Asahi Shimbun [Osaka, Japan]
November 9, 2023
By Amane Shimazaki
Current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 159 cases of sexual abuse by followers, many at the hands of those in positions of authority, according to a survey conducted by an apostate group.
The group of former second-generation followers, called “JW child abuse damage archive,” released the findings to relevant government ministries and agencies on Nov. 7.
It plans to hold a news conference on Nov. 28.
Members of the group said they hope that the problem will be investigated as a social issue and serve as a wake-up call for human rights violations that can occur in other religions as well.
In the survey, the group solicited responses online in July and received 159 valid responses.
Thirty-five respondents said they had been sexually abused by followers when they were minors.
The sexual abuse they suffered included 24 cases of “being touched on the body over clothing or directly,” 11 of “being viewed or photographed in underwear or naked,” nine of “having lips, tongue or other parts of the body applied to the body” and four of “being forced to have sex.”
The respondents were allowed to choose multiple responses.
Nineteen respondents said the perpetrator was a member in a position of authority, such as an “elder,” who is a regional leader, and a “ministerial servant,” who assists elders.
When they were sexually abused, seven respondents were preschoolers, 19 were elementary school pupils and the remaining nine were junior high school students or older.
Separately, 139 respondents said they had been shown publications including sexually explicit materials inappropriate for their age or had been told stories including sexually explicit materials.
These acts are considered sexual abuse under welfare ministry guidelines released at the end of last year.
In addition, 42 respondents said they had been forced to discuss with elders and others about their sexual experiences before an official committee hearing.
The international Christian denomination, which was founded in the United States in the 1870s, preaches that premarital sex is condemned in the Bible.
Jehovah’s Witnesses told The Asahi Shimbun, “We do not tolerate child abuse in any form. In particular, sexual abuse of children is an extremely evil act, and we abhor such acts.”
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses website, there are currently about 8.7 million members in 239 countries worldwide, with about 214,000 baptized members in Japan.
In an interview, a 38-year-old respondent said she had been sexually abused by a senior follower more than 100 times between the ages 9 and 12.
The former follower said she felt depressed every time a Jehovah’s Witness ministerial servant came to her house. Her parents were members.
The man, who was about 25 at the time, played with her and she thought of him almost as an older brother.
When she stopped attending school and was staying at home alone during the day, the man started bringing her sweets two to three times a week.
One day, the man rubbed her stomach over her clothing, asking, “Are you OK?”
He gradually began to put his hands under her clothes. He touched her breasts, licked her face and neck and even kissed her.
When she was around 12, he touched her between the legs.
She felt sick and scared, but she could not tell him to stop.
Considering his position in the local congregation, she felt that she might be in danger if word got out.
The woman long remained reclusive and drifted from job to job. She has been plagued with shaky hands and has had difficulties sleeping.
She has been on leave for about two years after she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“Sexual abuse against children should not be allowed in society regardless of religion,” the woman said. “I want to ask the church how it will protect children when there is sexual abuse within the congregation.”
Miyako Shirakawa, a psychiatrist who treats sexual abuse victims, said the survey finding is probably only the tip of the iceberg, but it has great social significance as a first step toward understanding the actual scope of the problem.
“I was surprised that so many people have been able to speak out,” she said.
Shirakawa has encountered sexual abuse cases committed by Christian clergy members, either Catholic or Protestant and including Jehovah’s Witnesses, and by Buddhist priests.
“Even if victims report abuse, they are often not believed when the perpetrator is in a position of authority,” she said. “Sometimes, religious beliefs, such as that speaking out about abuse is considered an act of blasphemy and betrayal of the church and God, also hinder disclosure.”
Shirakawa said the central government or a third-party organization should ascertain the status of sexual violence in religious communities.