High Court judge raises concern about child safeguarding in Jehovah’s Witness community

A High Court judge has raised concern after hearing that ministers in a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses waited more than two and a half years before telling police that a girl had made sex abuse allegations against her father.

Mrs Justice Lieven said there had been a “failure to take effective steps to protect a young child” which gave rise to “deep concern”.

The judge said evidence in a case she had analysed showed that ministers, known as “elders” in a Jehovah’s Witness congregation, knew about the allegations in December 2016, when the girl was nine, but had not reported them to police until July 2019

She said they had waited despite knowing the man remained in the same household as his daughter.

Mrs Justice Lieven aired concerns on Tuesday after analysing issues relating to the care of the girl, who is now 12, and her brother, 10, at a hearing in the Family Division of the High Court in London.

The girl had made abuse allegations to her mother, the judge said, and her mother had then told congregation elders.

She said Jehovah’s Witnesses were told to report misconduct by a family member to the elders.

Mrs Justice Lieven said documents relating to a “judicial committee” meeting showed what congregation elders knew and when they knew it.

“The facts of this case raise very great concern about the safeguarding of children within the Jehovah’s Witness community,” the judge said in a written ruling on the latest stage of litigation centred on the children.

“It is incontrovertible from these documents that the elders of the congregation knew about (the girl’s) allegations since at least December 2016 – when (she) was aged nine.

“They did not report those allegations to the police until July 2019.

“This was despite knowing that the alleged abuser, the father, remained living in the same household as (the girl).

“It is not possible from these documents to work out the precise timing of events, but it seems from (one) document that the elders knew the abuse was occurring over a prolonged period and knew that it was alleged by (the girl) that it was continuing.

“It also seems from the limited information before the court that the elders believed the allegations, or certainly did not disbelieve them.

“I can only say that, on the documents that I have seen, the approach of the congregation to (the girl’s) allegations, and their failure to take effective steps to protect a young child within their community, on the face of it gives rise to deep concern.”

The judge has not identified the family involved, said where they live or named the Jehovah’s Witness congregation.

She said social services bosses at Lancashire County Council (pictured) had welfare responsibilities for the children and had begun litigation centred on their care.

The girl’s mother had told Mrs Justice Lieven, in a witness statement: “As a Jehovah’s Witness, we are told to report to the elders, any misconduct by a family member.

“This is why my first thoughts were to speak to the elders and seek their guidance and support.

“The elders spoke to me, came into my house and had a meeting with me to clarify what had happened and what (my daughter) had said.

“They spoke to the father to confirm the report to him and advised that he would be removed from the congregation.”

She added: “I wanted to go to the police but the message I felt I was receiving was that police involvement was not the appropriate thing to do.

“I fully accept that this was not was being said to me but this is what I was feeling.”

She went on: “The elders took disciplinary action with the father and advised me to change my work hours to ensure that I was home for the children when the father was home.

“I dropped my hours but I was still going out of the house leaving the father at home with the children.

“I believed that I had put in place protective measures.

“The father had been disciplined and he promised me that he would not do anything again. Our marriage did effectively come to an end at that stage and he remained only as a provider for the family.”

Mrs Justice Lieven said the latest stage of litigation had focused on whether two elders should disclose information relating to the girl.

Council social services had been ordered, by another judge at an earlier stage of the litigation, to file statements from the two elders explaining how the girl’s allegations had been investigated.

The two elders asked Mrs Justice Lieven to overturn that order.

They said they were under “a spiritual duty” not to disclose confidential religious communications and said that “if such confidence is breached”, people might stop confiding in ministers.

Mrs Justice Lieven ruled against the two elders, saying there were “a whole series of reasons” why they should disclose information.

Last week, another High Court judge, overseeing a separate case, ordered Jehovah’s Witness leaders to pay a rape victim more than £60,000 damages.

The woman was raped by a fellow Jehovah’s Witness after going door-to-door evangelising near Cardiff 30 years ago, Mr Justice Chamberlain heard.

A “judicial committee” of elders had in 1991 found the woman’s allegations against Mark Sewell “not proven” at an internal inquiry, but he was investigated by police more than 20 years later.

He was convicted in 2014 of raping the woman and indecently assaulting two other people and was given a 14-year prison sentence.

The woman, who is no longer a Jehovah’s Witness, said she suffered depression as a result of the rape and sued for compensation.

She said a “proper” internal inquiry had not been conducted and leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were “vicariously liable” for the rape.

The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, which is based in New York state and is the worldwide governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the trustees of the local congregation the woman had been a member of did not accept they were vicariously liable.

But Mr Justice Chamberlain ruled in the woman’s favour after a High Court trial in London.

He concluded that her psychiatric injuries were attributable to the rape and ruled she should get £62,000 general damages.

The judge named Sewell in a written ruling but did not identify the woman.

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