A government inquiry underway in Australia has revealed that more than 1,000 members of the Jehovah's Witness Church there have been accused of child sexual abuse since 1950 — yet none of them have ever been reported to the police.
Church elders had a strict policy of keeping all complaints of sexual abuse under wraps and would instead investigate the claims themselves, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse heard in Sydney on Monday during the first day of hearings into the Jehovah's Witnesses.
This latest round of hearings is part of the commission's broader national inquiry into child sex abuse that has captivated Australians since it started in 2013 after claims of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, around 60 people have contacted the commission with knowledge of sexual abuses happening among Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the only way to finally end child abuse is to, as they put it, 'embrace God's kingdom under Christ' and to 'love God with all your heart," Angus Stewart, an attorney for the commission, said during the hearing.
One woman, identified only as BCG, told the commission about how her father, a senior official in the church, began molesting her at age 17 and her three sisters, who were four and six years old. Even though elders knew about the abuse, it took six years and three trials before he was convicted with the crime.
"I used to pray to Jehovah to put angels around my bed to stop my father coming to me, but he didn't help me and my father didn't stop," she testified, adding he would also beat her with a belt when she tried to get out of attending church meetings.
BCG, now 43, said she spent much of her adolescence afraid of speaking out against her father and lived in constant fear of being shunned by the church, which taught that God would abandon anyone who disobeyed him.
She eventually reported the abuse to the elders, but she says was forced to confront her father directly during several meetings, as was church practice, yet he continued to threaten her and blamed her for "seducing him."And she was asked not to discuss the matter with anyone else. "I was being asked to respect the man who had done those things to me," she continued. "But nobody was offering me any respect or proper support."
Elders and other church members testified that the church could excommunicate (or "disfellowship") any members found to have committed sexual abuse, but they believed victims only if the abuser confessed or if there were two or more witnesses to the abuse.
Another witness, called BCB, told the commission she was sexually abused by an elder when she was 15 years old. She too was forced to confront her abuser in person and that only made the abuse worse.
She says church elders tried to dissuade her from testifying at the commission, fearing she would "drag Jehovah's name through the mud."
One church elder who dealt with BCB's case, Max Horley, told the inquiry that the elders told the victims they could go to the police. But he also admitted to destroying the notes he took about her allegations.
"We don't want our wives knowing our stuff, what sorts of things we were dealing with," Horley testified. "We don't want other people in the congregations coming across that information."
The inquiry also heard that 401 members were cast out following internal church investigations, but that more than half were eventually brought back into the fold.
There are around 70,000 active Jehovah's Witnesses in Australia — the group reports it has more than 8 million worldwide.
Jehovah's Witnesses are members of a movement based in Christianity that started in the US in the 19th century. Witnesses are infamous for going door-to-door to share their beliefs and attempt to convert strangers; they also refuse to celebrate most religious and secular holidays and object to things like military service and blood transfusions.
The royal commission has also probed sexual abuses happening among the Orthodox Jewish community in Australia, and is also mandated to investigate such abuses happening in secular organizations for children such as schools and sports clubs.
The hearing into the Jehovah's Witness community is expected to continue for two more weeks. The commission will weigh the possibility of pursuing criminal charges against elders who covered up abuses.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne