Jehovah's Witnesses vehemently condemn child abuse. But several victims from within the sect have gone public in recent months claiming that "monsters" are hiding behind the church's policy on handling child abuse.
Critics say the policy favours secrecy and the redemption of the sinner at the expense of victims.
The policy creates "a pedophile paradise," said Bill Bowen, of Kentucky, a former senior minister with the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society, who left in protest after 43 years. "There's a sly, devious evil that's happening ... and Witnesses are not even aware of it," said Bowen, who launched a victim support group in 2000 called Silent Lambs.
Clive Thomas, spokesman for the Canadian church, said the accusations are unfair. While the church is concerned about the spiritual well-being of abusers, he said, "We care about children. We do not condone or take a soft view of child sexual abuse or any other abuse."
Bowen said he's already heard from more than 5,000 victims of abuse since he set up his Web site ( www.silentlambs.org/ ).
The church keeps a database of all members accused of abuse at its world headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. Bowen said church sources have told him the database holds more than 23,700 names from the U.S., Canada and Europe. The church admits the database exists, but won't give a specific tally, saying only that the number is much lower.
Some of the victims' stories -- of betrayal and coverups at the hands of church leaders -- have grabbed headlines in the U.S. and Britain. Bowen said the American church is facing seven lawsuits over the handling of claims of abuse.
As The Toronto Sun has learned, the Canadian church is not immune to the growing scandal.
A New Brunswick woman is scheduled to take the stand in a Toronto court next week in her lawsuit against the Canadian branch and two elders over allegations they concealed abuse she suffered when she approached them years later as an adult. The church denies the allegations.
The Canadian church also keeps a database. Though Thomas wouldn't say how many are on it, he confirmed 12 abusers have been identified in Ontario in the last two years.
In his book, Father's Touch , Donald D'Haene describes how he was repeatedly sodomized, fondled and abused in what his father called "a game."
In 1973, a family member shared the secret with an elder in the family's Jehovah's Witness congregation in Aylmer. Following church protocol, elders investigated and spoke to the D'Haene children. The questions they asked were "cold, blunt, and matter of fact," D'Haene, 41, recalls in the book.
His father confessed. The elders announced to the congregation that he was "disfellowshipped," or excommunicated from the church, but no reason was given. D'Haene's mom was also publicly rebuked for failing to come to church leaders.
No one called police or Children's Aid.
Donald D'Haene went to police several years later. In 1982, his father was convicted of three counts of gross indecency for what the judge called "indescribably vile acts."
"Religion doesn't create monsters," D'Haene said. "Monsters use religion."
Winnipeg's Shirley Hardiman was 11 in 1963 when she says her mom's boyfriend sexually abused her. Her mom reported it to elders of their Montreal congregation.
"They told my mother to keep it quiet, to send me away," she says.
Hardiman spent the next five years in foster care until she was reunited with her mother at age 16. Her abuser, who died 10 years ago, was never reprimanded by the church, she said.
"There's this really strong belief that you can not do or say anything that brings shame on the organization," said Hardiman, 50, who now works as an abuse counsellor.
Times have changed. Church elders in Canada are required by law to report allegations of sexual abuse to authorities and were ordered by the church in 1988 to comply with the law.
"We abhor the molestation of children," the church says in a press release. "It is not just a terrible sin but also a crime ... We do not protect any perpetrator of such repugnant acts."
While secular authorities are notified of allegations, the abuse is also investigated internally by elders, who are considered administrators of God's law.
Elders are required first to contact church headquarters in Georgetown, where a lawyer instructs them on how to handle the allegations. Two elders are then appointed to investigate. Family members, the victim and the accused are interviewed, sometimes together, and explicit detail is sought.
If the accused denies the abuse happened, the charge is dropped unless another witness can corroborate the story.
That rule is based on the Biblical book of Deuteronomy: "No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin."
In effect, the child's accusation is dismissed unless another person saw the abuse or another child comes forward with an allegation against the same church member.
"We are bound by the scriptures," Thomas said. "But we would still report it to the authorities with only one witness" so the victim gets "the protection of the secular authorities."
But abuse is seldom reported in jurisdictions where there is no mandatory reporting requirement, Bowen said.
If the pedophile confesses the sin, he is punished, often by disfellowship. A permanent confidential record is kept by the elders and the Georgetown office is notified. But the congregation is never told of the crime -- only the punishment.
Family members and the victim are also forbidden from talking about abuse to other congregation members.
Disfellowship, or excommunication, involves being shunned by the community and family for at least a year. The shunned member is still expected to attend meetings.
Should a pedophile move to another congregation, elders there are notified and records transferred.
Thomas said elders must protect the privacy of an accused, especially if he has repented, but are instructed to carefully monitor him and prevent him from being alone with kids.
Bowen, who was excommunicated last month after being found guilty of "causing divisions," decried the process, noting the cloak of secrecy allows pedophiles to go door to door "witnessing" without anyone but the elders in the know. The requirement of two witnesses is ridiculous in cases of sex abuse, he said. And though elders may be well-meaning, they aren't trained to question or handle victims, he said.