Edward Narayan didn’t know he’d had a child molester over for dinner until he became an elder of his Jehovah’s Witness congregation in 2020.
Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly
“He was a very nice guy, I’m sure a lot of them are,” Narayan says.
“Then, this other elder let it slip that he was a convicted paedophile.”
The man, who has since died but can’t be named, was convicted in 1990 for historical child sexual abuse.
But Narayan didn’t know anything about his dinner guest’s past until he was put in charge of his Chartwell congregation’s confidential files. And that’s when he realised there were others.
He discovered another active member of his congregation was a convicted paedophile and two other men had a history of serious child sexual abuse allegations made against them. The two alleged cases, including one that came to light as recently as 2012, were never reported to police while Narayan was in charge of the files.
Narayan admits he wasn’t too concerned about his discoveries at the time because he implicitly trusted the other elders knew what they were doing. And as a new elder, he was keen to follow the rules.
“In the elder’s handbook, Shepherd the Flock of God, [it says] you can’t say a word unless the legal department of the local branch office tells you that you can.”
An RNZ investigation has found 11 active Jehovah Witnesses have child sex abuse convictions or serious allegations made against them, apparently unbeknownst to most followers. A former elder has also claimed he was told to destroy evidence from the church’s internal disciplinary proceedings, which could have included cases relating to child sex abuse. The Jehovah’s Witnesses strongly deny any suggestion of criminal destruction of evidence.
The religion’s policies and practices have kept members in the dark about child sex offending within the church for years, and while it appears to be trying to address this, some current and former members of the church say it is not enough.
All 19 former or current Jehovah’s Witnesses spoken to for this story want to see the church change the way it deals with allegations of child sexual abuse and the perpetrators, saying the current policies fail to keep children safe.
‘Call the legal department’
The “legal department” elders are advised to call when things go wrong is based at the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ regional headquarters in Sydney, which is also known as a “branch office” or “Bethel”.
All New Zealand congregations report to the Sydney Bethel and the latest version of Shepherd the Flock of God, published in April this year, gives clear instructions for when the police, or Bethel, should become involved.
A theft or break-in at a Kingdom Hall?
“When property damage occurs, quick action can go far in preventing further damage. Break-ins, thefts, arson, or other incidents of vandalism should be promptly reported to the local authorities,” the handbook advises.
A disruptive individual?
“If the individual does not co-operate, the police should be called.”
Someone viewing child pornography?
“Two elders should immediately call the Legal Department.”
An adult sexting a minor?
“The Legal Department should be called immediately.”
Allegations of child sexual abuse?
“To ensure that elders comply with child-abuse reporting laws, two elders should immediately call the Legal Department for legal advice.”
The handbook also makes clear that elders should inform the victim, their parents, or anyone who reports an allegation, that “they have the right to report the matter to secular authorities” and should not be criticised for doing so.
In practice, current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses say allegations of child sexual abuse are nearly always encouraged to be left in “Jehovah’s hands”.
Distrust in secular authorities among believers is high – Witnesses are not encouraged to engage in what they call “worldly” activities or with authorities outside the church – who are often referred to as part of “Satan’s system”, says Narayan.
Narayan questions why the police must be called immediately for a break-in, but not in child abuse cases.
“They say parents have the right to report and where it is mandatory the elders will report it, but as we know from the Australian Royal Commission, they never did.”
In 2015, the Australian commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse found the Jehovah’s Witnesses had files on 1006 alleged sexual offenders since 1950, but did not report a single allegation to police even in states where it was mandatory.
“They don’t care about victims of child sexual abuse, they care about real estate,” Narayan says.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses Australasia did not respond to most of RNZ’s questions, but said child abuse is a crime and victims have a right to report an accusation to the authorities.
“Victims, their parents, or anyone else who reports such an accusation to the elders are clearly informed by the elders that they have the right to report the matter to the authorities. Elders do not criticise anyone who chooses to make such a report,” says church spokesman Tom Pecipajkovski.
A sex offender ‘in every congregation I attended’
Naomi* married a Jehovah’s Witness she later found out had been thrown out of the church for having sex with a minor before they had met.
But two elders in her congregation only told her about his past after she had left him.
“I literally went into the toilet and vomited. I had been sexually abused myself and I wanted to protect my children.”
Naomi, who was born into the religion, is currently a member of a congregation in the North Island. Her real name and the congregation she attends are not disclosed to protect her identity. She fears she could be “disfellowshipped” – excommunicated – and shunned for speaking out.
She says her ex-husband’s alleged offending was never reported to the police and she now worries the church’s records detailing the reasons for his disfellowshipping may no longer exist, after New Zealand congregations were issued with instructions in 2019 to destroy certain documents.
“It means very few people, including most elders in his congregation, know what he did,” she says.
“In fact, there’s been a paedophile or sex offender in every congregation I’ve ever attended. And most of the congregation are not aware of it.”
The two witness rule
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ secretive system for dealing with “wrongdoing” is designed to limit the spread of such information, says former elder Paul Quilter.
Quilter believes the church’s policies continue to protect sexual offenders and paedophiles.
According to the faith’s protocols, an allegation of serious wrongdoing – including child sexual abuse – can only be confirmed if the perpetrator confesses or if there are at least two witnesses. The two witness rule was strongly criticised by the Australian Royal Commission for its failure to hold perpetrators to account.
If there is no confession and there are no witnesses, the allegation is dismissed and any personal notes relating to the allegations are destroyed. If the sin is confirmed, three elders form a “judicial committee” to decide the punishment.
“Only those three elders will know the details of the wrongdoing,” says Quilter.
During this judicial committee elders will often take detailed notes, which might include victim names and places where offending took place.
Prior to October 2021, a summary of these notes was placed in a sealed envelope with an official form listing the offence and punishment. After this date, no summaries are included and only the disfellowshipping form is to be kept. All personal notes on confidential matters, including child sex abuse, are to be destroyed.
The elders taking part in a judicial committee are not allowed to tell anyone – not even other elders – what was discussed, says Quilter.
“The other elders will only know in general terms that somebody has been disfellowshipped and is no longer a JW [Jehovah’s Witness], or whether a person has been given some restrictions as to what they can do in the congregation – which they call ‘reproof’.
“So all the elders might know that ‘Joe’ has been put on reproof, but they won’t know what for.
“There might be another three elders who know something about somebody else. So what it ends up as, is a whole load of little groups of people know things about what’s going on, but no one really knows the full picture.”
‘Call the Service Department’
The elder’s handbook is also very clear what should happen at a judicial committee meeting if someone is guilty of child sexual abuse.
If the “wrongdoer” is not repentant they should be thrown out of the church. If they are repentant, the “reproof” or punishment will be announced to the congregation at its next meeting.
This announcement serves as “a protection for the congregation”, the book says.
If a person is disfellowshipped but later wants to be reinstated into the church, the elders must “immediately call the Service Department” for advice. The congregation should only be told about the abuser’s history “if directed to do so by the Service Department”.
The service department, also at the Sydney Bethel, provides policy advice to congregations.
Internal church documents show some child abusers have severe restrictions imposed on them when they rejoin a congregation. This includes not having “privileges” such as handling microphones or the sound system in meetings, only going door-knocking under supervision of an elder, and not being allowed to have Bible meetings at their home.
Offenders can regain these privileges, however.
“If the body of elders believes that one who has engaged in child sexual abuse decades ago may now qualify for minor privileges, such as carrying or adjusting microphones, operating sound and video equipment, serving as an attendant, or assisting with accounts, literature, or territories, they should assign two elders to call the Service Department.”
When someone accused of child abuse leaves the church, or moves to a new congregation, elders are again told to call the legal department straight away. A letter of introduction citing the person’s history and any restrictions imposed on them will be sent to the elders of their new congregation.
Possibly ‘hundreds of cases’
As all New Zealand congregations report to the Australian Bethel, and it receives a copy of all judicial committee forms, abuse survivors in this country believe the Sydney branch office will know exactly how many allegations of child abuse there are in New Zealand.
“There could be hundreds of cases,” says former elder turned activist Shayne Mechen. As a member of the New Zealand survivor network he’s spoken to dozens of survivors who were abused within the Jehovah’s Witness church.
Quilter, another former elder, agrees. “There is very little difference between how things operate in Australia and how they are here, they’re pretty much identical. I have every reason to think there would be at least 200 [cases] in New Zealand.”
But survivors fear they may never see the church brought to account in this country after the New Zealand Royal Commission into Abuse in Care decided not to include the Jehovah’s Witnesses in its faith-based hearing last year, or make the church a standalone case study, as it was in Australia.
Commission investigators have still interviewed several former Jehovah’s Witness abuse survivors as part of its wider inquiry. But in June, the church filed legal action at the High Court in Wellington arguing it should be exempt from the inquiry. It is seeking a judicial review and a declaration that it does not assume responsibility for the care of children, young people or vulnerable people.
Mechen, who grew up in the religion but left 15 years ago, describes the church’s argument as “rubbish”. While the church does not have bricks and mortar institutions caring for children, elders and congregants do have children or young people in their care at times, he says.
“When we could go out door-knocking, there were many times that I would have children with me. If a mum or dad has two or three kiddies you would offer to take them and look after them to allow the mum or dad to carry on.”
Children or young people preparing for baptism also spent time alone with an elder. “It’s an opportunity for the elder to sit down with the child and talk over the baptismal questions.
“When I did it [as an elder], I never once had a parent anywhere close when I was going through those questions, which could take about an hour.
“The reason they allowed that to happen was that they could trust the elders. Elders are also encouraged to mentor fatherless boys in the congregation, opening up the possibility for abuse.”
The uncertainty over the legal action has left many survivors feeling “disillusioned and retraumatised” and they also feel let down by the commission, says Mechen.
Former Witness Mikail Steens, from Rotorua, says the failure to include Jehovah’s Witnesses as a case study was a “missed opportunity”.
“Formal investigation would provide recognition of the experiences of those [who] have been victims of child sexual abuse, provide closure and could give rise to systemic change, which is really needed in the organisation.”
Steens, who left the religion last year, says he only became aware of the extent of how the church hid child sexual abuse allegations after the Australian Royal Commission’s inquiries.
“So that is a good reason for a similar inquiry to be held here.”
He has friends and family who have suffered child sexual abuse and as a lawyer has also represented many victims.
“I’ve seen the effect it’s had on their lives, how it’s been a significant setback for them in terms of their emotional and social development, but also their aspirations and career pursuits, not to be able to have their stories heard, to have answers to their questions.
“I’ve known those who have been abused in the church and gone on to do abusing themselves, which concerns me also.”
The Royal Commission says the faith-based hearing was just one of the many ways the inquiry has gathered information for its final report, due in March next year.
“We have heard from survivors from hundreds of different faith-based institutions. We weren’t able to call all those entities to attend the hearing. We chose to focus on faith-based education and specific schools, as a representative sample of systems that operate under the various faith-based institutions,” a spokesperson says.
Steens says the Jehovah’s Witness religion views itself as set apart from all other forms of Christianity and secular society because of its high moral values. “It’s an organisation built on love as one of its hallmark principles. For me, there has been a great sense of hypocrisy in that, and there needs to be some accountability.”
He wants to see the church change its two witness rule, a requirement for elders to report allegations to legal authorities and more support for victims – all issues he hopes the commission’s final report will address.
“I want to see more public knowledge and awareness so that people can ask Jehovah’s Witnesses when they reach them at the door about the two witness rule and about how it deals with child sexual abuse.
“The Catholic Church has acknowledged it’s had problems for years but I’ve yet to see the Jehovah’s Witness organisation acknowledge it’s an issue, a systemic issue, and that they’re doing something about it.”
The ‘scriptural investigation’
The Jehovah’s Witnesses Australasia declined to be interviewed and did not respond to specific questions about its child protection policies, but said the religion views child abuse as a “serious sin”.
“Therefore, if an alleged abuser is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the elders conduct a scriptural investigation. This is a purely religious proceeding handled by elders according to scriptural instructions and is limited to the issue of the alleged abuser’s standing as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“A congregant who is an unrepentant perpetrator of domestic abuse or child abuse is expelled from the congregation and is no longer considered one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The elders’ handling of an accusation of domestic abuse or child abuse as a serious sin is not a replacement for the authorities’ handling of the matter as a crime,” says Pecipajkovski.
Elders will immediately consult with the branch office “to ensure compliance with child abuse reporting laws” when elders learn of a child abuse accusation, he says.
“Even if the elders have no legal obligation to report an accusation to the authorities, the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses will instruct the elders to report the matter if the victim or another minor is still in danger of abuse or there is some other valid reason. Elders also ensure that the victim’s parents are informed of an accusation of child abuse. If the alleged abuser is one of the victim’s parents, the elders will inform the other parent.”
Narayan believes little will change within the Jehovah’s Witnesses until the church radically changes the way it deals with child sexual abuse allegations and the government introduces mandatory reporting for faith-based institutions.
“Unless you have an elder who is bucking against the rules, they will never tell families there are paedophiles, whether alleged or convicted, in that congregation unless the branch office tells them to.
“The elders are basically ‘yes men’. Anything that came from the branch, anything in the elders manual we followed religiously.
“So as long as the current policies exist, children are not safe at all.”