Four women. Four stories. This is how Jehovah’s Witnesses judicial committees handle serious, often criminal matters, outside the official legal system.
This is a translated version of an article that was first published in the Norwegian language on June 30, 2018 in Fædrelandsvennen.
Fædrelandsvennen published an article about an 87 year old Elder in Jehovah’s Witnesses who was convicted of sexual abuse against a four year old girl. In the aftermath of this publication, more internal documents about the governance of the organization was leaked to us.
By far, the most interesting document in this leak was the Norwegian version of the book «Shepherd the Flock of God», or simply the «Elder Manual». It contains detailed descriptions of how the Jehovah’s Witnesses forms and works with their internal, religious judicial committees.
The general rule is that brothers and sisters within the church, are neither to use the police nor the Norwegian legal system against each other.
Fædrelandsvennen has learned about several individuals whom all had to meet before judicial committees in Southern Norway.
One woman was cross examined about her sexual debut by men in such a judicial committee. Another woman lived in fear of being disfellowshipped and isolated after she had an abortion.
Yet another woman nearly died after loosing large amounts of blood when giving birth. An intervention from the doctors in the hospital saved her life. Their decision to give her blood was made while she was unconscious. Still she had to answer to a JW judicial committee. They demanded to know if she had done all she could in order to resist the blood transfusion.
The work of the Judical Committees in Jehovah’s Witnesses cover a wide range of issues.
Even the business community has to relate to the Judicial Committees due to a ban against using the «Worldly» judicial system in lawsuits against businesses owned by other Jehovah’s Witnesses.
JW’s judicial committees can’t fine or send someone to prison. Instead they may give public punishment, or disfellowship them if they find serious breeches against Jehovah’s will, and an individual isn’t genuinely repentant. For those who are disfellowshipped, the consequences are severe.
According to the instructions in «Shepherd the Flock of God», loyal Witnesses must shun all unnecessary contact with relatives who have disassociated themselves or been disfellowshipped. Even keeping business dealings with such persons must be kept to an absolute minimum.
Failure to obey will have consequences even for the active Witnesses.
Story #1 -Domestic violence
Abused His Family for 13 years
Stavanger District Court, 2017. An active Jehovah’s Witness is found guilty for grossly and violently abusing his wife and children throughout a period of 13 years.
Fædrelandsvennen has read the verdict and contacted the man’s ex-wife, one of the victims in the case. She is reticent, but in the end she agrees to talk with us.
Despite a crushing verdict in the public court system, she feels that the Jehovah’s Witnesses internal judicial committee and the Scandinavian Branch Office in Holbæk, Denmark, has handled the case irresponsibly.
«The abuse started immediately, even before we got married in 1999, » she tells us. However, due to consideration for other members of the congregation who are still active, she wishes to remain anonymous.
This was her second marriage, and she already had four children. After a few years with her new husband, they had a son together, her fifth child. But the abuse only escalated. Like so many women living with domestic violence, she felt guilty. She felt that she was the one who triggered her husband’s anger.
«We ’tip toed’ right from the beginning. But since I already had divorced once, I chose to try to endure the violence.»
The three first children had grown up and left home. Together with the two younger ones, she lived in constant fear of both physical and mental abuse.
The verdict from the District Court provides this description of the situation:
«It’s the mental abuse that has been dominating, but behind this, the possibility of physical violence has always been present. Based on the evidence presented, the Court must undoubtedly assume that the accused’s criminal offenses form a pattern resulting in a regime characterized by continuous insecurity and fear of violence for those who are victims. »
«Often, I was so scared that I thought I would die, » says the woman.
«It was like living with a time bomb. I had to sit up straight in bed while sleeping. Some times, if he had kept going all night, I had to sleep on the floor. »
Asked the Elders For Help
On several occasions, her sons were the ones to get the hardest treatment. According to the verdict, her husband pushed her while she was holding their baby boy. He also screamed at one of her sons, shook him hard and threw him on to the bed.
In 2010, before her husband became an Elder in their congregation, the abuse escalated even more. One of her sons, then 15, couldn’t take it any more.
«He witnessed many episodes where I was scared to death while my youngest son was clinging to his father’s feet to stop him, only to get kicked brutally away. » the woman says.
The verdict from the District Court writes the following about these episodes:
«The boy has explained that he feared incredibly for his mother’s life»
In court the boy also reveals how he had witnessed his mother knealing in front of his stepfather, begging for mercy.
And how he, the 15 year old, tried to go between them to stop the violence. But nothing worked. It’s then he, out of sheer desperation, together with his older brother, approached the Elders in their congregation. The brothers tell the Elders what is going on at home.
«I can’t witness this any more, how my mother and baby brothers are treated». That’s what he told the Elders. But they did nothing, » says the woman.
Due to confidentiality rules , the Elders of this congregation will not comment on this.
«It all culminates in an episode where he gets so violent that our youngest son is so frightened that he locked himself into the bathroom. Meanwhile my husband ran after me and pushed me. I fell against a rail and hit my head severely. »
To this day, she doesn’t know how the police were alarmed; she cannot remember calling them. But the emergency call was recorded by the police.
«The police had no doubt we were scared to death. When they arrived, an officer said: ’No one should have to feel this kind of fear in their own home. Can I drive you somewhere safe?’»
They were taken to a nearby shelter. Her husband was reported to the police and charged with domestic violence. But it was the Child Protection Service that reported him; she did not do it herself.
Not Severe Enough for Disfellowshipping
Nearly two years passed before the man was formally indicted. The children had been interviewed by special investigators about what they had sustained and witnessed. Parallel to the police investigation, an Overseer from Jehovah’s Witnesses Scandinavian Branch Office is sent to do an internal investigation. It’s to be determined whether the matter is severe enough to disfellowship the man.
«I felt this JW «investigator» believed in us, in our story. He went through all the case files, documents, transcripts from the police interviews, everything. The Branch Office in Denmark also considered the same documentation. Still, they claimed they didn’t have enough to do anything. Not enough according to the ’Two-Witness rule’. »
«Even if both you and the children told them what you had gone through? You were Witnesses, aren’t your testimonies worth anything? »
«No. I don’t understand why they couldn’t do anything. »
«So he wasn’t disfellowshipped? »
«No, he wasn’t. In the period before his trial, it became impossible for us to remain in the congregation. They gave us very little support. I felt they didn’t believe us, while he was allowed to speak freely. All the time we were told: ’If all of this is true, the truth will come to light eventually. Just stay strong, God will never let this pass’. »
The Jehovah’s Witnesses Branch Office in Holbæk, Denmark, refuse to comment on this particular case.
«We respect an individual’s right to tell their own perception of a story, and will not comment on that, » spokesperson Dag-Erik Kristoffersen writes in an email to Fædrelandsvennen.
The man was indicted in the fall of 2015. Yet, it was the woman and her children who had to change to a different congregation in order to avoid contact. The man remained in their old congregation. In police questioning, the youngest son revealed that he was scared of his father, and the Child Protection Services demanded that she seek sole custody for the child.
«They told me: ’You must never let him stay with his father’. If I did, they would have to seek a care order from me too. »
Had to Move Away
In the spring of 2016, both the Child Custody Service and the police advised her to move to another city.
Family and friends supported her after breaking up with her husband. They provided housing, clothing, furniture and other help after she and the children were forced to move from their hometown.
The trial was held in the fall of 2016. In court he pleaded ’not guility’ to all charges. He claimed she was making it all up.
He also claimed that she was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder , but this was rejected by the court:
’For the record, the court wishes to state that no such diagnose has been documented.’
Her medical journals, both from the emergency room and from her private doctor were also presented in court:
’Been beaten, but doesn’t want to talk about it. Her face is swollen, and there are some small red spots on her cheek. Headache and vomiting.’
’Beaten and kicked. Afraid the fetus is harmed. During examination there is a swelling on the left side of her face, markings from beating on her neck.’
From the verdict:
’This court can under no circumstance find basis in the evidence that the victim has made up any of these stories. In this case, the court has to assume, in light of the presented evidence, that the accused has little or no credibility.’
In November 2016, the man was found guilty on all 18 accounts. He was sentenced to one year and eight months in prison. Yet, he was not disfellowshipped from Jehovah’s Witnesses. That eventually happened when his final appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court in March of 2017.
But before their final decision to disfellowship him, Jehovah’s Witnesses demanded more from his victims.
«The children and I had to present a written statement to the Body of Elders and to the judicial committee. We had to declare that we stood by what we had said on each one of the accounts he was charged and convicted for. Because we all signed this statement, it was considered to be a sort of a ’Two-Witness’-case, since we had all confirmed each others stories. »
When Fædrelandsvennen confronted the Elders of his congregation with this, they did not wish to comment, but instead refer us to the spokesperson in the Branch Office in Denmark.
When her husband was finally disfellowshipped, she believed it would take him many years before he could come back to the church.
She had hoped for space to breathe for herself and the children while the man served his sentence.
According to «Shepherd the Flock of God», an individual who displays genuine repentance and true remorse for his sins, may be reinstated in Jehovah’s Witnesses.
«A member of the judicial committee contacted us. I asked him: ’As long as my husband strongly denies everything, is it not impossible for him to be reinstated?’ Because how can he repent something he completely denies? » says the woman.
«’We’ll see what happens’, they told me. »
She is painfully aware that her husband claims he is a victim of a miscarriage of justice. What she doesn’t know is that he appealed the decision to disfellowship him.
In March 2018, while still in prison, a judicial committee decided to reinstate him after getting the ’go-ahead’ from the Branch Office in Denmark.
The verdict from the District Court was forwarded to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ lawyer in Holbæk, Demark. But there was no help to be found.
«They’re unable to relate to the fact that they’re not police investigators, psychologists or judges. When the Norwegian judicial system convicted him, Jehovah’s Witnesses decided to bypass that fact. »
The «Elder Manual» also states that both admission of sins as well as an apology to those who have suffered are criteria for being reinstated. In accordance, the Body of Elders must truly believe that the perpetrator is showing genuine repentance.
«As close as two weeks before he was reinstated, he again proclaimed that he was a victim of a miscarriage of justice. He also claimed that I’m insane, and that everything is my fault. What kind of repentance is that? » the woman asks.
For her youngest son, it’s hard to accepts that his father doesn’t admit his crimes.
«My son tells me: ’Does daddy think I wasn’t there? Does he think I don’t remember?’»
She feels it’d been easier to get on with her life if the JW judicial committee had believed her. Or if they could have explained to her why he was reinstated.
«It feels like if women and children are the losing party every time. I think that if they had taken our situation into consideration, they would have left him disfellowshipped until we had gotten back on our feet again. This is about serious, gross abuse, and if they had believed us, they would have acted differently. »
One of the Elders who reinstated the man, is the same elder who first was told about the abuse when the children sought help.
«It’s almost unbelievable, » says the woman.
«The children went to him for help, and now, the last thing I’ve heard is that the same man stood in front of the congregation and informed them about the ’happy’ news that the man convicted for domestic violence was reinstated. »
Hoping for Change Within the Church
Even if she still is a Jehovah’s Witness, and wants to remain one, she now finds it hard to attend their meetings. She lost a lot of confidence in the Elders and the judicial committees. For one thing, she feels they could have averted the last number of years of abuse if they had reported the case to the police or the Child Protection Service.
«If they had considered their duty to avert, two years of violence could have been avoided. Had the Elders listened to my son the second time he sought their help in 2013, the last severe episode could have been avoided. My ear got badly injured from that beating, I am still in need of a hearing aid. And my children wouldn’t have had to witness the violence, they are still struggling. So much could have been avoided. »
She has nothing against the church itself. Yet she contributes to Fædrelandsvennens article. Her most important motive is a hope that change of internal procedures, guidelines and attitudes in her church may be possible. From the inside.
«The way they handled our case, shows that women and children obviously are not believed by the Elders of our church. We should have been. »
Claims He Was Wrongfully Convicted
The convict has always claimed he is innocent of the crimes he was convicted for.
«That’s correct. My client makes it very clear that he’s a victim of wrongful conviction» writes the man’s defence attorney, Brynjar Meling in an email to Fædrelandsvennen.
«He doesn’t understand why his appeal didn’t go through as he was denied the opportunity to present evidence he feels is crucial to evaluate the question of guilt. Among other things, the injured party has several diagnoses that he feels may have influenced her sense of reality. He was also denied witnesses that could have confirmed this.»
On more questions from Fædrelandsvennen, Meling answers as follows:
Q: «Are there any of the accounts he actually was convicted for he now will admit to? If so, to which accounts?»
A: «My client has retained his story, both as he testified in court, and as he has told it during treatment.»
Q: «Has he admitted to any of the accounts for Jehovah’s Witnesses judicial committee that he hasn’t admitted in court?»
A: «No, but there has been a different focus on certain issues» Mr. Meling replies.
Story #2 - Abortion
Lack of «Genuine Repentance»
She, a woman belonging to a congregation in Southern Norway, already had three children with her husband. Between the last two, there were only nine months. In addition, she suffered from severe postnatal depression.
« And then we did it again. Got pregnant. Our youngest was still a baby.»
It came as a shock to both. Her husband feared for her mental condition and how they would manage to take care of the three children they already had.
«I can’t remember almost anything. Because of the postnatal depression everything was ’black’. But we went to the hospital the very same day. »
They gave her a pill. She went home, and there she aborted. She barely remembers lying in bed for days.
«It was dark, very dark. It’s hard for us to look back upon, but we had no real choice. »
Abortion is considered a sin in most Christian churches, and in Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And after gnawing on their conscience, the husband decided to admit to one of the Elders in the congregation what they had done.
A judicial committee was formed. Their case was to be discussed by three designated men.
«The whole point of a judicial committee is that they shall determine if you show genuine repentance. And we really didn’t.
It was her husband who spoke before the judicial committee. He told them that they had made the decision in consideration for the other children. Their real choice had been either to get her out of the depression or having another baby.
She remembers very little from this meeting, but her husband later told her that he very quickly realised that they weren’t showing genuine repentance.
«My husband finally realised that he had to play along and tell them what they wanted to hear. If not, we would have been disfellowshipped. »
«So, by showing repentance, play along, you avoided getting disfellowshipped? »
«Yes, that’s how to avoid being disfellowshipped, you know the right things to say. »
If an individual gets disfellowshipped, all contact with family and friends still in the church, will be cut immediately.
« Disfellowshipping with its consequences, is more than a human can endure. One’s circumstances can become completely desperate. That’s why one may end up saying anything you think the judicial committee wants to hear, just to avoid being disfellowshipped. »
The blue envelopes
The judicial committee came to the decision that they had shown genuine repentance. They avoided disfellowshipping.
«The judicial committees have all that power, it’s not healthy to possess such power.»
Both this woman and her husband are still members of JW. But they feel it has become more difficult to separate faith from the system.
«I wish I could keep my faith without feeling it’s not worth anything unless I’m in that system. Without that system, my faith means nothing according to them. »
Fædrelandsvennen has repeatedly tried to get in touch with the Elders from the congregation in question here. We wanted to speak with those who were in the judicial committee, to get their comment. After several attempts to reach them both by phone and text messages, we’ve not succeeded.
Story #3 - Sex Outside the Marriage
«Actually, I’d ’saved’ myself. But on a trip together with other Jehovah’s Witnesses, it happened anyway, says an adult woman in a congregation in Southern Norway. »
She had sex before marriage, a thing that’s considered a grave sin within Jehovah’s Witnesses. All sexual conduct between man and woman must take place within the framework of a marriage. Before marriage, it’s considered ’porneia’ and may lead to Disfellowshipping.
«I was despairing. I knew I’d done something wrong. And then I was stupid enough to confide in another woman in my congregation. »
This woman didn't have the conscience to keep the secret. She told the ’sinner’ to tell the Elders what she had done, or else she would have to tell them.»
«So I was coerced into telling them. And that’s one of the principles in Jehovah’s Witnesses, that if you get knowledge of a thing like this, you either get the person to tell the Elders directly, or you have to tell them. Snitch.»
The judicial committee consists of three Elders. All men.
«When you meet before such a judicial committee, they ask you where, how many times and what kind of sex you had. It’s none of their business to snoop around. »
’The sinner’ has to meet before the judicial committee without a lawyer or defender.
«You feel so rotten and small. Alone against three men, and to talk about these things. Not only do they label you as a whore, but in addition, they pry and dig for the details. It’s very gross.»
The judicial committee concluded that reproof was the right action, as this was her first offence. She avoided disfellowshipping. But from the pulpit in the Kingdom Hall, they read out her name, and that she’s received a reproof. They did not say why.
«I heard a gasp pass through the hall, everyone looked at me, wondering what I’d done. »
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Not repentant enough
A few years later, she committed more ’sins’. Several times now. And this time, she herself approached the Elders in her congregation.
«I felt bad about living what they call a double life. I had a boyfriend who was not a baptised Jehovah’s Witness, and I knew this was not up to their standards. We had an intimate relationship.
She didn’t want to meet before a judicial committee and describe her love life in detail. She was tired and worn out. She didn’t go to congregation meetings, nor did she wish to be active for Jehovah in other ways.
«They knew how hard a time I had. Still, they chose to come after me. I didn’t answer the phone when they rang. Suddenly, one of the Elders stood at my door.
He said he wished to meet her.
«I panicked because they were coming after me like that. It was very unpleasant. »
In the end, she could not take the pressure any more. She asked that a judicial committee be formed to end the process.
«I said they might just as well disfellowship me. I couldn’t live by their standards and do what a Jehovah’s Witness is supposed to do, as matters stood at the time. I was completely worn out. »
Even though she made the contact herself and repented, they didn’t believe her. The judicial committee concluded that there wasn’t enough heartfelt remorse and genuine repentance in this case. She was disfellowshipped.
«The only reason for a judicial committee to disfellowship you, is lack of remorse and repentance. Those are the words they use. Remorse and repentance. »
«Feels like a death penalty»
It took a whole month from the judicial committee’s conclusion until they publicly announced the decision.
«It was very hard to wait. So, I told my friends about it. It feels like a death penalty. »
She uses a harsh expression. But she really means that’s how it feels when you’re no longer a Jehovah’s Witness.
«When you are shunned, there is no hope. Jehovah isn’t there, I cannot get the blessings. And what happens to me, when Armageddon is upon us? That’s how they think and teach in Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Fædrelandsvennen has not succeed in getting a comment from the Elders who handled this woman’s case. We’ve tried several times.
Even though all her family lives in the same little town, she can no longer have normal contact with them. Her niece was born a year ago, and she’s never seen her. It ’s now two years since she was shunned. She feels that the judicial committees go too far.
«What I’ve done, speaking in biblical terms, is to bring damage upon myself. It has nothing to do with lack of faith or love in Jehovah. But what they say, is that by violating a biblical principle, I hadn’t valued Jehovah enough.
And that’s for the judicial committees to decide.
«I feel very bitter about this. They’ve cast me aside, just as they would have done if I’d killed someone, to put it bluntly. This is pretty harsh. »
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Divorced following allegations of sexual abuse
One of the women whose story is known to Fædrelandsvennen, was active in a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in the county of Vest-Agder in Southern Norway.
She contacted the Body of Elders in her congregation and told them her husband abused her sexually. These warnings were also made in writing.
She also reported the man to the police. The case was eventually dismissed because of lack of evidence.
Fædrelandsvennen has been in contact with the now divorced ex-husband. He doesn’t want to give any comments to this article.
’Not free to marry’
The Elders asked the woman to forgive her husband. When she wanted a divorce, they made it clear that she was not free from him, as they had been united by Jehovah. She was not free to establish a new relationship.
A while later, the woman met a new man and married outside of her congregation. The Elders established a judicial committee and disfellowshipped the woman.
’[NN] (the woman’s name) is no longer a member of the Christian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses’ read a message from the speakers in the Kingdom Hall.
What follows such a message, is total isolation. Not even her own children may have contact with their mother after this message has been announced.
The women had since been in treatment at the public hospital Sørlandet Sykehus for angst and depression, following severe trauma.
The total isolation from friends and family is more than most people can take.
Her new husband explains that the woman cannot give an interview herself, as it could make her situation even more difficult.
He himself was raised in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but was never baptized. Those who are not baptized, cannot be shunned and isolated in the same way as baptized members can once they get into trouble with the Elders.
’A parallel court system»
«For us, the worst was the feeling of not having been taken seriously. My wife has been held hostage by theological subtleties» says her new husband.»
«Can you explain?»
«What we are dealing with is a parallel court system. In this system, only men can be judges. And they are not qualified for the job. Women’s voices count for less than a man’s voice.»
«How has the contact been with JW these past number of years?»
«It was terrible when they wanted to disfellowship her. They demanded to speak with her. They demanded that she should break up with me, while she was ill and being treated at the hospital. They ignored messages from qualified health personnel» he says.
Out of respect for her situation, the woman and her husband remain anonymous in this article.
Fædrelandsvennen has been in contact with the Body of Elders who disfellowshipped the woman we are writing about. They will not give an interview. But they did send us the following by SMS:
«Hi! We have no comments to the story you wish to shed light upon. You can read at jw.org how we are handling matters like this. Also, you can speak with our Branch Office in Holbæk.»
The guidance that the Elders receive in the book titled «Shepherd the Flock of God» is very clear. Under the headline «Taking Brothers to Court», Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is used to make it clear that as a main rule, Witnesses must not use the ’worldly’ public court system.
This ban has a broad reach. It stretches into the business sphere also:
«There is no difference between taking an individual brother or sister to court and taking to court a corporation whose owners are all Jehovah’s Witnesses. The spirit of 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 would be violated by relying on the secular courts to settle business disputes among corporations that are made up entirely of brothers.»
The warning is underlined by the following words: «If an individual ignores God’s Word on this matter, it may affect his congregation privileges.»
Fædrelandsvennen’s sources are afraid of being shunned, and thereby loose contact with friends and their own families.
No Time for an Interview
Over a long period of time Fædrelandsvennen has attempted to get an interview with the JW Branch Office for Scandinavia regarding the practice of the judicial committees.
The Branch Office at Holbæk is the entity which connects the world headquarters at Warwick, New York with the congregations all over Scandinavia.
The Norwegian spokesperson Mr. Dag-Erik Kristoffersen has declined the interview request. He has been provided with information about the specific cases in this article and knows that Fædrelandsvennen is writing about the ’Elder Manual’, «Shepherd the Flock of God».
Kristoffersen’s only reply is an email, and his comments are not on the specific cases:
«We do not wish to spend time on an interview, since the questions you raise are about fundamental issues. All is very clearly explained in our internal book, from which you refer, as well as in magazines such as Watchtower. This is not something secret, something new or unknown.
Jehovah’s Witnesses is a Christian church, and we have some clear biblical guidelines on how to behave in order to enjoy and be part of the life in the congregation. If someone commits serious sins against the moral code of the Bible, a judicial committee must address whether this person can continue to be part of the congregation. The book which you have, explains how a judicial committee works and the biblical principles they must follow.
If there are personal disputes, e.g. financial, the Elders in the congregation will try to help the parties agree to some settlement. In cases of theft or fraud, a judicial committee will be formed. This is also the case when it is necessary to disfellowship a member of the congregation.
A decision by a judicial committee can be appealed, and the case will then be tried before another judicial committee.
It is as simple as this, and we have no more to say about this matter.»