed paedophile. Instead of enabling elders to monitor him, the records showed they twice turned a blind eye to his abuse of his daughters.

'It is a paedophile paradise created by Jehovah's Witnesses,' said Bill Bowen.

'An abuser can go into any congregation, remain anonymous, have access to more children through activities in the church, and all he has to do is just keep denying it and he will have the confidentiality clause in Watch Tower policy to enable him to continue .'

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