Jehovah’s Witnesses abuse scandal is a reminder to end cover-up culture | Editorial

Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]

January 3, 2023

By Editorial Board

A disturbing pattern of denial and concealment emerges across sexual abuse scandals that rock secular and religious organizations. Bringing the abuse to light is a critical first step.

Locked inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses world headquarters are secret files detailing sexual abuse by members of the religious denomination. Some of those files are slowly coming to light thanks to a grand jury investigation by state Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office that was spurred by The Inquirer.

With Shapiro scheduled to be sworn in as Pennsylvania’s 48th governor on Jan. 17, hopefully the investigation will continue at full steam. Shapiro has been fearless in taking on influential religious institutions, starting with a 2018 grand jury report of the Roman Catholic Church that detailed decades of sexual abuse by more than 300 priests in Pennsylvania.

Catholic Church doesn’t hold a monopoly on these horrific crimes.

Similar sexual abuse scandals have recently rocked other religious organizations. The Justice Department is investigating the Southern Baptist Convention. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormon church, reportedly diverted calls to its abuse hotline away from law enforcement, leaving victims vulnerable. An independent investigation found scores of sexual abuse cases at Jewish summer camps.

The abuse is also not limited to religious organizations. Last year, the Boy Scouts of America agreed to pay $850 million to settle sexual abuse cases involving 60,000 men and stretching back decades. USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee agreed to pay $380 million to hundreds of female gymnasts who said they were abused by the former team doctor of the national gymnastics team.

While each case is different, there are troubling parallels. A person in authority uses their position to take advantage of vulnerable children, teens, or in some cases adults. When the sexual abuse is brought to the attention of those in charge, there is an effort to cover it up, deny wrongdoing, and discredit the accuser.

In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Inquirer first documented a pattern of secrecy surrounding abuse allegations in 2018. From there, the Attorney General’s Office launched an investigation.

In October, four Jehovah’s Witnesses were charged with sexual abuse of 19 people who were all minors, including some victims who were relatives. Perhaps just as disturbing, the investigation found Witnesses leaders were aware of the abuse but did nothing.

In one instance, one of the men charged in October confessed to a committee of Witnesses elders that he had “affairs” with at least nine children in 1998. The confession was part of the secret files maintained at the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters outside of New York City.

But rather than report the abuse to law enforcement authorities, the Witnesses leaders tried to cover it up while the sexual predator remained in their midst. That has been part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ playbook going back decades.

The Inquirer obtained a 1989 memo that instructed elders not to cooperate if police ever showed up with a search warrant. A 1997 memo advised elders not to tell congregations about any known sexual predators, leaving parents unaware and children vulnerable.

The organization issued a statement in 2020 that said, “Any suggestion that Jehovah’s Witnesses foster or enable abuse is false.”

Similar denials have been issued by other religious organizations before. Those with information about abuse would be wise to try a higher authority and call the attorney general’s special hotline at 888-538-8541.

Published Jan. 3, 2023