IICSA Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse announces new investigation into religious organisations including Jehovah’s Witnesses
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has announced a new investigation into child protection in religious organisations and settings.
IICSA was set up in 2015 to investigate institutions that had failed to protect children from sexual abuse. The investigation into religious organisations and settings, which is due to take place in 2020, will review the current child protection policies, practices and procedures in various religious institutions in England and Wales including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Inquiry is already investigating institutional failings the in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches.
There is an ongoing investigation being conducted by the Charity Commission into child protection issues in the Watch Tower and Bible Tract Society of Britain (The Watchtower Society), which is the charity that oversees the nation’s congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their investigation was launched in May 2014 after it received reports that victims of sexual abuse who had come forward were being forced to face their attackers in internal ‘judicial committees’. The Charity Commission has the power to investigate how charity trustees handle safeguarding.
The Watchtower Society unsuccessfully attempted to block the Charity Commission’s investigation. It launched legal proceedings requesting a review of the decision to initiate the investigation arguing that it would breach the trustees’ right to religious freedom. The Courts found against The Watchtower Society but it took its case all the way to the Supreme Court where they were finally refused permission to appeal the decision of the lower courts.
The Charity Commission had also issued a legally binding Order requiring the Watchtower Society to disclose certain documents relating to how they had handled allegations of sexual abuse in the past. The Watchtower Society sought to dispute the Order but subsequently disclosed some documents which meant that legal proceedings were paused.
In 2015 one victim, who had been subjected to sexual abuse for five years from the age of four by a senior member of her congregation, known as a ‘Ministerial Servant’, brought a successful civil claim for damages against the Watchtower Society A v Watchtower.
Senior members of the victim’s congregation were aware that the abuser had been involved in the sexual abuse of a child. As a result he was removed from his senior position but still permitted to continue as a member of the congregation because he demonstrated that he was repentant for his actions.
The matter was not reported to the police and members of the congregation were not warned about the sexual attack. He went on the abuse the victim, referred to in the proceedings as “A” to protect her identity.
The High Court ruled, in a landmark decision, that the Watchtower Society was responsible for the abuse because the most senior members of the congregation, Elders, had failed to take reasonable steps to protect A once they knew about the abuse of the other child. A was awarded £275,000 in damages.
Bolt Burdon Kemp is acting for a number of victims of historic abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness community.
We welcome the news that there will be an investigation into abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness community and other religious organisations. Our experience of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is that they have failed to appreciate that extent and seriousness of the abuse in their organisation and the senior members of the congregation have been complicit in covering up abuse.
The investigation by IICSA into the Jehovah’s Witnesses is an opportunity to make meaningful changes within the organisation and prevent further abuse.