This is a translated version of an article that was first published in Norwegian language on December 30, 2018.
GALWAY, IRELAND / SOUTHERN NORWAY: «I sent them a hard drive with all my files.»
The man we are meeting in a small town on the west coast of Ireland is called Jason Wynne. And the ones who were trusted with his hard drive, are responsible for a website which can be described as a Wikileaks for the world’s closed religious communities.
The Faithleaks project was founded by former members of the church known as Latter Day Saints, or “Mormons”. First they were publishing leaks from their own church, exposing secrets they felt members and others had the right to know about. Later they were contacted by people related to other churches.
Thanks to Jason Wynne, a factory worker from Galway, a small town about the same size as Kristiansand in Southern Norway, Jehovah’s Witnesses all over the world now can get much more knowledge about how their organization is really governed.
The content of these leaks will be of interest to scholars, but also to police and prosecutors, and even for Data Protection authorities in Norway and other countries. When we went through the material, we found interesting stories. One of these is the story about some very special blue envelopes, which are reserved for use in sensitive matters.
«When there are secret rules and systems, the Elders are in full control. I believe both the members and people on the outside should know how a church is managed. And I do not have much more to lose, » says Wynne.
The leaked documents shed new light on the situation for both active witnesses and ex-witnesses that have been in contact with Fædrelandsvennen.
The newspaper has been wanting to discuss the questions raised in this article with Jehovah’s Witnesses. But a spokesman from the Branch Office has made it clear that these are matters the organization does not want to discuss with the press.
Warned the organization
«Maria» warned her JW congregation in southern Norway about a specific suspicion concerning a man in the congregation that possibly was a paedophile predator. The allegation was subject to an investigation by a group of Elders. However, the police were never notified about these suspicions. The group of Elders reported their findings and sent a special blue envelope to the Branch Office, in accordance with internal rules and procedures.
When a group of Elders in Jehovah’s Witnesses have ruled in what they call a Judicial Committee, they write to the Branch Office on a form called S-77. Any case considered serious enough to conclude with disfellowshipping or disassociation in any congregation in Norway, should be summarized in such a form. One copy should be left in the safe of the congregation and one sent to the Branch Office in Holbæk, Denmark. The envelope has a special blue colour because the content is sensitive, and it indicates it should not be opened by ordinary members of the church.
A copy of Maria’s story was also stored locally. From that safe, the case would emerge again several years later, only to be used against her.
«When the story emerged again, the information was used for an entirely different purpose. Someone had opened that safe and collected the story about how I blew the whistle back then. But apparently the Elders had not believed what I had said about that man, and they had concluded that my allegations must be false. Now, when I was in a new conflict, this first case was being used to render me as not being trustworthy, as someone who accuse others for no reason. » Maria says.
She finds it difficult to believe how easily the information from the safe was accessible. And she does not accept how that traumatic case from the past was being used against her now.
«It feels like if someone opens my patient file at the hospital and freely distributes the content to others. This has to be illegal, doesn’t it? » she says.
What else that archive contains about her, she does not know. Maria has not filed a formal request to see the content of her files.
«I really don’t know. There is probably more, and it is frightening to imagine what they might have stored. »
Not informed about rights
A lot of the information which has been stored in safes and physical files, are nowadays being transferred to digital archives and databases. But even a church like Jehovah’s Witnesses must comply with EU’s GDPR, the new regulations on protection of personal data. They cannot store whatever information they would like, without informed consent from the individuals mentioned in their files.
Hence, Jehovah’s Witnesses have made a declaration which every active member, called publishers, needs to sign.
Fædrelandsvennen has a copy of the S-290-E, a consent declaration written by Jehovah’s Witnesses, for active members to sign. It reads:
This declaration also has a paragraph where the member sign that she or he is aware of the laws and regulations concerning storing of private information. But no information is given specifically to address the right to know what information is held about one’s person, nor the right to have information deleted.
But «Maria» feels she is not free to choose. If she does not accept that Jehovah’s Witnesses store any information about her in their archives, she fears she will be shunned. At the official website, JW.org, the church makes it clear that non-compliance will have consequences:
“If a publisher chooses not to sign the Notice and Consent for Use of Personal Data form, Jehovah’s Witnesses may not be able to evaluate the publisher’s suitability to fulfill certain roles within the congregation or to participate in certain religious activities.”
«You cannot choose to be a Jehovah’s Witness and not sign this declaration. » says «Maria».
«I was told so very clearly. »
And she still wants to remain a Jehovah’s Witness. She just finds it hard to live with all the requirements and expectations of the members.
«I do not want to sign this. Everything is being stored digitally nowadays. I feel I am being watched all the time. But they say it clearly, you must be in the files, or you will be shunned. »
Jason Wynne in Ireland, as well as a person located in the USA, contacted Fædrelandsvennen following the publication of the English language version of the article “The Elder”.
The story is about an 87-year-old Elder from the Norwegian colony on Costa Blanca, Spain, who is spending time in prison following a court sentence. He was found guilty of having sexually abused a four-year-old girl. For several decades, this man served as an Elder in a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Southern Norway. The story caught the interest of readers in several countries.
Wynne has been cooperating with active witnesses at different levels in the organization, who are sharing documents with him, as well as with others. Parts of this material has now been uploaded at Faithleaks.
Some documents have been shared directly with the newspaper, including a Norwegian language version of the “Elder manual”, an important manuscript called “Shepherd the flock of God” in English. This was a basis for the exposure of Jehovah’s Witnesses Judicial Committees in Norway. In many cases, these religious court-like institutions have discussed matters that belong in criminal court. But the members are under pressure not to make use of institutions such as police and the public court system.
Another document in the collection of leaks is «Branch Organisation», an updated manual for branch offices, which contains detailed descriptions on the governing of a branch, as well as the flow of information within JW and how the information shall be stored. This information is not known to ordinary members nor to the general public outside of JW.
In the leaked material which everyone now can access at Faithleaks, there is also a collection of letters from Watchtower to “Bodies of Elders” in congregations around the world. These policy letters have direct effect on the activities and governance of every congregation. In sensitive matters, the content is not revealed to ordinary members.
The right to know
The Norwegian Personal Data Act was harmonised with GDPR in 2018. It provides a wide-reaching right to know what any organization and archive has stored of personal details about you, and also how the information is being stored. Anyone can ask to have their information deleted. Organizations and companies who do not comply with the GDPR are at risk of facing severe fines and penalties.
«Dina» from Southern Norway, has been given a vague and very general response when she asked what JW had stored about her in their files.
Fædrelandsvennen has seen the letter. All active, baptised witnesses have a document which is called a “Publisher Card” that contains details of their activities in the service of Jehovah’s organization. The form is named S-21. The form was not enclosed in the reply her congregation sent when she asked for a copy of all the material they had stored. Nor has it been sent to other members of JW that we have been in contact with, when they have asked similar questions.
«Dina» is one of those who has experienced having highly sensitive details of her private life being debated by an all-male panel of Elders in a Judicial Committee. This committee documented their conclusion on a form called an S-77. But the S-77 was also absent in the reply the women received when she asked for a copy of all personal information stored about her.
«You are at your weakest, when facing a Judicial Committee»
«Sara» tells us about countless meetings with a Judicial Committee. She has not been disfellowshipped, but several times it has been a close call. What did the congregation save and store from these discussions? What did they share with the Branch Office? She does not know.
«I assume that they store information from all my encounters with the Judicial Committees. And similar, very personal and difficult things for me. »
She has heard that Jehovah’s Witnesses were storing information about alleged paedophiles that had not been shared with the police. She has also heard of incidents were sensitive personal information has ended up in the wrong hands and been misused.
«– Situations like this can happen, as long as these files exist. And that is catastrophic. » «Sara» says.
No one has yet asked her to sign the declaration of consent regarding personal information. She is currently not active as a member. But she knows others who have felt signing that document was not a matter of free choice.
«I can image many people do not understand what this is all about. Simply accepting things the way they are. In Jehovah’s Witnesses we do not ask too many questions. If you do, things tend not to go very well. »
“Sara” has not asked to see what information lies in the archives on her case. She is afraid such a request may be regarded as disloyalty, and fears she may be shunned.
«But on the other hand, everyone should check and find out. You are at your weakest, when facing a Judicial Committee. »
The rumours «Sara» had heard about a collection of information concerning alleged paedophiles was more than just gossip.
In the leaks, we find a policy-letter “to all Bodies of Elders” dated March 14th, 1997.
This document underlines the importance of tracking the movements of persons who are suspected of being child molesters. One is supposed to warn the congregation and other congregations if such a person moves. “It is imperative that this be done when one who is known to have been a child molester moves,” the letter stresses. The Body of Elders in the new area need to know the background of such a person.
Other documents in the leaks describe a system for keeping track of where not only present members, but also disfellowshipped persons live. The routine is simply called «tracking persons» and involves tracking the movements of active and previous members who are accused of criminal actions. The information is being stored and shared among congregations and branch offices.
This storing and distribution of sensitive personal information is being done without consent.
The policy letter from 1997 is valid until it is being replaced or withdrawn in the future. The letter clearly states that the Body of Elders shall make a report about the persons who are suspected child molesters.
«In your report please answer the following questions: How long ago did he commit the sin? What was his age at the time? What was the age of his victim(s)? Was it a one-time occurrence or a practice? If it was a practice, to what extent? How is he viewed in the community and by the authorities? » the Watchtower demands.
They want even more details. The Body of Elders are instructed to store the information in their confidential files. But they must also send a copy of the information to their respective Branch Office in one of the “special blue envelopes”
Failed to share information on alleged paedophiles
The policy-letter from 1997 was also central evidence when a court in California in December 2018 ruled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses must pay a total of $4 million to a woman who suffered sexual abuse. $3 million as compensation, and an additional $1 million to cover future medical expenses, according to New York Law Journal.
An important part of the story is that Jehovah’s Witnesses failed to share with police the stories from content within the blue envelopes. The woman’s lawyer argued that the organisation could have done more to stop such an individual from committing more crimes, and the police could have been involved.
The largest individual payment so far, is a ruling from a court in Montana in September last year. This victim was to be paid a sum of $35 million, according to a jury consisting of seven men and two women.
Among the key evidence was an S-77 form dated 2004, stating that a man was found guilty by a JW Judicial Committee for having molested a boy from when he was 8 years old, until he was 12.
Additional to a statement from the victim, the Montana court also considered a letter from the Body of Elders to Watchtower.
«The community nor the authorities are aware of this matter » the Body of Elders emphasize in their letter.
Not long after the ruling in California, something extraordinary happened in the Netherlands. The police raided four Kingdom Halls in December. They also raided the Branch Office and searched the homes of several Elders in the country, searching for archive material.
Dutch police are investigating cases where former members of the organization demand compensation for alleged sexual abuse that is said to have taken place when they were children. Jehovah’s Witnesses had not willingly shared all the documents the police asked to see, hence they took action to secure documentation.
«To the outside world, I am considered almost a prude. But not so amongst the Witnesses.» “Anna” tells us. She is a woman in her mid 30s, living in Southern Norway. Her case is one of many that found its way into one of the blue envelopes, if all procedures were followed duly.
18 months ago, she was disfellowshipped after she found a new boyfriend. She had left her husband. The reason? Years of violence against her child. But amongst Jehovah’s Witnesses, even violence against children is not a good enough reason to divorce someone.
«No. You are not free in a biblical way, not unless your husband has been cheating on you, or if he is dead. » she explains.
The man was eventually convicted for child abuse. The ruling says:
«The violence and offences in this case have, as the court sees it, had the pattern and characteristcs of repeated and ongoing abuse. XX has been subjected to a vast and systematic regime of control and punishments, with physical and psychological violence from the accused, over a long period of time”.
«Anna» who was a Jehovah’s Witness who already endured this violence for a number of years. But one day she had had enough, and moved out. She took the children with her. This is when her husband decided to become an active witness himself.
«The congregation thought this was fantastic. I was labelled as the bitch who left him. And when he was baptised, I was regarded as twice as mean. »
Punished after attempted rape
She started to withdraw herself, as she did not want to share the same congregation with him anymore. When the rumour spread about her new boyfriend, the Elders in the congregation started the process to disfellowship her.
«I received a notice and I was called to meet before a Judicial Committee. Three Elders were to hear my defence, and then decide what would happen to me. » «Anna» says.
«But something had happened when I was younger. I do not trust the Elders after that. »
When she was seventeen, a man assaulted her. She was strangled, and nearly raped when on holiday in a Mediterranean country. Back home, she told an Elder about the incident.
«I was feeling bad about it and felt a need to tell what happened. The Elder I talked with, asked a lot of detailed questions. It was very creepy. The conversation felt like another assault. »
According to the Elder, the assault was her own fault because she had been walking alone along the beach front. For that, she must be punished.
«I was being publicly reproved for my behaviour. I could not raise my hand and talk at meetings, nor be an active publisher in the door to door service for a while. »
It did not feel right. She started to keep thoughts and feeling to herself instead of sharing with the Elders.
«I am very afraid of dying»
A few years later she met the man who would become the father of her children.
«He was not a witness when I met him. And I got pregnant. You can imagine the scandal. »
Again, she was publicly reproved. Both these processes are probably thoroughly archived by the congregation she belonged to. And if they are, all Elders can find her papers in the safe and read about her “sins” at any given time.
These incidents, however, were next to nothing compared with the grave sin it was to leave a violent husband and establish a new relationship.
A grave sin like that must be shared with the Branch Office in Holbæk, Denmark, in a blue envelope.
In recent years the organization has started using a digital system for sharing the S-77-form electronically in their hierarchy. But the blue envelopes still exist and are being used by those who have not managed the digital transformation yet.
«Anna» did not want to meet before the Judicial Committee. They completed the process without her presence, and she received a letter stating she had been disfellowshipped. Her friends in the Jehovah’s Witnesses unfriended her on Facebook. All contact with friends and family must stop when a disfellowshipping decision has been made.
«They say they do this out of love. They want you to rethink your actions, change your mind and come back. If you show enough remorse.»
While she was being isolated, her ex-husband was finding help and support in the congregation, despite the police-case into his violent abuse of their child.
But after the court decision was final, a JW Judicial process eventually involved him. He too was disfellowshipped.
«I do not know how much they ever knew about the violence. What I know is that they unfriended me and isolated me. At that time, they included him in every way, in meetings and socially. » «Anna» tells us.
She does not know exactly what the congregation files holds about her story. She has not exercised her right to find out.
«It’s probably because I do not want to speak with them anymore. But I do want them to delete whatever they have in there. Whatever it says about me, it is only their subjective story, it is not what really happened. »
«Anna» turned away from Jehovah’s Witnesses after the experiences she had. But she still has a great fear for Armageddon, Judgement Day.
– I am so afraid because I have nothing to believe in anymore. I have always had something to believe in. Now I am very afraid of dying, and I am thinking a lot about it.
Lawyers on his neck
Back in Ireland, Jason Wynne tells us about the process he went through with Jehovah’s Witnesses. He has been through some trouble.
«There was a letter from some Watchtower lawyers. They demanded that I remove JW documents from three different websites, like jwsurvey.org and avoidjw.org. I controlled only one of those three. But within their deadline of ten days, I complied. On the one website where I could. » he explains.
He does not operate alone, though. Several active Witnesses are sharing information with him. Those who are still active Witnesses, write under fake names when discussing in open forums. They fear reprisals.
Jason Wynne works in a factory. He has two children and a wife that he loves. And he wants to stay away from problems.
«But it doesn’t feel right to sit passively and watch while the church I have been a part of is governed by rules and processes that ordinary members can not know or take part in. We have become a parallel society. We have held back information from police and the court systems. In this system, the Elders have an unreasonable power, not knowing the details about the system that controls them. » says Wynne.
«Someone must show their face»
He decided to distribute the documents. The documents were forwarded to the Americans who run Faithleaks. Some of the material is already uploaded and available at faithleaks.org.
But there are more documents. Fædrelandsvennen has been trusted with parts of it, after Wynne read our articles that were published earlier in 2018.
«I still call myself a Jehovah’s Witness. If you have been baptised a witness, you belong to Jehovah no matter what happens in your life. Yes, I have been shunned. But that is from the organization. They do not decide over my faith and my thinking. »
He was disfellowshipped for having had sex with his fiancée. Today, he is married, and his wife is not a baptised witness. Family and friends who are still in the congregation, are not allowed to have any contact with him.
«It quite absurd actually. The Irish Constitution protects our right to family life. Religious organizations thinking in this way, are undermining marriage and family life. » he says.
«You are coming out in the open, as a source of these document leaks. Aren’t you afraid of reprisals?»
«Someone must show their face, that is important. And it may as well be me. They know who I am. And there are a lot of activists who are very angry with them. I am not. I still attend some meetings at the Kingdom Hall and listen. I love them, even though I have been shunned. »
A modern Flavius
What Jason Wynne and the people behind Faithleaks are doing, is a practice with long traditions behind it. All the way back to Rome, before the rule of the great emperors.
Every year, the Norwegian Press Association awards the Flavius Award to a person who has done something special to promote transparency in society.
«The name for this award comes from a Roman slave who is believed to have been called Flavius. Sources from this period, in pre-imperial Rome, are not 100 per cent certain, as you may understand. » says professor emeritus Erik Boe explains. He is teaching public law at Oslo University.
Boe was also the head of the Flavius Awards jury in its initial years. He heard the tale about Flavius as a law student from his professor, Harald Foldager.
«Before the absolute rule of the emperors in Rome, the priests were a formidable power. They were called the pontificate. Their rule was based on secret law formulas. While it was unclear to people what was allowed and what was forbidden, people were afraid and uncertain. The secrecy gave the priests nearly unlimited power. » says professor Boe.
«What did Flavius do?»
«He was a brave and probably slightly mad slave. He took a great risk by stealing the law formulas and made sure that the content was distributed to the people. Thereby, he strengthened the general population and deprived the priests of some of their power. It is a core need in people’s lives, to be allowed to know the rules of the society they take part in. This is a clear parallel to the story you are writing now. » says Boe.
«Jehovah’s Witnesses have the same attitude towards the authorities as Jesus and the apostles had, and we therefore carefully abide by the laws”, Erik Jørgensen writes in an email to Fædrelandsvennen. He is a spokesman for the Branch Office in Scandinavia.
Jehovah’s Witnesses received a list of questions on how the organization complies with Data Protection regulations. But Jørgensen declines to answer those questions. We wanted to know how the organization responds to requests to see what is stored about a person, and requests to have material deleted. Also, Jørgensen refrains from answering specific questions about whether someone who files an application will get a copy of their publisher card and the S-77-form about their disfellowshipping.
«Persons who are subject to the Act, may have that information the Act allows them. We are prepared also to inform relevant authorities on how we handle personal information. However, we do not discuss these matters with the press,” is the statement he provides us by email.
The spokesman will not answer our questions relating on the 1997 letter to all Bodies of Elders, which sparked a worldwide internal investigation into evidence about child abuse. Fædrelandsvennen wanted to know what the organization ever did with the evidence they collected on child abuse from the Scandinavian congregations, and how many cases they know about.
That question remains unanswered.
In this story, four women have been anonymized. Many of Fædrelandsvennens’ sources are still active members of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are afraid they may be shunned and isolated from friends and families if it is known that they shared their experiences with people on the outside. Fædrelandsvennen have also used extensive written sources to prepare this story, including both internal documents from JW and documents from public court cases.
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