Spinoff revelations about sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses underline the need for a community-wide response to child sexual abuse, writes the children’s commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft
New Zealanders as a whole have only recently come to understand the full extent and cost of child sex abuse. There are many reasons for this. One is that too many who have held the reins of power in our various communities have insistently resisted the cries, claims and complaints of those who have suffered.
There have been reasons for this too. Some are anchored in a sheer inability to accept the reality of something so shocking. Some are grounded in maintaining hierarchy. Some remain ignorant of the harm caused. And some, sadly, are rooted in self-interest. All these reasons need to be exposed and rejected.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that two adult witnesses are required for a complaint of abuse to be upheld in an internal inquiry. This process is anchored in an archaic interpretation of a 3,000-year-old scripture reflecting a culture which knew little of the insidious dynamics of child abuse. It was rooted in the need for “due process” in the context of its time. It is a process for child victims that needs not so much to be reformed as to be overthrown.
The irony and naivety of the two witness rule is that it demonstrates neither understanding of child sexual abuse nor the manipulative and cunning behaviour of abusers, as there are almost invariably never any witnesses.
The beginning of any approach to reducing child abuse is a community-wide commitment to listen compassionately to the voices of those who complain, to report those complaints, and to act on those reports.
Mandatory reporting for all abuse has been proposed. It’s an old chestnut. When I became children’s commissioner it seemed to me a “no-brainer”. But all the experts I have spoken to argue against it. Mandatory reporting, they advise me, would widen the net so far it could stretch the reporting system beyond breaking point. It may even inhibit children, even when they become adults, from seeking help because they fear their situation will have to be immediately reported to the Police, something they may not be yet ready to do.
This latter factor weighs most heavily. The last thing we want to do is stop children getting specialist help; especially because receiving such help is often the first step towards reporting.
But while mandatory reporting might be saddled with too much baggage, we must be clear that not going down this road cannot be an excuse for anything other than zero tolerance of child abuse.
We need to cultivate a climate in New Zealand in which reporting abuse is a natural response to awareness of abuse. We need a climate of trust that the authorities, including well trained police experts, will deal sensitively and responsibly with complainants throughout the process until the outcome of any complaint.
We must also be firm in our condemnation of any family or organisation that closes ranks on an investigation. Our driving force must always be the wellbeing and the best interests of children. They have to come first. We can never compromise that.
Doubtless the Jehovah’s Witnesses think they are doing the right thing. But, with respect, in my view they are wrong. As an institution they are not alone in insisting they can manage these issues internally. Can I ask that they reconsider?
It is inconceivable for any New Zealand community group to have its own private investigation system. Knowing what we know now about the effects of abuse and its incidence, to say nothing of conflicts of interest, it’s indefensible for any organisation to even begin to justify a “do it yourself” approach.
But times are changing for the good. Along with others, the Roman Catholic Church has come to recognise that the best disinfectant is sunlight. It is no accident, and a sign of hope for the future, that New Zealand’s mainline churches have sought to be included within the scope of the Royal Commission into Abuse of Children in State Care. They recognise that stamping out child abuse is a commitment the community must share together.
To their credit many churches are now clear that they cannot be both friend and investigator, an enormous conflict of roles. It is time now for other, often smaller, more closed communities, to come to the same realisation.
It is not enough to advise those alleging sexual abuse that they are free to go to the Police. It is our duty, as community, to go with them, to invite the investigation, to play our part in purging our community of this insidious plague.
Most NGOs, churches and other community organisations quite properly require that their staff and volunteers are police checked. And in the event of a complaint, all organisations dealing with children should have clear processes that are child centred, listen compassionately and supportively to the child and require external reporting.
My public plea to the Jehovah’s Witnesses is to act promptly and responsibly to implement a clear set of protocols for reporting allegations of sexual abuse to the authorities, inviting independent and external investigation.
Instead of insisting on their two witness rule, perhaps the Jehovah’s Witnesses may find a way forward using a different biblical text, Matthew 18:6. It is a passage which emphasises Jesus’s (then) revolutionary approach to prioritising children, and which some commentators believe may actually refer to child abuse. While this passage too, reflects the context of its time, we now know that most child sexual abusers will benefit from expert help. Nor would we countenance the use of capital punishment – recognising the dramatic hyperbole of Jesus’s words. But the passage does underscore the significance of this issue:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones… to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.