Jehovah’s Witness elder alleges order to destroy evidence in child sex abuse cases

A Jehovah Witness elder claims he was told to destroy confidential church documents, including those relating to child sexual abuse cases.

The whistleblower, who RNZ has agreed not to name in order to protect his identity because he fears retribution, was an elder.

On 9 March, 2021, he says he was asked by a superior to check all "judicial cases" in his congregation's confidential files for personal notes and destroy them.

Judicial cases are church records relating to 'judicial committee' hearings, an internal process used to determine the punishment for 'wrongdoing', including child sexual abuse.

The elder making the claim has since left the church.

It is a criminal offence to destroy "potentially relevant information" to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, which the Jehovah's Witnesses are part of, since a moratorium was imposed in March 2019.

The church "strongly deny" any suggestion of criminal offence and says it has "carefully followed" the commission's direction on preservation of records.

Church's 'judicial process'

The allegations come amidst revelations there are 11 active Jehovah Witnesses who have child sex abuse convictions or serious allegations made against them. Most members of the religion appear to have no idea who the offenders are.

When an allegation of child abuse is made, church elders conduct a scriptual inquiry to determine guilt. According to its policies, drawn from the bible, there must be a confession from the perpetrator or at least two eyewitnesses to an incident.

Once guilt is established, three elders hold a judicial committee with the sinner to decide if they are repentant. If they are, the person may remain in the congregation but have certain privileges revoked. If unrepentant they are likely to be 'disfellowshipped' or excommunicated and shunned.

The only detailed record kept of each inquiry is the "personal notes" kept by the elders running the committee.

The whistleblower said the instruction from a senior elder in March 2021 was "just a reminder" of the church's policy from August 2019 to destroy personal notes.

"But they specifically wanted each elder to double check they still complied. In my case I didn't have any personal notes so I didn't have to destroy any," he said.

Until the policy change, sealed envelopes containing the church's official judicial committee forms also held any personal notes taken by elders about a particular case. Overseas, these notes have been used as evidence in child sexual abuse cases.

One evening, ten days after receiving these instructions, the whistleblower said he was asked to urgently come to the Kingdom Hall. Elders from other congregations that shared the same hall were also asked to come.

Each collected the confidential files belonging to their own congregation and were taken to separate rooms, he said.

Once there, he received a call from the church's regional headquarters in Sydney - known internally as the 'branch office' - which oversees all New Zealand congregations, telling him to open up all child sexual abuse files to again check if there were personal notes inside the sealed envelopes.

He had only one child sexual abuse case in his confidential file and it did not have any personal notes. "I assume if there were any, I would have been instructed to destroy them right there."

At the time he did not know about the moratorium on destroying anything that could be related to the Royal Commission, and thought nothing of the instructions to check and destroy personal notes, he said.

"I just thought it was an administrative task. Elders blindly trust the direction that comes from the legal department at the branch office."

It was only later when he learned about how the church had dealt with allegations of child abuse in Australia, that he realised the personal notes might contain important information, including victims names and details of any alleged offending, which could be used as evidence in court.

"I felt deeply disturbed because I realised how close I was to breaking the law and protecting a predator."

The confidential files

One of the congregations that used the same Kingdom Hall had "dozens" of confidential files stored in a large white plastic box in the backroom, the whistleblower said.

Many of the envelopes had 'Do Not Destroy' scrawled across them, which acccording to Jehovah's Witness policy, must be written on all files relating to child sexual abuse cases.

"It caught my attention because I was surprised how many there were."

In mid-June, former elder Shayne Mechen of survivor group JW for Justice, alerted the police to the whereabouts of the box on behalf of the whistleblower and told them about the order to destroy documents.

Police, however, said they would not be taking any action.

"Police have made follow up enquiries, however at this stage we would require more information in order to investigate further," a spokesperson said in a statement to RNZ.

"Police take every complaint of sexual assault seriously and know how difficult it is to seek help following a sexual assault.

"Regardless of whether the assault is recent or historical, the Police and specially trained people will assist the victim and/or those reporting the sexual assault to decide what to do next.

"In general, Police will investigate any matters which are reported and we encourage anyone who has been a victim to please get in touch."

The whistleblower said he was willing to speak to the police but he had not yet heard from them.

'A serious breach'

The Royal Commission said it would "not tolerate the deliberate destruction of any records relating to survivors of abuse."

"We see this as a serious breach of the Inquiries Act 2013. Our response to any form of breach will be swift including if appropriate referring the allegation to the New Zealand Police," a spokesperson said in a statement.

The moratorium on document destruction would remain in place until the Commission's final report is delivered in March 2024.

"At this time, no religious or faith-based institution including the Jehovah Witness have been excluded from the scope of the final report," the commission spokesperson said.

In June, The Jehovah's Witness church filed legal action seeking exemption from the commission's investigations, arguing it does not assume responsibility for the care of children, young people or vulnerable people. A hearing is set for October.

Mechen worried the Royal Commission may not be able to investigate either following a change to the commission's terms of reference last month that meant it would not receive or consider "new evidence" after 31 July.

"It's worse than disappointing the police were not interested," Mechen said.

"We know where the files are but they didn't even investigate properly. How is anyone supposed to trust the police? Victims in these closed groups don't want to come forward because they are too scared, because of repercussions they might face."

Documents policy change

Former elder Edward Narayan said the church's updated policy on not retaining any personal notes or summaries of a hearing would have ramifications for future child sexual abuse cases within the church.

"From October 2021 onwards there are no notes in those sealed envelopes, it will just be the disfellowshipping form."

Narayan was the secretary of the Chartwell congregation in Hamilton until he left the religion in April last year.

He left after wrestling with a policy change in the October 2021 version of the secret elders' handbook, 'Shepherd the Flock of God', directing elders to put only the official disfellowshipping form in a sealed envelope. All other 'confidential' notes, which would include any allegations of child sexual abuse, were to be destroyed.

Previously, a summary of the proceedings, even if it was dismissed for lack of evidence, would be included in the sealed envelope. The summary might include facts such as victims or details of the alleged offending.

But from October 2021, no summaries were allowed and a new disfellowshipping form did not allow the details of victims or summary notes to be recorded.

"The form would only have the perpetrator's name, elders involved, short description of offending, e.g Child Abuse and the date it was announced to the congregation that the perpetrator was 'disfellowshipped' or 'reproved'.

"The elders would not announce why the perpetrator was disfellowshipped or reproved," Narayan said.

The new policy did not allow personal notes on any matter to be retained, he said.

"And if there is no judicial [committee] because there's not two witnesses, there will never be any notes going forward. No notes, means no second witness for future child sexual abuse allegations.

"This means in the future when a victim of alleged child sexual abuse feels they need to go to the courts and get justice, when the Witnesses' documents are subpoenaed all there'll be is a form with the perpetrator's name on it, the date the judicial committee was held and the elders who were part of the committee. That's it.

"No notes, no victim names. It's a travesty of justice."

Jehovah's Witnesses respond

In a statement, the church said child abuse was a crime and victims or their parents had a right to report an accusation to authorities.

"There are ongoing High Court proceedings regarding whether the religion of Jehovah's Witnesses falls within the scope of the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry," spokesman Tom Pecipajkovski said.

"Although our position is that Jehovah's Witnesses do not fall within the scope of the New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, we have carefully followed the Inquiry's direction on preservation of records. Accordingly, we strongly deny any suggestion of any "criminal offence" in this connection.

"Jehovah's Witnesses will continue to cooperate with the Inquiry if the Court decides they are in scope. In the meantime, we will not debate the issues in the court of public opinion.

"As far as individual cases are concerned, if you have information you believe will assist the Abuse in Care Royal Commission of Inquiry in fulfilling its mandate, we trust you will share it with them. Likewise, if you believe there is a risk that a child will be harmed, we trust you will report the matter to the authorities."

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