HSV Lecture 2019 – Religious institutions and the harm they do: Whistleblower update

Photos of Steven Unthank and Lara KaputHSV Public Lecture by Steven Unthank and Lara Kaput (former Jehovah’s Witnesses) at Balwyn Library on 28 February 2019

Lara and Steven provided an update on their Supporting Survivors of Religion campaign. Together, they founded the SaySorry.org website in July 2018. It gives an account of their many activities and submissions to parliamentary enquiries. Their aim is to hold leaders within the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) church, as well as the Watch Tower Society, to account. They hope to raise awareness and advocate when laws have been transgressed and harm has been caused. First-hand accounts from survivors of childhood sexual abuse within the JW church are also on the site.

Is the JW church harmful?

Data from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has shown that the incidence of abuse in the JW church was 32 times greater than for the Roman Catholic church. As there were only about 68,000 JW members, compared with 5.3 million Catholics, the import of this statistic tends to be downplayed. The Watchtower, which is the legal arm of the JW church, has so far refused to join the National Redress Scheme for survivors of childhood sexual abuse and, furthermore, will not discuss the situation.

There is a disproportionately high level of domestic violence among JW members and a very high suicide rate among those leaving the congregation. Homosexuality ‘does not exist’ within the JW church, education is discouraged and political engagement considered sinful. In fact, members of the church are excused from voting by the Electoral Commission on ’religious grounds’. Blood transfusions are prohibited and personal recognition, as in celebration of birthdays, is negated. To flout these rules would result in the wrong-doer being shunned by the community.

The Watch Tower owns copyrights and controls the finances of the JW organization, but there are also at least 800 registered charities associated with the JW church in Australia. When any one of these is under suspicion or investigation, the church shifts assets sideways to one of its other charities, so-called phoenixing. The Australian Securities and Investment Commission has set up a Phoenix Taskforce, and Lara and Steven have lodged a complaint about the Watch Tower Society there. Two years ago, Lara also complained to the Australian Charity and Not-for-profit Commission about JW charities but has not heard anything further so far.

Victorian Royal Commission into Mental Health

In January this year they made a submission to the consultation about the terms of reference for this Commission. Their submission focused on the issue of chaplains in public schools and in hospitals, as well as those working within the Country Fire Authority; in particular, whether they were offering services beyond spiritual counselling and whether there were breaches of privacy occurring in the process.

US Attorney General submission

A submission in support of complaints to the New York State Attorney General about 775 elders of the JW church and approximately 20,000 cases of alleged child sexual abuse will be available on Saysorry.org shortly. It is estimated that compensation will be of the order of US 28–34 million dollars per case. Steven helped compile this submission with Barbara Anderson, a friend in New York, who has been trying to expose this problem for almost twenty years.

Overseas activities in 2018

In London, Steven and Lara attended a peaceful JW protest meeting, networked extensively with survivors and met with members of government taskforces investigating abuse, as well as the Charity Commission.

In France, they had a lengthy interview at MIVILUDES, a cult watch organization, and provided them with links to other ex-JW people in Europe. They visited the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and read about cases in the Court, which were detailed on a communal notice board. Next time, they would like to contribute stories of their own.

JW Leaks

Initially, Steven set up this Facebook account anonymously. Contributions stream in from all over the world, disclosing financial reports, letters from church elders and other documents from people frustrated by the failure of the church to address abuse. The Watch Tower Society in the US has recently tried to sue Facebook about this site. They claim that they have suffered commercial damage as a result of JW Leaks, in an attempt to close it down. However, given the church’s official status as a not-for-profit charity, it is a surprising claim. Steven is currently in discussion with a law enforcement agency in the US and is considering taking the Watch Tower Society to court himself.

In a similar vein, Lara and her colleague Louise, as co-hosts of JW Community Podcast, have compiled a series of interviews, many relating to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Recently the JW church has accused them of stealing intellectual property and breaching copyright provisions. Once again, a deceptive claim.

National Apology to Victims and Survivors

Steven and Lara were gratified and moved to hear both Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, and Bill Shorten, the Leader of the Opposition, say “sorry” at the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse on 22 October 2018. They felt that the Government had failed them for a long time, as had many others, such as teachers, doctors and the police, during their struggle for recognition.

They reminded us that the Royal Commission had collated reports from 1,800 victims of child sexual abuse within the JW church involving 1,006 alleged perpetrators, none of whom had previously been reported to the police or other authorities.

As a result of exchanges at the Apology, they were invited back to Parliament House to meet a diverse group of politicians. They decided to establish the Friends of Parliament (of the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and related matters). By this means, politicians will be able to link up with a group of survivors for on-going information. HSV’s Ex-religious Support Network (ESN), which has survivors from many faith groups, will be very helpful in this regard.

Commission for Children and Young Persons

Following the Royal Commission, the Commission for Children and Young Persons (CCYP) was set up as an independent Commission, to which all reports of child abuse must be referred and subsequently investigated. It has the power to prosecute and has a broad reach, covering schools, health services, out-of-home care facilities and many other children’s services.

Next steps

They have a busy program planned for 2019, pursuing various complaints through official channels, advocating for survivors, raising awareness through the media when there is an opportunity and continuing to make submissions to parliamentary enquiries. Saysorry.org will provide an update as these unfold.

How to help

In conclusion, Lara and Steven outlined a series of measures for anyone wishing to support their social justice work in the protection of children:

  • Make submissions to state enquiries and royal commissions;
  • Write to politicians and journalists, tell family and friends;
  • Share SaySorry.org on social media, such as LinkedIn, or make a donation to the Rationalist Society of Australia towards their Stop Religious Harm Campaign.

Report by Jennie Stuart