Suffer the little children

Production Team:
Reporter: Betsan Powys
Producer: Murdoch Rodgers
Assistant Producer: Shabnam Grewal
Editor: Mike Robinson
July 14, 2002

[See below for Case Studies and Background sections. See also a Transcript of the program and a related article: Secret database protects paedophiles.]

With the Catholic Church still reeling from revelations that it kept child abuse quiet, Panorama investigates a world-wide religion that stands accused of shielding abusers: the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The programme tells the harrowing stories of children put at risk by the Watchtower Society's bible-based policies and unearths evidence of a database of members suspected of child abuse - many of whom have never been reported to the police.

The organisation claims to monitor the men accused of raping and molesting children but now faces allegations that it covers up crime and pressurises victims not to go to the police.

Panorama takes its evidence to the heart of the organisation and reveals the damage caused by the silent witnesses.

Case studies

Alison Cousins: taking a brother to court
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that they should not take another member of their church to court.

1 Corinthians 6:1, 5

"Does anyone of You that has a case against the other dare to go to court before unrighteous men, and not before the holy ones?"

"I am speaking to move You to shame. Is it true that there is not one wise man among You that will be able to judge between his brothers, but brother goes to court with brother, and that before unbelievers?"

Alison's story

Alison Cousins is grew up in the small Ayrshire town of Stevenson, just outside Glasgow, where her parents were active members of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

When she told the elders of her local congregation that her father was abusing her they told her they would deal with it.

They did nothing however, and eventually she went to the police.

Her father was imprisoned for five years.

Alison told Panorama:

"They told me that one of the scriptures in the Bible was that you should never take your brother to court.

"And I said to them: 'well what are you meant to do then if he's doing something wrong?'

"And they said: 'Come to us and we'll deal with it'.

"I said to them: 'Well I've already spoken to you and you've told me I'm a liar'.

"I ended up having to go to the police because they were the only people that I thought would believe me."

Simon Brady: two witnesses
The Jehovah's Witnesses' policy means they do not act upon allegations of child abuse unless there are two witnesses to the event.

Deuteronomy 19:15

"No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin, in the case of any sin that he may commit.

"At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good ."

1 Timothy 5:19

"Do not admit an accusation against an older man, except only on the evidence of two or three witnesses."

Simon's story

When Simon Brady was growing up in Birmingham he was sexually abused by a man in his congregation.

He informed the elders, who wanted to know if there had been any other witnesses. Otherwise, this was just one person's word against another's.

Even after the man had been found guilty and sent to prison, the elders still have not taken any action because they lack their required second witness.

Simon told Panorama:

"They believe there has to be two witnesses to prove anything.

"It scared me, that scared me at nine years of age.

"There are going to be other kids out there now who are involved in this organisation and basically the guideline says they need two people to be believed or even to be taken seriously.

"Basically the chances are you're not going to have two witnesses."

Sara Poisson: obedience
The "elders" within the Jehovah's Witnesses church are regarded as God's representatives on earth. Other members are expected to act upon what the elders say.

Hebrews 13:17

"Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you and be submissive for they are keeping watch over your souls."

Sara's story

Sara Poisson was a member of a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in New Hampshire in the USA.

She went to the elders because her husband was violent.

She also suspected - rightly, it transpired - that he was sexually abusing her daughter.

The elders told her she needed to pray more and be a better wife.

She believed them and the abuse continued.

Sara explained to Panorama why she did not simply leave with her children:

"The elders are in place to govern on earth as a substitute I guess - I can't think of a better word - they're God's representatives on earth.

"God's representatives on earth have told me repeatedly this is my fault.

"I haven't figured it out yet... 'keep working at it and it will end'...

"OK, so I did, and I kept trying to do that.

"It would never have occurred to me to take this outside of the congregation."


History of the Jehovah's Witnesses

The Jehovah's Witnesses are a Christian sect with over six million members worldwide.

They were founded in Pennsylvania in the USA in the 1870s by Charles Taze Russell as a bible study group.

Pastor Russell, as he was often called, launched the magazine Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence in 1879.

The group continued to preach, convert and publish its magazine and as the membership rose it expanded into neighbouring states.

By 1880 there were scores of congregations around the United States and the following year the "Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society" was formed.

In 1884 it was incorporated, with Russell as president, and the name was eventually changed to the"Watchtower Bible and Tract Society".

International spread

By 1909 the work had become international, and the society's headquarters were moved to its present location in Brooklyn, New York.

Printed sermons were syndicated in newspapers, and by 1913 these were being printed in four languages in 3,000 newspapers in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

Books, booklets, and tracts had been distributed by the hundreds of millions.

In 1931 the name "Jehovah's Witnesses" was officially adopted, replacing the original name that described members as "International bible students".

Present day

From fifty people preaching full-time in 1888, the organisation has grown to approximately 6 million members around the world.

All true Jehovah's Witnesses are required to go witnessing from house to house offering Bible literature, and recruiting and converting people to what they call "the truth".

They work unpaid and some, called "pioneers", regularly spend at least 70 hours each month in door-to-door witnessing.

In the UK there are about 120,000 members who live by the rules of the organisation and call themselves Jehovah's Witnesses.

Who runs the Jehovah's Witnesses

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society - the corporate entity that runs Jehovah's Witnesses - is controlled by a governing body which currently stands at around eleven men.

These men have all been Jehovah's Witnesses for many years and most are, in addition, "anointed" brothers.

Being anointed means they will be part of a special group of 144,000 who will join Jehovah and Jesus Christ in Heaven to rule the earth after Armageddon, in which all non-believers will be destroyed by God.

Becoming an anointed one is not something that is done by voting or selection. Rather the anointed one knows directly from God that he or she has been chosen.

Authority from God

The governing body is seen as the channel from God on earth, authorised to direct all activities of Jehovah's Witnesses.

They send directives to the ordinary "publishers", as members are often described, through letters to the elders, through their publications and through the conventions held every summer around the world.

The governing body has a chairman and this post rotates around the group on an annual basis.

Practical duties

There are also more practical matters involved in running the dozens of organisations around the world which make up the worldwide Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.

These involve controlling the publishing and printing of 700 million "Watchtower" and "Awake" magazines annually, organising the conventions, building new Kingdom Halls and starting new congregations around the world.

These are done by thousands of people around the world, many of whom take a vow of poverty, working on the miscellaneous tasks that are involved in running an organisation which has an annual income of around a billion dollars.

Jehovah's Witnesses: system of membership

The Jehovah's Witnesses do not have a system of clergy and laity. Rather they see every baptised person as being an ordained minister who is able to teach and preach.

Each country where there are Jehovah's Witnesses has a headquarters called the Bethel.

Here, volunteers live and work, publishing and printing the organisation's books and magazines.

There are about 500 people living and working in the Bethel in London and over 5,000 in the New York Bethel.


All Jehovah's Witnesses are part of a congregation of up to 200 members who are led by a body of "elders".

The elders are men (never women) who are chosen at the recommendation of local elders based on scriptural qualifications and appointed by the governing body as their direct representatives in the local congregation.

These men are described by the governing body as "God's representatives on earth". They have the authority to decide whether any person can remain a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses or not.

Such decisions are made by holding judicial hearings. When someone either confesses to, or is accused of, a sin or spiritual transgression, he or she is questioned by elders.

Sanctions or punishments in the form of restrictions, public reproofs or outright expulsion from the congregation are meted out.


Unrepentant sinners who show no remorse can be "disfellowshipped " which means that other members are required to shun them and not associate with them in any way.

This will include all family members and Jehovah's Witnesses the disfellowshipped person may have known all his or her life.

The person is viewed as being "stoned to death" in the biblical context and will not be accepted back unless approved by the elders.

A disfellowshipped person can be reinstated into the congregation after at least one year of meeting attendance after which they are deemed repentant.


About 20 congregations make up a circuit and are supervised by a circuit overseer. He will regularly visit the congregations and take part in the choosing of new elders and other matters.

About ten circuits make up a district and are managed by a district overseer who could be responsible for the spiritual welfare of up to 40,000 people.

Above the district level is the Bethel in that country and then the headquarters in New York.

Kingdom Hall

Jehovah's Witnesses in each congregation use a "Kingdom Hall" - the place of worship at the centre of their community.

Every Sunday the Witnesses will attend the Kingdom Hall for two hours to listen to a public talk, given by a elder from their own congregation or a visiting elder, and hold a Watchtower Study.

They will also have three other meetings during the week that consist of a Book Study, Theocratic Ministry School (a public speaking class) and Service Meeting (training for door-to-door work).

They will spend some time each week going from door to door to offer literature and bible studies in an effort to proselytise new members to their faith.

Witnesses who are very committed - called Special Pioneers - can spend up to 150 hours a month going door-to-door.

Jehovah's Witnesses: beliefs

The Jehovah's Witnesses are Christians who believe the teachings of the Bible, using their own translation.

Their beliefs differ from mainstream Christian religions in various areas.

They do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, but do remember Christ's death.

They believe Jesus Christ was not crucified on a cross but rather on a stake. For this reason, as well as the fact that they do not believe in using symbols in their worship, the symbol of the cross is not significant.

The end of the world

Jehovah's Witnesses believe they will survive Armageddon, the end of the world, and go on to live on a paradise on earth.

The imminent end of the world has always been a crucial part of their beliefs.

As early as 1876 Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the religion, wrote an article in which he gave the date for the end of the world as 1914.

The end of the world was proclaimed again by Judge Rutherford, the next president of Watchtower, in a talk given years earlier, "Millions Now Living Will Never Die", on the belief that God would bring the end to the world at that time.

The organisation no longer gives a specific date for the end for the end of the world but strongly emphasises that it is due soon.

They believe there are only 144,000 who will go to heaven as rulers.


Jehovah's Witnesses believe taking blood into the body through the mouth or veins violates God's law. Those who do so can be expelled.

In Genesis 9, humans are told they can eat any flesh except that which still has its soul, or its blood, in it. Also in the books of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, First Samuel and Acts 15 are texts which the Jehovah's Witnesses claim point to the Bible's disapproval of the consumption of blood.

This policy extends to disallowing blood transfusions, even those which involve a person's own blood.

Over the years the organisation has softened its attitude somewhat and no longer condemns organ transplants or the infusion of blood products.

Despite still banning transfusions of a person's own blood which has been earlier removed and stored, they do allow blood which is lost during an operation to be collected, cleaned and returned to the body in a process called blood salvaging.

This policy of refusing blood transfusions has been very controversial and sometimes brought the Jehovah's Witnesses into conflict with medical and legal authorities.

Government or military service

Jehovah's Witnesses do not swear allegiance to any organisation or nation.

Because of this they are not allowed to join any armed forces, nor can they participate by voting in any election, run for any political office, sing a national anthem or participate in any activity associated with proclaiming allegiance to any earthly government.

This has caused problems for Jehovah's Witnesses in countries where there is national service or the swearing of allegiance to the flag.

Child abuse policy

The Jehovah's Witnesses deal with child abuse according to principles they interpret from the Bible.

They stress the need to "abhor what is wicked", but after applying two very specific verses of scripture.

First, if any allegation is made against someone, that person must confess or there must be two witnesses to the act for it to be proven:

"No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin... At the mouth of two witnesses or at the mouth of three witnesses the matter should stand good." (Deuteronomy 19:15)

Secondly, there is an admonishment against taking legal action against a fellow Jehovah's Witness.

Members are encouraged to keep matters resolved within the congregation and not go outside to worldly courts for assistance:

"Does anyone of YOU that has a case against the other dare to go to court before unrighteous men, and not before the holy ones?" (1 Corinthians 6:1-11)


The Jehovah's Witnesses do not, in any of their policy letters sent from the headquarters to the elders of each congregation in the world, tell the elders to report immediately any allegation of child abuse to the police or other authorities who are trained to investigate such claims, unless they are required to do so by law.

They are however required to report the matter to the "Bethel" legal department of the Jehovah's Witnesses headquarters in that country.

The local elders themselves must carry out an investigation, interviewing the victims and the alleged abuser.

They are not provided with any training in how to deal with child abuse.

Official procedure

Two elders meet separately with the accused and the accuser to see what each says on the matter.

If the accused denies the charge, the two elders may arrange for him and the victim to restate their position in each other's presence, with elders also there.

If, during that meeting, the accused still denies the charges and there are no others who can substantiate them, the elders cannot take action within the congregation at that time.

This is because of their adherence to the Bible passage in Deuteronomy: "No single witness should rise up...".

However, even if the elders cannot take congregational action, they are expected to report the allegation to the branch office of Jehovah's Witnesses in their country, if local privacy laws permit.

As well as making a report to the branch office, the elders may be required by law to report even uncorroborated or unsubstantiated allegations to the authorities. In this case, they are expected to comply.

Additionally, the Jehovah's Witnesses publicity information states that the victim may wish to report the matter to the authorities, and it is his or her absolute right to do so.


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