Best known for their door-to-door evangelising, Jehovah’s Witnesses are on a quest to save the ‘wicked’ from damnation. For victims of sexual abuse within the organisation, however, that quest has seen perpetrators shielded from justice. Amy Parsons-King has met several survivors as part of an investigation for The Spinoff. These are their stories.
This feature was made possible thanks to reader contributions via the Spinoff Longform Fund. Click below to support our investigative journalism. The video documentary is part of the Frame series presented by The Spinoff and Wrestler, directed by Amy Parsons-King and Rebekah Parsons-King, and made possible thanks to funding from New Zealand on Air.
The stories below include accounts of sexual abuse.
Everything changed for Naomi Burnett in 1982. Born and raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in Christchurch, Naomi’s earliest memories are of a happy childhood, a loving, caring upbringing. And then, when she was 10, her uncle and aunt moved in.
“They’d been living in another country and were looking at relocating back to New Zealand, and we offered them the flat at the back of our house. That’s when things changed.”
At first Naomi enjoyed having her extended family so close by. They had a baby daughter, whom she adored. Alan Parkes, Naomi’s uncle by marriage, lavished attention on her. “I really relished it because I looked after my brothers a lot and was more the ‘carer’ than being cared for growing up,” Naomi says.
“I didn’t understand the attention I was getting from him was more sexual than I could understand.”
The sexual abuse began almost immediately, and continued across the years Parkes and his family lived in the flat. Even after he and his wife found their own home, still it continued.
“He would get me over to babysit, but he’d still be there. He used to lure me into his photo studio where he’d take photos of me and do things to me,” Naomi explains, fidgeting with a bracelet weaved between her fingers. To this day she says she can’t bear to get her photo taken; it triggers too many ugly memories.
“When we’d go away on conventions, the families would combine a holiday house and that was another opportunity for him to abuse me.”
When Naomi was 15, her father, a senior member, or “elder”, of their New Brighton Jehovah’s Witness congregation, became aware of the abuse. He was furious and asked fellow elders to investigate.
Under Jehovah’s Witnesses protocol, when a member of the organisation is alleged to have committed a serious “wrongdoing”, elders are instructed to confront the accused. When presented with the allegations, Parkes admitted to sexually abusing her, Naomi says. Parkes confirmed the abuse took place when The Spinoff spoke to him earlier this year. At the time, Parkes’ confession meant a judicial committee was formed to determine his level of repentance, and what disciplinary action should be taken.
The hearing was held at Parkes’ congregation. Naomi attended with two male elders, as did Parkes. “I basically had to say everything that happened in front of four men and my abuser,” she says.
Despite Parkes’ confession, the blame was shifted onto her, Naomi says. “He made comments that I seemed older than what I was, and that I enjoyed the attention he gave me. I did enjoy it in the beginning. He’d brush my hair and talk to me, but I took nothing from that. There’s nothing I put out there as a 10-year-old girl to sexually entice him. He pretty much made me feel like I asked for it.”
Naomi describes the experience as “petrifying”. She felt like a “little mouse” placed before the male elders and the man she accused of molesting her, she says. The elders insisted she recount details of the abuse alone and without any support person present, not even her mother.
Elders ruled that Parkes’ punishment for sexually abusing Naomi across several years was to be “disfellowshipment”, a sanction which sees a wrongdoer excommunicated, with members directed to cease all links. Protocol requires that elders advise the congregation that the disfellowshipped person is no longer a Jehovah’s Witness. In Parkes’ case, as in others investigated by The Spinoff, church members say they were not made aware of the nature of the offending that led to the disfellowshipment.
The judicial committee’s proposed compensation for Naomi’s trauma, to “help get her through”, was extra Bible studies.
Parkes’s alleged offending against Naomi was never reported to the Police.
Naomi’s experience is not unique. It fits a pattern of experiences recounted in recent years by people who allege they were sexually abused as children within the Jehovah’s Witness organisation. In her case, and in others, the process by which such allegations were dealt with emphasised internal investigation, judgment and punishment, without recourse to criminal prosecution.
Jehovah’s Witness boasts 8.3 million members worldwide. According to the most recent census figures, there are approximately 18,000 adherents in New Zealand. Direction on policy and practices filters down from an eight-man governing body based in Warwick, New York. Under the “two witness rule”, victims were for decades told by church elders that allegations of sexual abuse could not be internally investigated unless substantiated by two or more witnesses. Often they felt re-victimised – being summoned, like Naomi, to recount graphic details of the abuse to an audience of male elders, as well as their perpetrators.
Across eight months, an investigation by The Spinoff has sought to find out whether procedures identified in other parts of the world, in which victims of child abuse have spoken out as part of the “Silentlambs” movement, are mirrored within the Jehovah’s Witnesses in New Zealand. Interviews with former members, including 10 people who described their experiences of childhood sexual abuse, point to a culture of discouraging victims from going to secular authorities and an aversion to involving Police, in an echo of the findings across the Tasman by the recent Australian Royal Commission Inquiry into Institutional Responses in Sexual Abuse.
After four years of investigating schools, Police, community and government organisations, churches and sports clubs across Australia, the Commission identified over 1000 cases of unreported sexual abuse against members of Jehovah’s Witnesses since 1950. In its report the Commission concluded that the policies, practices and procedures of handling sexual abuse claims are dangerously ineffective. This is of more than passing relevance to the situation here, as the New Zealand branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses has been formally under Australian jurisdiction, in the form of The Watchtower and Tract Society of Australia, since its Auckland headquarters closed in 2012.
According to one former Jehovah’s Witness elder the child protection policies within the organisation are so lacking that some estranged members describe it as “a paedophile’s paradise”. Paul Quilter, who spent 47 years as a member of the organisation, including 10 years as an elder in a Hamilton congregation, told The Spinoff that when he first saw that description used on an ex-Jehovah’s Witness forum he thought it was outrageous. “But then when you actually read the reports of victims and you see how they were told to only trust fellow Witnesses because, everybody outside the organisation was worldly and ‘bad’ and therefore not to be trusted, you realise this type of mentality makes reporting child abuse to authorities almost impossible.”
The organisation demands strict and literal adherence to its Bible, The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Any perceived wrongdoing of Jehovah’s Witnesses including “fornication, adultery, homosexuality, blasphemy, apostasy, and similar gross sins” are investigated through what is called a “judicial committee”. For such a proxy court to even be established, a 2000-year-old biblical principle is applied to substantiate the wrongdoing. This “two witness rule” derives from scriptures such as Deuteronomy 19:15, which states: “No single witness may convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit. On the testimony of two witnesses or on the testimony of three witnesses the matter should be established.”
The process, recalls Quilter, went like this: “If an allegation of child sexual abuse is made to the body of elders, two elders would be selected from the body to investigate the matter. They would go and talk to the victim and ask them details about who was involved, and did anyone else see it? At that point if there are no witnesses to the abuse – as there most likely isn’t in a case of sexual abuse – they go to the perpetrator and they ask him, ‘did this happen?’ If he denies it they don’t have two witnesses, as the abuser is considered one witness, and the victim the second. Without two witnesses the elders would say there’s nothing we can do about it.”
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For Debbie Oakley, the words “Bible studies” carry an unimaginable weight. Under the guise of that activity, Owen Tutty sexually abused Debbie and her older sister.
“My stepfather would take us into the bedroom and we’d have Bible study lying on his bed,” Debbie recalls.
“I remember Mum would walk past, but then the door started being closed. Study was always done from The Great Teacher Book, which is a little pink book. He would have that on a pillow on his lap and be doing things to my sister and me.”
It began shortly after he married her mother in March 1972. “I was four years and three months old,” says Debbie, pointing to a faded photograph of herself and her sister, sitting side-by-side. The sisters sport cropped curls, one blonde, one brunette, with white dresses and mary-jane shoes. “That’s when I started wetting the bed,” she says. “I did that for the next 12 years.”
When Debbie was 12, her mother walked into the room just after Tutty had assaulted her.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. He went to the bathroom and I was just lying there with no pants on. Mum asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ and told me to get my pants on and go to my room, so I did. My sister was in the bedroom that we shared and I remember us saying, ‘She’s going to leave him, she’s going to leave him,’ but there was no arguing, no yelling, there was nothing. Just silence.”
It was daylight when Debbie was sent her to her room and darkness had fallen when her mother crept in, whispering to her daughter, “if you can forgive him, so can I.”
“That’s all she said. We didn’t understand. It was never talked about again, we got up the next day as if nothing had happened.”
Debbie believes her mother and Tutty went to the elders for direction about how to deal with the situation.
“They would have been thinking, ‘You always go to elders if you’ve got a problem,’ and this was of a serious nature. I’m assuming they went straight to elders that night because we didn’t hear them yell, or her hitting or trying to kill him as most mothers would, finding their husband sexually abusing their daughter. The elders would have guided her to forgive him and not bring reproach to Jehovah’s name. They would have said, ‘this is how we’re going to handle it, no one needs to know and we’ll punish him our way’.”
Soon after the sexual abuse was discovered, an announcement was made at a Jehovah’s Witness meeting that Tutty was no longer in the senior role of ministerial servant in the congregation.
“No one was told why he’d been stood down, but I assumed it was because of what he’d done to me, and that this was his punishment – a wee slap on the hand and he’s no longer got privileges.”
Debbie had hoped that her mother would be vigilant in protecting her from her stepfather from then on. Instead, the abuse continued for another 18 months.
“At one point Owen said, while he was abusing me, ‘I know what I’m doing is wrong, but I can’t help myself.’ What could I do at that point? I can’t tell my mum, nothing happens. I can’t tell the elders, nothing happens.”
Elders were again made aware of Tutty’s sexual offending when Debbie was 16 and she and her sister decided to become baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses. As part of their preparation for baptism they were advised to “clear their consciences” to elders. It was then they disclosed the abuse.
Shortly after their disclosure Tutty was involved in a serious accident, hospitalising him for several months with severe burns. Debbie and her sister heard nothing more in regard to what they’d told the elders, but assumed no action was being taken after learning of a public appeal for congregation members to visit Owen in hospital.
While Tutty was recovering the girls’ mother contacted them and asked, “Do you hate me that much that you wouldn’t come and visit your stepfather?” The girls agreed to go to the hospital, where they found Tutty remorseful and apologetic. “This is Jehovah’s way of punishing me”, Debbie recalls him saying. “I’m sorry for what I did to you girls.”
After he was discharged from hospital, Tutty returned to his congregation. “There were absolutely no consequences for what he’d done to us,” Debbie says.
It wasn’t until Debbie was 28 that she decided to try and prosecute Tutty, motivated by concern he could be sexually abusing her youngest sister, one of Tutty’s biological daughters.
“For years and years I’d wake up and find myself screaming out the window. Every night I’d end up with bloody hands and nails, and a broken bed. I told my husband I couldn’t live like this any more and went to the Police.”
Two years later, the case went to trial, and on February 10 1998 Tutty was convicted on seven counts of sexual offending against his stepdaughter and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. He was also disfellowshipped as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Tutty sought to appeal the conviction, but it was rejected by the sentencing judge who observed that “Mr Tutty had held the girl in his ‘thrall’ for a period of between five and seven years until she was 12 years of age. He had used her as his “sexual plaything”.
The judge added: “A detailed psychologist’s report discloses how far-reaching the effects of the abuse has been. It has affected every aspect of the victim’s physical, emotional, mental and spiritual being; her whole ‘sense of self-hood’. It has left its mark in numerous ways on her sexuality, her ability to trust and maintain relationships, and ‘her sense of who she is’.”
It was not until her counsel’s final argument that Debbie became aware Tutty had a history of sexual offending. In 1968 it transpired that he had been sentenced to a fine and probation for offending of a “similar nature”. In court documents viewed by The Spinoff the trial judge notes that “there were complaints to the church authorities, but in the long run nothing appropriate was done.”
After Tutty was imprisoned, Debbie’s mother left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. To Debbie’s dismay her mother told her she’d learned that elders knew of Tutty’s prior offending against young girls before they married. Debbie, now in her early fifties, remains appalled that this was not disclosed to her mother, in the interests of protecting her children.
An individual who has been disfellowshipped is not cast out forever. The elders’ instruction manual Shepherd the Flock of God states: “The committee should be careful to allow sufficient time, perhaps many months, a year, or even longer, for the disfellowshipped person to prove that his profession of repentance is genuine.”
One who found his way back, The Spinoff has established, is Owen Tutty. A twice-convicted paedophile, he has yet again been reinstated as a Jehovah’s Witness and is currently an active member of a South Island congregation.
Jasmine Grew is a striking presence, with a blunt blonde bob, cool aquatic-blue eyes and tattoos stretching across her arms. Now a hairdresser living in Nelson with three children, she was two years old when the Jehovah’s Witnesses preyed on her solo mother, she says. Jasmine describes her upbringing as “happy but dysfunctional”. Upon becoming part of the organisation they instantly gained a large extended family. They would socialise together; sharing pot-luck dinners and games nights. It also meant she came into contact with a man we’ll call Michael (his name has been changed) who sexually abused her from the age of five to eight.
Jasmine’s mother, Sally, became good friends with another single mother and Jehovah’s Witness who lived in Westport, and their family would often visit in the school holidays. The two single mums engaged Michael to look after their four children, and it was while babysitting that Michael molested Jasmine and her friend Tania (not her real name).
So terrified were the two girls, Jasmine recalls, that they would barricade the door to Tania’s bedroom so he couldn’t get in.
“I remember we wrote a sign out and it said specifically, ‘No one allowed, especially Michael’. And we put that on the door. I also remember him trying to get in the door and us just pushing it back. We did not want him in there at all… It felt violent.”
On one occasion Michael came into Tania’s room while both girls were there, Jasmine says. With Tania distracted, he put Jasmine on his knee to read her a book, then sexually assaulted her. When he left, Tania asked her what had happened.
“She asked, ‘Did he touch you? What did he do to you?’ She said, ‘He’s touched me too, so you can tell me.’ But I didn’t. I just said no.”
Jasmine didn’t disclose the abuse until she was 12, when she confided in a friend at a sleepover. The girl immediately informed her dad, who in turn told Jasmine’s mother.
Sally went to elders, and the next thing Jasmine knew she was being pulled aside after a congregation meeting and interrogated by four male church elders. “It was just me and these four elders, and I was absolutely petrified. They asked me questions like: Was it hard? What was he saying to me? Did I enjoy it?” Jasmine recalls.
“I remember a lot of my abuse involved him grabbing my hand and doing things, and they were very, very interested in that – if I enjoyed it was the main thing. They were really uneasy questions that I don’t think any 12-year-old girl needed to be asked. It was extremely inappropriate.”
At no time was it suggested Police become involved. Her mother hadn’t approached them directly, knowing that notifying secular authorities was contrary to protocol within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jasmine says. “If there’s conflict with your family you go straight to the elders and they’ll help you deal with it.”
Unlike Naomi, Jasmine wasn’t even offered Bible studies. It was never spoken of again, she says. She is not aware of Michael facing any repercussions.
Jasmine didn’t disclose the abuse again until she was 14. One day at school she was sent to the dean’s office for wearing ripped jeans.
“I had a breakdown at school and everything just came out,” she says. “I was an absolute mess.”
The dean referred Jasmine to Rape Crisis where she spent a year in therapy before deciding she wanted to prosecute Michael, and went to the Police.
Jasmine has twice attempted to have Michael prosecuted, once on her own, and later with another of his alleged victims in 2011. Both times, however, she was advised that it was a historical case, and there was insufficient evidence to proceed, she says. At the time of the second Police investigation Michael was a high-ranked public employee. Three days after the investigation began Michael – who has not responded to requests for comment – resigned his position. He now lives in Australia.
The Australian Royal Commission Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard that since 1998, under Watchtower rules victims of sexual abuse are no longer required to face their abuser. Documents show that in 2002 elders were advised by the governing body to let a victim know they could go to authorities if asked, then in a letter to elders in September 2017 they changed their policy to state that victims should be explicitly told they have a “absolute right” to go to Police, and no sanctions would be placed on them if they do.
The letter also advises elders who are made aware of sexual abuse claims to immediately call their branch office for legal advice. Former elder Paul Quilter is unconvinced, seeing it designed to determine whether they are legally obligated to report child abuse in their country or state. “They want to protect their butts to stop themselves getting sued, because they know that their policies have got holes right through them,” he says.
The experiences shared with The Spinoff are consistent with the evidence presented to the Australian Royal Commission, which found that Watchtower Australia had on file reports or complaints of sexual abuse against 1006 members, none of which had been reported to authorities, even in states where mandatory reporting laws applied. Of these cases, 579 perpetrators actually confessed to their offending, while 125 reports did not even reach the prerequisite for a judicial committee, because they didn’t have the two or more witnesses.
The Royal Commission itemised 77 adverse findings. They concluded that the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not meet all the standards of best practice when it comes to sexual abuse claims, that their current documented process for responding to allegations is focused largely on the rights and comfort of the accused, with little regard to the needs of a victim, and that the organisation presented members with “conflicting and ambiguous teachings regarding their relationship with secular authorities, thereby fostering a distrust of such authorities.” The overarching finding was that children are not adequately protected from the risk of sexual abuse and that the organisation is not responding adequately to allegations of this nature.
As a result of the inquiry one former Jehovah’s Witness in Western Australia has been charged with sexually abusing four boys across two decades, while another current member, also in Western Australia has been charged with historical sexual abuse against an 11-year-old girl.
First Ministers from the Australian state and territory governments will respond to the 409 recommendations made by the Royal Commission Inquiry this month. The Victorian Government has already acted on several of the recommendations, including abolishing the ‘Ellis defence’ which protects church assets from abuse victim claims.
The commission heard that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had referred 15 of 17 child abuse allegations raised since the inquiry to Police, noting that two of the adult survivors did not want to report. Watchtower Australia has since implemented a child safeguarding policy. They refuse, however, to consider any change to the two-witness-rule, stating in their submission to the Royal Commission: “Jehovah’s Witnesses consider that the requirement for two witnesses is not a matter for debate as it is based on Scriptural requirements found in the Mosaic Law and reiterated by Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul.”
While New Zealand has requirements for the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse, they extend only to government organisations and the majority of non-profit organisations.
The law also applies to staff members of hospitals, institutions or residences where a child is living. Anyone who is over 18 and aware of child abuse occurring in a household they live in, or are a member of, must take reasonable steps to protect that child from death, serious harm or sexual assault. This loophole in legislation means anyone made aware of a child being sexually abused, including Jehovah’s Witness elders are not obligated by law to report it-that is, unless they’re actually living with the victim.
Section 15 of the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 enables the reporting of child abuse, but it is not mandatory.
The New Zealand children’s commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, told The Spinoff Jehovah’s Witness practice of dealing internally with sex abuse allegations was deeply concerning.
“I would encourage anyone with a concern about child abuse to contact appropriate authorities. It is irresponsible for any New Zealand community group to have its own private investigation system,” he said.
“Allegations of child abuse cannot be left to an amateur internal investigation… It’s inconceivable and indefensible that in modern society, knowing what we know about the effects of sexual abuse and its incidence that any organisation can even begin to justify a ‘do it yourself’ approach.”
The two-witness rule, he said, demonstrates “irony and naivety” about the nature of such abuse, particularly as concerns the “manipulative and cunning behaviour” of perpetrators.
Becroft issued a “public plea to the Jehovah’s Witnesses”, urging the organisation to “act promptly and responsibly to implement a clear set of protocols for reporting allegations of sexual abuse to the authorities, and including independent and external investigations. If not, it is a terrible disservice for the children in their organisation.”
New Zealand also lags behind other countries in terms of criteria for checks on those working with children. According to the Vulnerable Children’s Act 2014 all children’s workers at organisations which receive central or local government funding must be scrutinised. However members of “religious” groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses are not required to undertake child safety checks, even if they hold senior congregational roles.
Asked for their views on the Jehovah’s Witness “in-house” investigation processes the NZ Police provided a generic statement.
“Police takes sexual abuse complaints very seriously and would encourage anyone who has been a victim of, or is aware of sexual abuse-regardless of what organisation they may be a part of, to report it directly to the Police,” said Inspector Dave Kirby, manager adult sexual assault and child protection.
“Police are the professionals for investigating this type of serious criminal offending and has trained investigators who will investigate allegations from any sector of society.”
The Spinoff approached the Watchtower and Tract Society of New Zealand (Now Australia) for an interview regarding the allegations of the victims we interviewed and the wider issues. That request was refused. “Out of consideration for the privacy of the individuals concerned, we are not able to accommodate your request,” they said. The Spinoff also emailed direct questions several weeks ago. Again, there was no response.
The organisation did, however, offer one comment. “Any victim of abuse or their family are perfectly entitled to go to the authorities to report any matter,” said a representative over the phone.
“Jehovah’s Witness will report the matter to the Police where that is mandated. That’s to handle the crime. The crime of child abuse is handled by the authorities, not Jehovah’s Witness. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t handle crime, they handle sin. Their guidelines for handling sin are scriptural. It’s a Christian concept, it’s not a legal concept.”
In an online document explaining the “scripturally” based position of the church on child abuse, posted in May, it is stated that “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and view it as a crime. (Romans 12:9). We recognise that the authorities are responsible for addressing such crimes. (Romans 13:1-4) The elders do not shield any perpetrator of child abuse from the authorities.”
In 2009, Naomi again came face-to-face with her abuser. He was in the Christchurch District Court, on trial for historical sexual abuse against another girl, over the years 1975 to 1980, when she was aged seven to 12. Naomi’s father had informed her that her uncle was facing trial and she was there for the sentencing. Alan Parkes was found guilty on four counts of indecent assault, three of which were at the upper end of the offending scale. He was sentenced to nine months’ home detention and ordered to pay $5,000 to a charity of the victim’s choice. He was separately disfellowshipped as a member by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Almost a decade on from that conviction, Naomi’s uncle is back in the protective fold of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Spinoff spoke to him in April this year, when he confirmed he is an active member of a South Island congregation, although he said he does not hold a position of responsibility, owing to his history of sexual offending.
Naomi says she is appalled to hear Parkes, much like Debbie’s abuser Owen Tutty, has been reinstated within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “There are plenty of children in the congregations, there always are,” she says.
“He could be sitting next to one right now.”
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