The shocking extent of child abuse in the Jehovah’s Witness community has been exposed by two important legal cases. The cases involve the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the legal entity through which the Jehovah's Witnesses operate.
The first case was whether the Watch Tower Society should have to pay damages to a proven victim of abuse. The Society sought to argue that its devolved structure means that it cannot be 'vicariously liable' for the actions of its officials who abuse children. It is a variation of the argument advanced by the Catholic Church, which maintained for many years that priests were not employees and therefore the Church could not be liable for their actions. The Catholic Church's long running battle to evade responsibility on that basis ended in failure in 2012. The Watch Tower Society's defence failed at first instance in 2015, and its attempt to take the case to the Court of Appeal was dismissed last month.
Meanwhile, in 2014, in response to emerging allegations of child abuse, the Charity Commission instigated a statutory inquiry into the Watch Tower Society's approach to safeguarding. Quite reasonably, the Commission wants to understand whether the Society's trustees have fulfilled their safeguarding responsibilities under charity law. Also, the Commission sought production of relevant documents.
The Society applied for a judicial review at the High Court to try to abort the inquiry and resist the production order. The Society argued (amongst other things) that the Charity Commission was "interfering with (the Society's) rights of freedom of religion under article 9 of the Human Rights Act... by commencing an inquiry with a view to changing Jehovah's Witnesses' religious practices".
Hearings in the Royal Commission on child sexual abuse exposed the Witnesses' culpability in protecting abusers in a devastating fashion.
Earlier this year the Watch Tower Society lost its application for judicial review.
For more information, please see: Jehovah’s Witnesses Charity Drops Legal Fight to Block Sex Abuse Inquiry
Following the Court of Appeal decision, the Charity Commission urged that the Watch Tower Society "engage constructively" with the inquiry. Anyone affected by safeguarding issues in the Jehovah's Witnesses should contact the Commission's lead investigator; a number of our clients are providing input to the inquiry.
In Australia, hearings in the Royal Commission on child sexual abuse exposed the Witnesses' culpability in protecting abusers in a devastating fashion; the Royal Commission heard that their safeguarding procedures were "woefully deficient". Here, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), now chaired by Professor Alexis Jay, needs to link with the Charity Commission inquiry and undertake a thorough investigation into culture and practices within the organisation.
Kim Harrison is a principal lawyer specialising in child abuse claims at Slater and Gordon in Manchester.
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