The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ fiercely literal reading of the Bible has distanced them from the law and politics, but the royal commission into child sexual abuse is ending that. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Royal commission examines Jehovah Witnesses cover-up

In the West Australian Wheatbelt town of Narrogin, they wait for Armageddon. They wait for Jehovah’s angels to empty the vials of his wrath, turning the oceans into blood and fracturing the land with “a great earthquake, such as was not seen since men were upon the earth”. The vast fields that surround their town will no longer yield crops; the voices of avenging angels will sound like trumpets in the sky. Despite numerous revisions to their prophecies, the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe End Times are imminent. This eschatology remains central to their faith – their expectation that the world will be violently purged. Politics is anathema, a vain repudiation of this final reckoning. It is what explains their tireless evangelising – it’s pointless to change a world that will be destroyed, the real game is changing souls. 

BCB – a pseudonym appointed by the royal commission into child abuse – was a young girl living on her family’s farm in the Wheatbelt. About 1979, her parents decided she should change schools to the nearby town of Narrogin. Her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, and decided they should change to the Narrogin congregation as a matter of convenience. “The Sunday and Wednesday meetings of the Narrogin congregation were held at the Narrogin Kingdom Hall and were attended by the whole congregation,” BCB said in tearful testimony this week. “At these meetings, one of the elders would usually deliver a public talk from the platform based on a reading from The Watchtower magazine, or give a talk from the Bible. At these meetings, the elders would also lead question-and-answer sessions and give specific training about our door-to-door preaching.

“Bill Neill was one of two elders. At the time I understood that Bill’s position as an elder gave him authority in the Jehovah’s Witness community. I looked up to Bill because he was an elder. Everybody in the congregation respected and trusted Bill, including my mum.” 

Neill would serially molest BCB throughout the 1980s. But compounding the trauma of this abuse was the congregation’s disastrous – and yet entirely predictable – response to it.

1 . Tight controls

“The Jehovah’s Witness Church is a tightly controlled, rule-bound organisation that seeks to keep its members in relative isolation from the rest of society…” counsel assisting the commission, Angus Stewart, said this week. “It is a system in which a group of men who are appointed from above, not by the congregation, stand in judgement over their fellow men, women and children on every aspect of their lives.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses are fierce literalists of the Bible, and the most devout have largely supplanted civil law with their own divine version. They regard themselves to be “in the world, but not of it” and it is their parallel modes of living that have this week come under such scrutiny. Two congregations in particular – Narrogin, and the other in Mareeba in far north Queensland. The commission found an arrogance and insularity that devastated victims of child abuse – a culture that meant of more than 1000 reports of child sex abuse over 60 years, not one was referred to police. Not one. 

2 . Committee of elders

A part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses insularity is what they call their “judicial committee” – a body of elders who issue judgement upon their peers. The worst possible outcome for a Witness is what’s called “disfellowship” – exile from the family. The committee functions according to biblical law, and it is an obscure passage of the Book that has done so much harm to victims of child sexual abuse. In Deuteronomy 19:15, it says: “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth; at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.”

The elders called it the “witness rule” and it meant that they would not do anything if there were only one witness to an alleged crime – even if they believed the accusation. “You do understand,” Justice Peter McClellan said to Narrogin elder Max Horley this week, “that in most cases of sexual abuse there is only one witness? The victim.”

It got worse. Biblical law also required the accused to meet their accuser, meaning the elders forced a meeting between victim and abuser. All of this was played out before the gathering of elders – all men, and all friends of the accused. 

“Throughout the meeting, Bill looked at me defiantly,” BCB said. “I felt like he was challenging me to tell the full story of what he had done. I felt uncomfortable and could not bring myself to tell the elders everything that had happened. I felt like I was still Bill’s victim. I was still so scared of saying anything that would get me or Bill into trouble. 

“It was already very hard to talk about sex in a room full of men. It was especially hard to talk about what Bill had done to me while he was sitting there in front of me. I didn’t feel like it was a safe environment and I was scared of what the consequences would be if I told the whole truth. Perhaps if a Sister who I was comfortable with had been there too, it might have been easier.”

Later that day, when Horley took the stand, the justice asked: “You do realise how inappropriate that process is?” It was a process enacted hundreds – perhaps thousands – of times in Witness congregations all over the country. Their interpretation of divine law had created a hell on earth. 

3 . A father’s abuse

BCG was a teenage girl in the Mareeba congregation in the 1980s. Her father was an elder – and also her rapist. A violent, mercurial man, he would cite scripture while raping his daughter. Still, he was respected in the community, and for a long time that stature protected him. BCG would pray to Jehovah to place some of his angels around her bed. “But he didn’t, and my father didn’t stop.” 

The father began belittling his daughter in public, an attempt to discredit her. He would tell people that she was a “nutcase” or a “sinner” and soon she felt ostracised by the small town. It was years before BCG told her mother, and she was shocked by her response: “I think he did something to your sister.” BCG felt betrayed by her mother. After querying her other sisters, it emerged that all four girls had been molested. 

The horror magnified when BCG approached the elders. Like BCB, BCG was forced to face her abuser as a part of “the divine process” established by the church. “Because the elders were all male and all were my father’s friends, I was very reluctant to speak to them about what had happened. Unless they asked me a direct question, I didn’t really offer the full detail of the sexual abuse,” she said.

“I attempted suicide several months after the committee meetings in 1989 as a result of my experience of the committee meetings with the elders. I couldn’t bear the judgement of those around me, the public vilification and ostracism. I wanted to dig a hole and die.”

The father would ultimately be expelled, only to be reinstated a few years later. No consultation was made with BCG; in fact, she says no elder ever contacted her after the committee meetings. “In or around November 1992,” BCG said, “my father returned to Mareeba to be reinstated. I remember that when it was announced to the congregation, all of the Brothers crowded around my father, shaking his hand and patting him on the back.”

Her father would eventually be convicted, and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. 

4 . Taking the stand

A string of gormless elders took the stand this week to face questions about the obscenity of their procedures. They were uniformly ineloquent and unhelpful. While professing to cherish modesty, there was no humility in any of the elders’ reluctance to accept responsibility. One Narrogin elder, Joe Bello, revealed the contemptuous aloofness that defines Jehovah’s Witnesses. Asked if he had been following the work of the royal commission, he replied: “No, I haven’t.”

“Not at all?”

“Not at all.” 

This commission has given us a dire procession of men – and it is almost always men – whose graceless and immodest authority is finally being tested. Priests, pastors and principals. Community elders who wore their stature proudly, while poisoning their fiefdoms. Men who demanded fealty from women and children, but allowed them to be abused. Men allegedly anointed by the Holy Spirit, but who farmed rapists. 

And it is now these men – senior administrators and community leaders – who profess serial ignorance. Men who demanded respect, but who now ask for simple questions to be repeated. Solipsists who qualify their transgressions and disavow their catastrophes. Men who are both verbose and inarticulate. Repeatedly in these hearings we have seen men who must make a strategic choice to portray themselves as either bumbling or mendacious. 

But we have seen them. Their piety is now an awful joke; their legacies ash. At least the victims’ stories are being contemplated by a commission showing a grace their religious families never did. The estrangement of the Jehovah’s Witnesses has encouraged abuse and compounded trauma. Elders encourage their flock to shun “worldly people” because the secular are agents of the Beast. We have seen similar situations emerge in these commissions – cultures turned mouldy by self-perpetuating secrecy. But it was the worldly people that came to BCG’s aid: “I was initially scared of the police because I had grown up being taught that everyone outside of the Jehovah’s Witness Church was to be feared. But the officer in charge of my case, Natalie Bennett, had an awesome manner and she was very supportive. Throughout the court cases, my only support was from the police and a support person assigned by the court.”

Lifeline 13 11 14; Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 1800 099 340.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2015 as "Silent Witnesses".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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