Supporting survivors of religion

Photos of Steven Unthank and Lara KaputHSV Public Lecture by Steven Unthank and Lara Kaput (former Jehovah’s Witnesses) at Unitarian Hall, East Melbourne on 28 June 2018

Lara Kaput

Lara was born into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW). When she was nineteen, she decided to leave. It was a courageous move as she was shunned by her family and friends, who regarded her as worthless and tainted by the Devil. Any objections that she raised about the church were regarded as lies: after all, she was an apostate. Over the next quarter of a century, she has regained her identity, repaired her self-esteem and honed her ability to think critically. She has been helped by a support group for ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses and through them became an activist.

She sees the process of recovery from Jehovah’s Witnesses in three phases. Initially, those who leave the group feel like victims. They need empathy and validation of their feelings. They are often highly anxious and unable to make decisions. Support groups provide an opportunity to share experiences. After time, perhaps a year or sometimes many years, they are able to see themselves as survivors and may take a more active role in seeking change and providing resources for other survivors. Finally, some become thrivers, undertaking community engagement, by protesting, organising petitions and lobbying.

Lara organised a petition to the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission, gathering over a thousand names in two weeks, advocating to ‘Cancel the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society’s Charity Status’.

Having experienced indoctrination at the hands of the Jehovah’s Witnesses church, she considered the organisation to be harmful and uncharitable. However, the case was lost, and the charity status of Jehovah’s Witnesses continues. She also made a submission to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse on behalf of herself and three other members of her family who had been abused within the church.

Steven Unthank

Steven left the Jehovah Witness’s in 1995, but returned after a few years in order to encourage other members of his family to leave. His strategy was to formulate written complaints against various leaders of the church. When his family was attacked as a reaction, they woke up to what was happening and also left. In 2011 Steven made a submission to the Victorian Protecting Vulnerable Children Inquiry.

He was aware that although the Jehovah’s Witnesses church had more than 200 leaders, none of them had undergone a Working with Children or a police check. In fact, the Jehovah’s Witnesses church had no child protection policy. However, the Inquiry failed to take any action. So, Steven launched his own private criminal prosecution. He was granted leave by the chief magistrate to execute his case against all five of the Jehovah’s Witnesses legal entities. The police did not offer any assistance, so he organised a charge sheet himself, citing thirty-five counts of breaches of the Child Protection Act. He organized a web-site called JWleaks and received hundreds of responses, from all over the world, including numerous documents exposing abuses within the church.

Steven lobbied Julia Gillard when she was Prime Minister, adding his voice to the call for a Royal Commission. When the submission to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse from Jehovah’s Witnesses survivors was made, the church claimed that only two complaints of child abuse had ever been received, although no case had ever been reported to the police. When the Royal Commission sought independent evidence, it found more than 1,800 victims across Australia, involving 1,006 alleged perpetrators. Taking into account the size of the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation, this is a vastly higher proportion of abuse than for any other religion, including the Roman Catholic Church.

Perpetuation of abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses church is fostered by the highly controlled environment there. Any complainant is likely to end up being shamed and shunned, with a devastating loss of standing and self-esteem. In addition, there is a rule that any complaint must be supported by two witnesses, which is not often feasible in sexual abuse cases. The most likely outcome is that the child is disciplined.

There have been 168 convictions since the Royal Commission. Even so, the Jehovah’s Witnesses church has refused to sign up to the redress scheme for victims, opting instead to deal with each case within the church. Given the church’s attitude that claims of abuse are apostate-driven lies, survivors are unlikely to participate.

There is now a Facebook-based support group for survivors, with over 700 members. On 26 July 2018, a new web-site, SaySorry.org, will be launched to garner support for a class action and with the goal of prodding the church for an apology.

Chaplaincy

Steven has also been actively campaigning about the Jehovah’s Witnesses chaplaincy program, especially in matters of breach of privacy. He became aware that members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses church, who were under contract as chaplains in Victorian public hospitals, were sharing health information, gleaned from patient contact, with other members of the church. Did the Victorian Health Records Act 2007 apply to this situation? A case of a child who was an inpatient at a Gippsland hospital was initially referred to the Health Services Commissioner and then to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).  However, during the case, Jehovah’s Witnesses argued that they did not provide health services, only spiritual guidance. They claimed that they did not collect health information and that therefore the Health Records Act 2001 did not apply to their chaplaincy program. The Tribunal accepted this position and decided that the Act did not apply to chaplains.

However, in 2015, just after this determination, the National School Chaplaincy Program started in Victoria. The Victorian Government Solicitor drew up agreements between chaplains, chaplaincy provider organisations and the public schools system. It stipulated that all those involved would be subject to the Health Records Act and the Privacy and Data Protection Act 2014.  This also applies to chaplains within the fire services and police force and, in fact, to all chaplains within Victorian government organisations.

When Steven personally complained about a breach of data privacy in relation to chaplaincy services provided by the Country Fire Authority (CFA) for a volunteer fire-fighter whose mental health issues had been passed on to other members of the CFA, he was brushed aside. The earlier VCAT ruling was cited as a reason that his case could not be dealt with. Undeterred, he contacted members of parliament of all persuasions, but no one was interested.  He also contacted the Health Services Complaints Commissioner and the Privacy Commissioner, without making any progress. He then wrote to the Minister for Health, David Davis, and although he received a courteous reply, he was told that nothing would change.

Therefore, if there is a breach of privacy involving chaplaincy services, those affected do not have any recourse in law under present circumstances. This includes children in government schools, for whom there is no single piece of legislation protecting their privacy with respect to health information. Steven is now seeking support to take a case to the Supreme Court, maintaining that the National School Chaplaincy Program has been operating outside the law since 2015.

Report by Jennie Stuart