FRANCE: Administrative court finds MIVILUDES’ statements about Jehovah’s Witnesses defamatory 

The Paris Administrative Court has concluded that it is “factually incorrect” to claim that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not report cases of child sexual abuse to secular authorities or that they discourage children from pursuing education.

Version en français

by Massimo Introvigne

Bitter Winter (19.06.2024)- MIVILUDES, the controversial French governmental Mission for Monitoring and Combating Cultic Deviances (“dérives sectaires”: note that the French “secte” and its derivative words should be translated into English as “cult” and not as “sect”), lost a case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses on June 14 at the 6th Section of Paris Administrative Court. The Jehovah’s Witnesses attacked two short statements and two longer ones included in the MIVILUDES’s report 2018–20 and in the February 24, 2021, report “Lutte contre les dérives sectaires” (Fight Against Cultic Deviances). The court found the two longer statements defamatory and the two shorter ones non-defamatory. In case MIVILUDES would try to imitate the private anti-cult federation FECRIS and claim it succeeded in a case it actually lost, the golden rule to ascertain who won a case of defamation is in which direction the court ordered money to change hands. In the Paris case, the French government was asked to pay money to the Jehovah’s Witnesses rather than vice versa.

The MIVILUDES published four statements the Jehovah’s Witnesses found objectionable. The shorter statements concerned blood transfusions and the so-called ostracism, themes often found in anti-cult literature attacking the Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to the first, “The difficulties encountered in the testimonies stem from the principled refusal of blood transfusion…” The second stated that, “Other difficulties have also been reported, relating to the ‘brutal’ isolation of followers (…) and the genuine ostracism implemented for those who decide to leave the Jehovah’s Witness community.” Here, the MIVILUDES was saved by quotation marks. The court concluded that the MIVILUDES, “in particular by using the quotation marks,” was not expressing its own position and the statements were “limited to reporting the content of the testimonies received,” in a “succinct” way and without especially elaborating on them.

On the contrary, the MIVILUDES 2018-20 report did elaborate on the subjects of child sexual abuse and education of children. On the first, the MIVILUDES had written that, “With regard to the recourse to the council of elders in the event of a dispute within the community, the difficulty lies in the recommendation made to members not to take their cases to the [secular] courts, even in the event of serious offence-related problems. This recommendation, and the internal handling of a complaint, contravene the laws of the Republic and can lead to certain vulnerable victims, children in particular, being deprived of adequate treatment of their grievances, and to the repetition of similar incidents.” On education, the MIVILUDES wrote that, “Concerning the education of children (…) the teaching received is discredited (…) and they are discouraged from pursuing long studies.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses attitude was presented as “contravening the laws of the Republic and liable to have negative consequences on the children’s education.”

The Court noted that, in general, “the MIVILUDES must respect the obligations of balance, impartiality, and neutrality incumbent on any administrative authority, and in particular must refrain from publishing erroneous, misleading or defamatory information in its annual report.” The Court held that MIVILIUDES had failed that duty and the two statements were in fact erroneous, misleading, and defamatory.

The decision notes that to argue that the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not report cases of children sexual abuse to secular authorities, the MIVILUDES relied on “ three testimonies to this effect, and argues that they are corroborated, on the one hand, by the work carried out by an enquiry commission of the Australian Senate [in fact, the Australian Royal Commission Committee] in a report published in 2017, by two decisions handed down by a court and a court of appeal in the State of California in 2012 and 2015, as well as by a press article reporting on a case and, secondly, by the contents of the 2020 edition of the book ‘Shepherd the Flock of God’ presented as a pastoral guide for the  elders. However, the work carried out under the aegis of the Australian Senate [i.e., by the Australian Royal Commission], which is limited to the territory of that state, and the jurisdictional decisions handed down by American courts several years before the period covered by the disputed report, do not constitute elements enabling the cultic risk in France to be evaluated. In addition, the Jehovah’s Witnesses produced a series of testimonials from members, certifying on their honour that they have forwarded [abuse] reports to the French authorities, and, secondly, a communiqué from the movement dated January 18, 2008, addressed to the members and sent to the Minister of Justice, who acknowledged receipt on the following February 11, in which, firstly, the reporting obligation specific to French law was reiterated and, secondly, it was emphasized  that the internal ecclesiastical disciplinary procedure was no substitute for any proceedings initiated by the authorities.”

Additionally, the court noted that, “while the plaintiff association maintains, without being challenged on this point, that the 2019 edition of the guide ‘Shepherd the Flock of God’ produced by the Minister [responsible for the MIVILUDES] is a generic document whose publication is worldwide, it provided an extract from the France-specific supplement to this guide, also dated 2019, which explicitly recalls the obligation to report any abuse of minors and asks elders to contact the organization’s legal department immediately ‘for receiving advise  to ensure compliance with French law on reporting child abuse,’ and points out that the reminder of the existence of national legal obligations has been present since the 2010 edition of the pastoral guide.” Finally, “the existence of an internal disciplinary procedure among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, even though its definition in the pastoral guide borrows from the vocabulary of criminal justice, does not allow us, in view of the preceding elements, to consider that the organization would hinder reporting to the French authorities.”

In light of the above, “three testimonies” and one press article are not enough to support the allegations of the MIVILUDES, which “must be considered to have committed an error of fact,” the court said.

As far as the education of children is concerned, the judges observed that “the Minister has not produced any recent testimonies, and confines himself to quoting extracts from the Jehovah’s Witnesses theological magazine ‘The Watchtower’ dated 1975, 2005, and 2015, two testimonies given before the National Assembly commission of inquiry into the influence of cultic movements and the consequences of their practices on the physical and mental health of minors, whose report was published on December 12, 2006, as well as the results of a study carried out in the United States between 2007 and 2014.” None of the above quotes, however, refers to the period 2018–20 in France, or supports the “factually incorrect” allegation by the MIVILUDES that French Jehovah’s Witnesses discourage education.

The MIVILUDES has been sentenced to delete the incorrect statements within 15 days. While this is satisfactory, the problem remains of the presence within the French government of an agency that spreads false information and defamation of religious minorities at the expenses of French taxpayers.

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