Former Jehovah's Witness says church missed chance to right wrongs

A former Jehovah's Witness hopes more survivors of abuse will come forward, knowing that the church will face scrutiny over what happened to children and young people in its care.

The High Court in Wellington has dismissed a legal bid by the church to be excluded from the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.

Former Witness Mikail Steens was glad the church would face scrutiny and hoped more survivors would take part.

"I just wish from the outset they'd gone, 'Look, this could be a good thing, it could improve the way that we approach matters in our organisation, let's adapt and change and be open to constructive criticism,' but they've taken the complete opposite stance on it.

"I think they're going to end up with a bit of egg on their face following this."

Steens said by sharing what information they had with the inquiry, the Jehovah's Witness church would help people who had been affected by abuse.

He said he had been in contact with survivors who were pleased with the High Court's decision.

"Overjoyed, and the good thing about it too I get the sense that many more will feel they have the ability to come forward because it has become more public, more people know about it."

The High Court's judgment laying out the reasons for the decision is not yet available. As a lawyer, Steens said he would read the judgement with interest when it was released.

"I think many will be wondering what the reasoning is and certainly we would like to have some answers."

The Jehovah's Witness church applied for a judicial review in June, after nearly three years of behind-the-scenes legal wrangling to avoid scrutiny from the inquiry.

At a hearing held earlier this month, it argued it was beyond the inquiry's scope because it did not operate institutions that cared for children or vulnerable people, and the inquiry had uncovered no evidence of abuse in that context.

Lawyers representing the inquiry argued that Jehovah's Witness elders — equivalent to ministers or pastors — exercised a level of control over the congregation that allowed them access to children.

The inquiry informed abuse survivors who gave evidence to the inquiry in relation to the Jehovah's Witnesses of the news on Wednesday afternoon.

"This means the royal commission can continue to investigate the Jehovah's Witnesses, and all other faiths, in accordance with the pastoral care approach we have been applying since 2019," the inquiry said in a statement.

"Reasons for the High Court's judgment are not yet available, but are expected in the near future. Until we receive the full judgment we are not able to make any further comment."

The church was the only faith-based institution in the country to legally challenge its involvement in the inquiry, although it had attempted to challenge its status in other countries where similar inquiries have also been carried out.

A recent RNZ investigation revealed how the church has kept the presence of child abusers attending congregations hidden from most of its followers and had policies that protected abusers over victims, amid claims an elder was told to destroy church documents relating to child sexual abuse cases.

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