by Steven Unthank and Lara Kaput
During the months of August and September of this year we traveled through Europe meeting with both government and non-government organisations (NGO’s). The subject for discussion was Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) and the Watch Tower Society. Our meetings, and our meeting agendas, were all prearranged and thoroughly prepared.
We kicked off all our international activities by attending a peaceful JW Protest in London outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘Be Courageous’ convention. Then it was straight onto non-stop meetings with government departments, law enforcement agencies, NGO’s, support service providers, counselors, lawyers, activists, and the media.
Before leaving Australia we had met with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) for the purpose of raising our concerns about the activities of 800+ registered charities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia.
According to the ACNC’s most recent Annual Report, there are more than 56,000 registered charities in Australia. During 2017/2018 the ACNC has focused compliance resources on charities at greater risk of misuse in the following areas: Harm to Beneficiaries, particularly children and vulnerable adults.
One important issue we raised with the ACNC was religion taking advantage of their charity registration all the while closing ranks to cover up institutional child sexual abuse. Our meeting with the ACNC was the result of a formal complaint we had made in relation to a number of Jehovah’s Witness charities operating within Australia.
The JW Protest, London 2018
Our first scheduled event was attending the JW Protest at ExCeL, London, on the second weekend of August. We attended the protest alongside five additional Australian Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a hundred other well behaved and colourful protesters. A total of 14 different countries were represented – Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Ireland, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, the USA, and Wales.
The London JW Protest was to highlight serious and persistent global child sexual abuse within Jehovah’s Witnesses and the related practice of shunning.
The protest attracted a lot of interesting attention, particularly from Jehovah’s Witnesses attending the convention. It was not uncommon to see members of the religion coming over to the protest barriers to talk or to take selfies. This was despite the fact that the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to former members of the religion as being ‘mentally diseased‘.
The JW Protest was unique in that the management of ExCeL London allowed the protesters to set up their banners on private property adjacent the main entrance. This was despite protests from the Jehovah’s Witnesses conventions committee.
Among the protesters were survivors of child sexual abuse from within the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. One common theme among all of the survivors was that the leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses had refused to ‘say sorry’ to anyone for the abuse they suffered.
Many spoke about their experiences of losing their family through the cruel practice of shunning. In the Final Report of the recent Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Recommendation 16.29 stated “The Jehovah’s Witness organisation should no longer require its members to shun those who disassociate from the organisation in cases where the reason for disassociation is related to a person being a victim of child sexual abuse.”
Further Reading: BBC NEWS – The ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses shunned by their families
Protest coverage: Hull Daily Mail – Ex Jehovah’s Witness joins protest
The Resolution of the 2018 JW Protest, London
As part of the 2018 JW Protest in London a Resolution was put forward by the protest committee that was unanimously adopted by all peaceful protesters. The Resolution, addressed to all Jehovah’s Witnesses attending the London ‘Be Courageous! convention, read in part:
“We Send our warm love, greetings, and fellowship to all honest hearted Jehovah’s Witnesses who attended the ‘Be Courageous’! convention in London on the weekends of the 11th and 12th and the 18th and 19th of August 2018 . . .
“We Assure you that we are not ‘mentally diseased’ but are primarily stumbled, faded, former, or ex members of the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some of us were never members but are instead loved ones and supporters of those who were.
“We Invite the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses to ‘Be Courageous’! and ‘Say Sorry’! to all child abuse victims from within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, past and present, some of whom are here today adopting this resolution, so that they and us may heal as we still hurt.”
Further reading: Read the full Say Sorry report here
Downloads: Resolution of the 2018 JW Protest in London
Festival of Reason & Freethought, London
We received an invitation from the London Black Atheists to be interviewed at the 2018 Festival of Reason & Freethought in London. The event was co-sponsored by Humanists UK.
After the first day of the JW Protest we headed across London to Red Lion Square Gardens for the festival. With the bronze sculpture of Bertrand Russell looking on, three subjects were discussed during the interview:
- The criminal prosecution in Australia of the Church of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Australia over breaches of mandatory child protection laws (working with children laws). In total five separate criminal cases were prosecuted against the religion, and various legal entities, within the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria. The prosecutor in all cases was Steven Unthank, after having obtained extraordinary leave of the Chief Magistrate to launch a private criminal prosecution; and
- Taking the Church of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia to the Human Rights Tribunal under Racial and Religious Vilification laws in relation to publishing an article calling former members ‘mentally diseased’; and
- The appearance of the Church of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia before a parliamentary inquiry and before the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Case Study 29).
Further Reading: News Article: Church won’t budge on child checks
National Secular Society
Our first NGO strategic meeting in the UK was with Stephen Evans, CEO of the National Secular Society. Our purpose was to explore cross border relationships, facilitation of understanding of Jehovah’s Witnesses culture and the Watchtower Society corporate structure.
A double-feature— two movies about Jehovah’s Witnesses
Between protest weekends in London, and between daily meetings with government and non-government organisations, we took some time off with fellow protesters and Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses to go to the movies. Not just any movie … we saw Apostasy.
After the screening at Curzon Soho we stayed behind for a one hour Q&A session with the audience. What impressed us with this true-to-life story was that the characters were believable and the portrayal of the teachings of Jehovah’s Witness to be accurate. We gave the film Apostasy 4 out of 5.
Written and directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s Witness, Apostasy is a remarkable and authentic debut film, providing rare insight into the complex nature of faith, family, duty and love.
We would have liked to have watched The Children Act as well but it had not yet been released theatrically.
Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park, London
Standing up to inform, persuade, and entertain at Speakers’ Corner, Hyde Park, has become almost like a right of passage for some of the greatest minds and free-thinkers in modern British history. Speakers’ Corner is an area where open-air public speaking, debate, and discussion are allowed.
Notable speakers have included philosopher Karl Marx, novelist George Orwell, and communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.
We took with us to Speakers’ Corner a copy of the official “Report of Case Study No. 29 The response of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Australia, Ltd to allegations of child sexual abuse” published by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
While publicly reading out Chapter 6 and 7 of the report we took turns to engage with passersby.
For our scheduled meeting with Teddy Prout, Director of Community Services, Humanists UK, we explained what we have achieved over the past few years in both Australia and in the USA, and gave a summary of a lecture we had both presented to the Humanist Society of Victoria Inc on the subject of ‘Supporting Survivors of Religion‘.
For those interested in humanism, an online course had been developed by Humanists UK in which participants will learn more about humanist beliefs and values.
Online Course (starts 7 January 2019): Introduction to Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life
Links: Humanists UK
IISCA and Operation Hydrant
IISCA, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, was set up because of serious concerns that some organisations within Britain had failed and were continuing to fail to protect children from sexual abuse. The IISCA remit is huge, but as a statutory inquiry they have unique authority to address issues that have persisted despite previous inquiries and attempts at reform.
At the present time IISCA is not officially investigating the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the UK or Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain. We have, however, been invited to make a submission to IICSA in relation to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On the other hand Operation Hydrant is currently accepting evidence in relation to child sexual abuse within congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses across the United Kingdom. See the below link for further information.
For further information: United Kingdom | Operation Hydrant and Jehovah’s Witnesses
Meetings with the Charity Commission for England and Wales
A highlight from our series of meetings with law enforcement agencies in the UK was the time spent with the Charity Commission for England and Wales. We were fortunate enough to bring with us experienced legal counsel.
We had been following for some time the charity regulator’s investigation into Manchester New Moston Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses which opened in May 2014. The charity regulator was primarily concerned about child protection. On 26 July 2017 the final decision was published by the courts in relation to the charity regulator investigation.
Archived documents: Jehovah’s Witnesses investigated by Charity Commission
As part of our meeting with the Charity Commission for England and Wales we got to share our personal experience with the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. (see Case Study 29 Final Report and Case Study 54 Transcript).
One issue we raised with the charity regulator was religion taking advantage of their charity registration all the while closing ranks to cover up institutional child sexual abuse. Another concern raised by us during our meeting was the mishandling of allegations of domestic violence by Jehovah’s Witness charities.
Heading off to the European Continent
After our meetings and events in London we commenced the second phase of our scheduled meetings with government and non-government organisations, this time on the European Continent.
The Netherlands: A meeting with Reclaimed Voices
Our visit to The Netherlands was for the purpose of meeting Raymond Hintjes and some of the team responsible for the successful work being carried out by Reclaimed Voices. In 2017 Reclaimed Voices set up a help line for Jehovah’s Witnesses who wanted to report being sexually abuse within the religion. They received hundreds of reports which sparked media interest and and official government investigation.
During our meeting with Reclaimed Voices we were able to provide them with a fully searchable digital database on the entire Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. In addition we provided extensive documentation on child abuse issues within Jehovah’s Witnesses for future reference. Strategies were discussed, including the need to take a long-term approach to reforming the religion in relation to child protection and the practice of harmful shunning.
Downloads: Reclaimed Voices Manifesto (English)
Media coverage: NL Times (four major articles)
Links: Reclaimed Voices
France: European Court of Human Rights
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is an international court established by the European Convention on Human Rights. The court hears applications alleging that a contracting state has breached one or more of the human rights provisions concerning civil and political rights set out in the Convention and its protocols.
Our visit to the ECHR was for the purpose of accessing the master file in the Case of Avilkina and Others v. Russia. This case related to the disclosure by Russian State hospitals of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ medical files to the prosecutor’s office following their refusal of a blood transfusion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses of Russia claimed that such action by the hospitals and prosecutor constituted an interference with the applicants’ right to respect for their private life.
The ECHR ruled in favour of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and declared Russia in violation of Article 8 – Right to respect for private and family life (Article 8-1 – Respect for private life).
Our interest in this case is because the very practice that the Jehovah’s Witnesses accused the Russian State of, namely a violation of private and family life, is the exact same practice that Jehovah’s Witness leaders engage in against members of their religion. See the Jehovah’s Witness article “A Time to Speak”-When? which encourages JW hospital employees, including those working in Russian hospitals, to breach privacy and confidentiality laws under the guise obedience to God.
France: MIVILUDES meeting, Government Secretariat Office, Paris
MIVILUDES (an acronym for the French-language phrase Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires, i.e. “Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Cultic Deviances”) is a French government agency, with responsibility for monitoring groups perceived to constitute a threat to public order or that violate French law. MIVILUDES coordinates the government response, informs the public about potential risks, and assists victims. It recommends contacts and other organizations, and produces and archives documentation and discussion papers on groups considered cults or sects.
Our meeting with MIVILUDES at the Government Secretariat Office, Paris, was one of the most successful and positive receptions with a government agency we have had to date. Although there were language difficulties in understanding complicated phrases, overall back-and-forth communication was not an issue. Our discussion flowed so comfortably that the two hour meeting flew past.
To our surprise MIVILUDES actively sought out our assistance with a number of issues the French government had on their agenda concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the prevalence of child sexual abuse and the practices of shunning and excommunication.
A few days after our visit, Serge Blisko, president of MIVILUDES, gave an interview on RMC Découverte broadcast about the practice of shunning and excommunication among Jehovah’s Witnesses in France. Blisko stated:
“We have heard it very often from young people who have left the movement and for whom the greatest pain is precisely what they call this excommunication. Young people have described to us their distress, their pain, their suffering, to meet in a city their […] parents, to pass on the same sidewalk, and they […] do not look at them. It’s horrible “. [translated from French]
We recommend that every country should have a comparative agency to MIVILUDES. This matter we will be taking up with the Australian government.
Ireland: founders of ‘Avoid JW’ and ‘JW Leaks’
No lawful campaign or legal action against the Church of Jehovah’s Witnesses can be truly successful unless one has access to confidential or leaked internal documents and manuals, such as the secret elders handbook “Shepherd the Flock of God“.
On leaving France we headed to the Republic of Ireland to meet with ‘Irish blogger’ Jason Wynne, a former Jehovah’ Witness and the original founder of the website ‘Avoid JW’ which has picked up quite a reputation for leaking documents. It was this reputation that attracted the ire of Watch Tower Society and their litigious religious leaders.
For those that are not aware, between 2012 and 2016 [Steven Unthank] operated the website JW LEAKS. The website is still online but is currently archived.
Neither of us now actively operate our respective websites any more but we had plenty of stories and documents to share. High on our discussion agenda was the banning of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. Maybe one day the full story will be told, including the ‘hunt’ for Mark Sanderson, member of the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and his rapid underground exodus from Russia with 17 helpers.
Podcast interview: Lara Kaput and Louise Goode interview Jason Wynne (Avoid JW)
Britain: Bolt Burdon Kemp
Last year on April 26, 2017, Reveal News hosted a conference in London regarding Jehovah’s Witnesses and the problem of child sex abuse. The conference was attended by a host of lawyers, journalists, and even law enforcement officials, as well as movie producers, activists, and child sex abuse victims.
Among those in attendance at the 2017 London conference was Lara Kaput from SaySorry.org and Kathleen Hallisey from Bolt Burdon Kemp law firm. The conference was put together by Reveal News from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
It was only fitting that the Say Sorry schedule in Europe should conclude in London with a meeting with Kathleen Hallisey of Bolt Burdon Kemp.
Bolt Burdon Kemp has been proactive in the UK in representing child sexual abuse survivors from within the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Back to Australia
On arriving back in Australia our schedule continued non-stop with a number of public speaking engagements, radio interviews, Podcasts, a television documentary recording session, a meeting with the Australian Human Rights Commission, and our attendance at Parliament, Canberra, for the National Apology to Victims and Survivors of Institutional Child Sexual Abuse.
Steven Unthank and Lara Kaput