GERMANY: Jehovah’s Witnesses: Sexual abuse allegations unmasked as groundless
An ex-member and a newspaper accused them of horrific abuses. They asked a State Prosecutor to investigate. No evidence of abuse was found.
By Massimo Introvigne
Bitter Winter (21.02.2023) – Sexual abuse of minors is a horrible plague of our society. I know it first-hand, having been a member of a Council of Europe panel examining abuse in institutions, and the author of an analysis requested by one of the Vatican’s congregations. I am thus painfully aware that this disgusting form of abuse exists among priests, pastors, and lay personnel of several religions, although most cases of sexual abuse of minors happen within the family. Some religions have been more effective than others in combating this epidemic, but none has totally eradicated it. Sexual abuse of minors has raised its ugly head wherever adults have been in contact with children, from the Boy Scouts to juvenile sport teams.
One painful by-product of the tragic fact that minor sexual abuse does happen in religious settings is that, among many accusations that are true, some are false and destroy the life and reputation of innocent men, women, and congregations. They are fabricated for a variety of reasons, including the greed of some lawyers, the inclination of certain media to publish sensational stories without verifying them, and the hostility of others to specific religions. There have been several spectacular examples of such false accusations. The victims of pedophile priests and other religious ministers deserve our sympathy and respect—but so do those who have been slandered and vilified by the media based on accusations courts have later recognized as false.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have often been targeted by accusations that they “hide” cases of sexual abuse and protect the abusers from secular justice. As a series in Bitter Winter by American scholar Holly Folk and my own critical analysis of a 2022 podcast by the British newspaper The “Telegraph” demonstrated, these accusations are false. For having repeated them, the Belgian governmental anti-cult watchdog CIAOSN was found guilty of defamation by the Court of Brussels on June 16, 2022.
Yes, there have been cases of sexual abuse of minors by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as it happened with members of most other religions. However, as the two series in Bitter Winter show, the measures adopted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to prevent these crimes from being perpetrated by their members, while—like those introduced by other religious and non-religious organizations—not infallible, compare favorably in terms of strictness and effectiveness to those of other institutions.
Then, there are the false accusations. On June 19, 2022, the popular German Sunday newspaper “Die Welt am Sonntag” published an article under the title “Ohne Zeugen” (Without Witnesses) that included lurid allegations of child sexual abuse against German elders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The article appeared to have been largely inspired by an “apostate” ex-Jehovah’s-Witness called Barbara Kohout.
As explained in yet another Bitter Winter series, for sociologists of religions “apostate” is not an insult. It is a technical term identifying the ex-members of a religion who turn militant opponents of the organization they have left. They are a minority among the ex-members, but are normally the only former members the media deal with.
The stories told by the newspaper mentioned, among others, a girl who at the age of 15 was forced to have oral sex with several elders in a Kingdom Hall, and a boy who was molested by a ministerial servant for years. Among the Jehovah’s Witnesses, “a large proportion of the girls have suffered sexual assault,” the article had Kohout saying.
When they read the article, the German Jehovah’s Witnesses were horrified. Although familiar with Kohout as an “apostate,” they hadn’t the faintest idea of what she and the newspaper were talking about.
In direct contradiction of their critics’ theory that they have something to hide and are afraid of courts of law, the German Jehovah’s Witnesses did something “Die Welt am Sonntag” had perhaps not expected. On August 2, 2022, they filed a complaint with Berlin’s State Prosecutor asking for an investigation of the alleged crimes.
They explained that an investigation against the unknown perpetrators was in the urgent interest of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “If the allegations mentioned in the article are true, they wrote, this would mean that individuals who hold or once held a spiritual office in the religious community are or were involved in serious criminal activity that remains undetected and unpunished. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to the religious community that you investigate the allegations presented in the above-mentioned article so that any perpetrators can be identified and convicted, and subsequently be removed from their office by the religious community.”
The State Prosecutor’s office had no choice but to investigate. However, on August 17, 2022, Senior Prosecutor Brigitte Raddatz wrote to the Jehovah’s Witnesses that she was inclined to discontinue the preliminary proceedings, having found no ways of determining who were the real persons hidden under the pseudonyms used by the newspaper.
It seemed that “Die Welt am Sonntag” had taken some cases from the Internet, including some of persons who testified before the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in Germany instituted in 2016, but whose testimonies did not result in prosecutions. As for Barbara Kohout’s “working method,” the Prosecutor noted that she received telephone calls from anonymous persons who claimed to be victims and gave advice, without checking the stories or the identities of the callers.
Undaunted, the Jehovah’s Witnesses asked the State Prosecutor on September 6, 2022, to continue the investigation, stating that, “It is of paramount importance to the religious community that appropriate investigations into the crimes referred to in the above article continue so that any perpetrators are identified, convicted and, as a logical consequence, removed from office.” They also noted that Kohout was described in the article as possessing “detailed information on the alleged acts. She thereby unequivocally stated that she could potentially contribute to the clarification of the alleged criminal acts.”
The State Prosecutor had to contact Kohout, something she might have not done before. She reported that Kohout “stated that the wording of the newspaper article did not (completely) correspond with her statements and that she could therefore not accept any responsibility for it.” In any case, Kohout told the Prosecutor she had been “merely a listener for people who wanted to open up to her, and they would have contacted her using a pseudonym, their first name or general terms such as ‘black sheep of the family.’” Accordingly, the State Prosecutor concluded again that no evidence of crimes had emerged, and terminated the proceedings on December 8, 2022.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong in offering confidential advice to persons who claim to be victims of sexual abuse and contact a telephone hotline or a counselor anonymously. However, it is an entirely different matter if the counselor uses this unverified information to slander an entire religious community or forward it to the media. Real sexual abuse of minors is a serious problem. Inventing abuse to defame religions somebody does not like is a not less serious problem: not only because it slanders the innocent but also because, by misdirecting the attention and the resources of those who investigate the abuses, it may end up protecting the guilty.
Photo: Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany: evangelizing in Frankfurt am Main. Source: jw.org.
Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press’ Nova Religio. From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the “Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.