A support group for Jehovah's Witnesses who say they are victims of sexual abuse put a white stuffed toy lamb on the steps of a Kingdom Hall in west Nashville yesterday to call attention to its cause. It also announced plans for a conference next month to draw more attention to the problem of sexual abuse.
The group, Silent Lambs, says it is the only support group for sexually abused Jehovah's Witnesses. Their conference, which will be March 27-28 at the Sheraton Music City Hotel, is open to the public, said Bill Bowen, a former Jehovah's Witness elder and national director of the organization. The issues are similar to those experienced by other people, he said.
The majority of abuse is of girls by older relatives or church members, the group says. Bowen said that since Silent Lambs was started three years ago, more than 6,000 survivors have come forward.
Additionally, he said, Jehovah's Witness policies make it difficult for children to come forward if they are victims of abuse.
First, he said, elders must investigate any allegation of abuse, even though these church officials are not trained in such matters.
Second, children have to present two eyewitnesses before their testimony can be believed in church, said Bowen, who is from Calvert City, Ky.
Bowen said that the stuffed lamb placed on the steps of a Kingdom Hall yesterday was the 1,000th that the organization has placed on the steps of a Jehovah's Witness building. The first was done in September 2002 by Barbara Anderson of Manchester.
''This effectively silences a child,'' he said. Also, children and their parents are not allowed to warn other people about abusers, he said.
In a written statement from the Jehovah's Witness headquarters, the church said it condemns child abuse and does not tolerate such actions.
It continued: ''If the elders learn of an accusation of child molestation, they do all that they reasonably can to protect the safety of the victim and other children, including complying with laws that mandate ministers to report to the proper authorities. This is even done when a child is the only one to allege the abuse.
''The victim and the victim's family also have the absolute right to report the matter to the authorities. Therefore, parents and others who are aware of the abuse are not hindered by the elders from reporting the situation to the authorities.''