Child sexual abuse – hate or condemnation

I think that most people in New Zealand would strongly condemn child sex abuse, if not hate it.

The handling of child sexual abuse in churches has justifiably attracted scrutiny and condemnation. The Catholic Church has been found guilty of aiding and abetting on going abuse through inaction, failure to perpetrators to account, and shielding them from the law.

The report from The Spinoff is also disturbing – Silent lambs: Child sexual abuse and the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Best known for their door-to-door evangelising, Jehovah’s Witnesses are on a quest to save the ‘wicked’ from damnation. For victims of sexual abuse within the organisation, however, that quest has seen perpetrators shielded from justice. Amy Parsons-King has met several survivors as part of an investigation for The Spinoff. These are their stories.

The sexual abuse began almost immediately, and continued across the years Parkes and his family lived in the flat. Even after he and his wife found their own home, still it continued.

When Naomi was 15, her father, a senior member, or “elder”, of their New Brighton Jehovah’s Witness congregation, became aware of the abuse. He was furious and asked fellow elders to investigate.

Why didn’t he ask the police to investigate?

Under Jehovah’s Witnesses protocol, when a member of the organisation is alleged to have committed a serious “wrongdoing”, elders are instructed to confront the accused. When presented with the allegations, Parkes admitted to sexually abusing her, Naomi says. Parkes confirmed the abuse took place when The Spinoff spoke to him earlier this year. At the time, Parkes’ confession meant a judicial committee was formed to determine his level of repentance, and what disciplinary action should be taken.

The hearing was held at Parkes’ congregation. Naomi attended with two male elders, as did Parkes. “I basically had to say everything that happened in front of four men and my abuser,” she says.

That’s an appalling way to handle it.

Despite Parkes’ confession, the blame was shifted onto her, Naomi says. “He made comments that I seemed older than what I was, and that I enjoyed the attention he gave me. I did enjoy it in the beginning. He’d brush my hair and talk to me, but I took nothing from that. There’s nothing I put out there as a 10-year-old girl to sexually entice him. He pretty much made me feel like I asked for it.”

Victim blaming is common. In this situation it is despicable.

Elders ruled that Parkes’ punishment for sexually abusing Naomi across several years was to be “disfellowshipment”, a sanction which sees a wrongdoer excommunicated, with members directed to cease all links. Protocol requires that elders advise the congregation that the disfellowshipped person is no longer a Jehovah’s Witness. In Parkes’ case, as in others investigated by The Spinoff,  church members say they were not made aware of the nature of the offending that led to the disfellowshipment.

The judicial committee’s proposed compensation for Naomi’s trauma, to “help get her through”, was extra Bible studies.

Parkes’s alleged offending against Naomi was never reported to the Police.

That’s just one example.

Naomi’s experience is not unique. It fits a pattern of experiences recounted in recent years by people who allege they were sexually abused as children within the Jehovah’s Witness organisation. In her case, and in others, the process by which such allegations were dealt with emphasised internal investigation, judgment and punishment, without recourse to criminal prosecution.

It should be the victim’s prerogative whether they report abuse to the police, but in this sort of church situation it would be very difficult for children and young people to do.

According to one former Jehovah’s Witness elder the child protection policies within the organisation are so lacking that some estranged members describe it as “a paedophile’s paradise”. Paul Quilter, who spent 35 years as a member of the organisation, including 10 years as an elder in a Hamilton congregation, told The Spinoff that when he first saw that description used on an ex-Jehovah’s Witness forum he thought it was outrageous.

“But then when you actually read the reports of victims and you see how they were told to only trust fellow Witnesses because, everybody outside the organisation was worldly and ‘bad’ and therefore not to be trusted, you realise this type of mentality makes reporting child abuse to authorities almost impossible.”

And this is based on Biblical adherence.

The organisation demands strict and literal adherence to its Bible, The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Any perceived wrongdoing of Jehovah’s Witnesses including “fornication, adultery, homosexuality, blasphemy, apostasy, and similar gross sins” are investigated through what is called a “judicial committee”. For such a proxy court to even be established, a 2000-year-old biblical principle is applied to substantiate the wrongdoing. This “two witness rule” derives from scriptures such as Genesis 19:15, which states: “No single witness may convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit.  On the testimony of two witnesses or on the testimony of three witnesses the matter should be established.”

The Church should not be investigating at all, let alone using processes that having nothing to do with modern law.

Naomi says she is appalled to hear Parkes, much like Debbie’s abuser Owen Tutty, has been reinstated within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “There are plenty of children in the congregations, there always are,” she says.

“He could be sitting next to one right now.”

If claims in the Spinoff report are credible – and there seems to be sufficient cause for concern – there should be something like a Commission of Inquiry into this.