This is a translated version of an article that was first published in Norwegian language on April 13, 2018.
Spain, November 2014:
In the small and inviting town Altea, slightly north of Alicante, an 84 year-old Norwegian man lives with his wife. He has been married twice earlier, but now he has settled. At Costa Blanca, the White Coast, the man lives in company with many Norwegians, most of them pensioners.
A number of his friends are members of the Scandinavian Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Altea.
In his congregation, he has a high status. He is an Elder. This means he is a man who speaks at meetings, one whom the others listen to, one who counsels others who share his faith. He is among those who maintain contact with the hierarchy in the organization surrounding their congregation. He is one the others look up to. Being an Elder is a privilege.
Home in his apartment, a few blocks away from the Kingdom Hall in Altea, him and his wife are often visited by her daughter and their grandchild. A girl at four who calls him “Grandpa”. One afternoon in November 2014, they are visiting again. Grandma and “Grandpa” are babysitting. While Grandma takes a nap, “Grandpa” abuses the child sexually.
The girl’s mother comes back to the apartment earlier than planned, and catches him in the act.
She immediately contacts the police, the Guardia Civils branch in Altea, and reports the man. Both she and the little girl are interviewed by the police. This case is not a difficult one to investigate. It’s not often the police have eye-witnesses to sexual abuse of children. The man is arrested, and in his first interview he admits what he has done.
But the little girl tells of more cases of abuse. She does not remember exactly how many, or when. Nevertheless, the police expands the charges against the man to include repeated sexual abuse. “Grandpa” denies this. He gets a sentence for one admitted instance of abuse, and is imprisoned.
In Altea, his congregation are left in a state of shock.
– No one saw this coming, says Odd Inge Tvedt, who is an Elder in the congregation.
The arrest and imprisonment of the abuser has more consequences. The man was formerly an Elder in Jehovah Witness in Southern Norway. When the news from Spain reaches his old congregation, they are in shock. But soon new stories about his sexual abuse are being told.
In the late 80’s he was highly regarded and well liked amongst his fellow worshipers. He was a widower, but soon remarried a woman from his congregation. The young daughter of his new wife, became his next victim.
– Don’t tell mummy
– I can remember it’s summer outside, and the color of the bed sheets, says the mans former stepdaughter.
At the time the man starts abusing her sexually, she is only nine. She can clearly recall the first time. Her mother is working late, and the nine-year old has a friend staying overnight.
– I remember him coming out the shower and in to our room. He was naked.
He orders them to sleep in his bed, and places himself between the two little girls.
– He tells us to touch him. His penis is erected and...
She stops talking, taking a moment before she continues.
– He says: “Now it’s your turn to undress”. I can’t recall what happened after that.
Next day he grabs her hard by her hands and says:
“Don’t tell mummy”.
The nine-year old girl keeps the secret. And over and over again, while she’s asleep and mummy is working, he sneaks into her bed.
I remember this more vaguely, she says.
– But my body remembers. It has nasty memories.
Still, she can react strongly to certain forms of physical contact.
– What’s displaced from my mind, my body can recall.
The man keeps the abuse well concealed. From the congregation and from the girls mother. After seven years the marriage is over.
He is excluded from the congregation, and moves to Spain. Rumor has it, that he’s been mean to his wife. Sexual abuse against his stepdaughter, is never mentioned. Not until the news of the arrest in Spain reach Southern Norway years later.
New stories accusing him of sexual abuse are being told in his former congregation, five in all. From his family members, and from others.
– I grew up with several of his family members, and we have all been Jehovah's Witnesses, but none of them ever told me anything about this, says the mans former stepdaughter.
One of the accusations concerns a granddaughter. Allegedly he abused her for nine years. But no one ever talked about it. No one ever told anyone who had the capability to stop it. And the abuser was able to continue, with all probability for over 50 years.
Several times, our reporters have contacted the man's defence lawyer to hear what he has to say concerning the recent accusations from the congregation in Southern Norway. Neither the lawyer or her client wishes to comment on the case.
But the matter is repeatedly discussed in the Kingdom Hall back in Norway.
– Absolutely, says the man’s former stepdaughter.
– They have been pretty clear, even in the lectures, where they stress: “This is unacceptable”, and “This has affected many of you”, and things like that.
When her own story reaches the others, after the man’s arrest in Spain, one of the elders turns up at her home. Begs her to share what she went through. She tells, he listens. Then he starts crying.
The elders talks to everyone in the congregation who has told similar stories about the man’s abuse. The elders discuss the matter with Jehovah's Witnesses own legal department. But the elders do not contact the police.
– No, not to my knowledge, says the man’s former stepdaughter.
– They never contacted the police like they are supposed to when they learn about sexual abuse against children.
Duty to report or avert sexual abuse
Bible-lessons in exhibition hall
During the year Fædrelandsvennen investigated this case, we kept coming back to one essential question. What do the cases of sexual abuse have to do with Jehovah's Witnesses? They are not the criminals.
It comes down to the internal guidelines in JW and how they instruct their organization to act when they learn about abuse-cases. We visited the organization’s annual District Convention to find some answers.
Norway’s largest exhibition hall at Lillestrøm, outside Oslo, has changed its usual appearance during the days of July 2017. The halls are covered with chairs, all facing in the same direction towards big screens and a podium.
Rows of parked strollers catch our attention. The men and women are dressed as they are attending a party.
The assembly of thousands of people is remarkabley quiet.
It takes only a few seconds for the volunteer guards to spot the journalists. We are asked who we are, in a friendly tone, and they welcome us.
Every time we talk with someone, the guards make contact with them immediately afterwards. But we are allowed to move freely and take pictures.
We have come on this particular day because of a so called symposium. An Elder in Jehovah's Witnesses is supposed to address the meeting with a difficult topic. How to protect the children from abuse, and from perpetrators, sometimes within the organization.
He talks about the need to protect children from all dangers, and the necessity of contacting the elders if someone knows there is something wrong, or suspects there is.
Gagged by the organization
When the congregation in Southern Norway learned about the alleged sexual abuse the familiy members of “the Elder” had suffered when they were children, they immediately reported this internally. All in accordance with JW’s guidelines.
All Scandinavian congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are organized under the Scandinavian Branch Office of JW in Holbæk, Denmark.
They decided to appoint two (members) persons to investigate the matter, and give spiritual guidance to those in need. The two had titles as District Overseer and Circuit Overseer. These titles are associated with much trust, higher up in the hierarchy than ordinary Elders.
They are not allowed to speak with journalists about their findings. They have been gagged by the Branch Office i Denmark.
“Because of duty of confidentiality, no one can give any statements regarding this case,” writes Dag-Erik Kristoffersen in an email to Fædrelandsvennen.
He works for the information department at the Scandinavian Branch Office of Jehovah’s Witnesses. And he does not give an interview.
The system must be notified
At the exhibition hall in Lillestrøm, we talk to René Stub Christiansen. He helps the departement of information when Fædrelandsvennen ask questions about how the Jehovah’s Witnesses deals with sexual abuse cases.
The guidelines for how they work with in abuse cases, is secret. There are leaked versions of these guidelines, written in other languages, available on the internet. But no one will give us a copy of a Norwegian translation.
However, we are given an oral presentation by Mr. Christiansen and Mr Bent Markussen, who are in charge of information services at the annual meeting at Lillestrøm the day we visit.
– According to the Bible, sexual abuse is a serious sin. The congregation will not shield a person guilty of this from the consequences, no matter who has done it, Mr Markussen declares.
A central question is: What does it take for the congregation to involve the police?
– When the elders hear about such a case, two elders shall immediately call the juridical department. They will make sure that rules and regulations are complied with. We guide them in the relation between the obligation to confidentiality and the obligation to tell and prevent, Mr Christiansen says.
Another elder brother who listens to the interview, Mr Kolbjørn Kristiansen, interrupts:
– “Never tell anyone they shall not go to the police”, is one of our guidelines, he says.
One aspect to consider, is whether the abuse is ongoing or if it took place a long time ago. Many stories about sexual abuse of children are not known before years later.
A thing that stands out in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ guidelines on sexual abuse, is that the organization commits itself to investigate all accusations. Such an internal process will take place whether or not there is a police investigation.
The purpose of an internal process is to give spiritual guidance to those involved in the case, to understand the facts, and to decide whether the person accused of the abuse may still be considered a Jehovah’s Witness.
– Do you interview the victims before the police interview them?
– It’s important not to lead the child in a way that can affect them. It also depends on how much time has passed since it happened, says René Stub Christiansen.
When the elders hear about alleged sexual abuse, they shall report this is in organizations hierarchy. The Norwegian cases are handled by the Scandinavian Branch Office in Denmark. They decide who shall deal with every case internally.
Two Elders are appointed. Always two men.
– Their task is to give spiritual guidance. Evidence in a criminal prosecution, that is for the police to handle, Mr Christiansen says.
– But perhaps we need to check some facts, in order to find out whether or not a person can remain a Witness.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses guidelines on this subject is not carved in stone. The guidelines were subject to revision as late av 2017.
Previously, the organization practised a routine where the victim had to tell in detail about what happened, in front of the Elders, with the abuser present, allowing him to contradict and listen. An essential rule has been the “two-witness-rule”, which requires two witnesses unless there is a confession or technical evidence. Unless two witnesses could be produced, no guilt could be proven.
The arrest of “The Elder” that has shocked the congregation in Spain and in Southern Norway, is far from the only sexual abuse case the Jehovah’s Witnesses have had to deal with in the past years.
What makes this story unique, is that the man was sentenced in a courtroom and is spending time in jail.
Internationally, there has been thousands of alleged abuse-cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses the last year. A critical point in most of the cases, is the belief that the organization is not sharing enough information with the police.
Some have even claimed information has been actively withheld from the police or from court processes. Jehovah’s Witnesses have denied this on several occasions, yet the question might be be raised in courts in several countries in the coming years.
In Austraila, for instance, the number of sexual abuse cases within the JW has passed one thousand. These are cases that are reported between the mid 50’s and 2015.
“I am extremely concerned, but not surprised, by the allegations of child abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness movement. Whenever there is a closed society with an inherent power imbalance, the potential for abuse is there,” said the Labour MP Sarah Champion, according to The Guardian.
Hearing in the UK
A Royal commision hearing was told that many of these cases had not been reported at all, The Guardian reported.
Since 2015, the case has only grown in extent.
Fædrelandsvennen has shared some information on this story with The Guardian, and learned from their work on the same issues.
In the UK, The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has proposed a separate hearing after having received a great number of reports on child abuse within the JW.
The Guardian builds its reporting on more than a hundred sources, among them 41 who tell the newspaper about abuse they have experienced themselves.
Daily fines in the US
In the US, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organizational body, was given $ 4000 in daily fines for each day it failed to hand over documents detailing abuse of children. The documents in question was internal documents in the JW about the abuse cases, which a lawyer had requested in preparation for a lawsuit.
The Center for Investigative Reporting in California run a website called Reveal News. They have published a series of articles and a podcast on how the Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the years have withheld information detailing internal sexual abuse cases.
Some of the documents have been shared by Reveal News in their original form, along with other written material that has been used in their journalism.
Three million documents
The lawyer Irwin Zalkin represents victims of sexual abuse. In preparation for a lawsuit against the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he wanted access to documents in the archive of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society detailing how the organization had dealt with such cases since the 1950s.
– You're talking about 14,400 congregations and over 3 million documents that have been scanned in that would have to be searched. It would take years to do that, said Richard Ash, a Watchtower spokesman.
The statement was taped and included as part of Irwin Zalkins preparation for the lawsuit. Reveal News published the statement in their podcast.
Irwin Zalkin settled the cases for his clients some weeks ago. The period with daily fines are over, and Zalkin’s clients were paid an amount which will remain confidentional.
Norwegian police wanted to interrogate
To Fædrelandsvennens knowledge, the police were never contacted by any of the elders in the community in Southern Norway concerning the alleged cases of sexual abuse in Norway. But one individual privately reports him, and an investigation is started, even though a possible prosecution is is outdated.
Spanish police is contacted through the international system, and if possible the Norwegian police wishes to interrogate the man who now is imprisoned in Spain. Even if the case is outdated, having him admit to the accusations can make a huge difference for victim.
Norwegian police receives the case files, but are never given the opportunity to interrogate the man. Eventually, by the fall of 2015, they are forced to close the case.
By this time, the Spanish investigation is already closed.The man, who still is imprisoned, is indicted for several incidents of sexual abuse against the 4-year old.
In December of 2015, the trial is set in Alicante criminal court. The prosecutor demands that he is sentenced to six years in prison. But during the trial, the man now denies the abuse against the litle girl, even if he already has admitted one incident during a police interrogation. And even though he signed a written statement, he now claims he was misunderstood by the interpreter that translated from Spanish to Norwegian.
In his new statement he claims the little girl undressed voluntarily, or that her panties possibly came of by accident.
The court does not believe “The Elder”, and he is sentenced to four years in prison, with 5 years parole.
In addition, he has to pay her Euro 5000 for punitive damages. But he is only convicted for one incident of sexual abuse. And he is never confronted with the accusations from Norway.
It was a team from Guardia Civil, specialized in investigating sexual abuse, that handled the case.
-The investigation in itself, was conducted from Altea. But the coordination and follow-up of this team, lies here in the main office of the province of Alicante, says press officer in Guardia Civil, David Hermoso, at the time of our visit.
He has, together with his collegue Beatriz Garcia, agreed to meet us to review the case. But they are not able to explain why the Norwegian police never got the opportunity to interrogate the man about the alleged incidents in Norway.
– He had no criminal record, neither here in Spain, nor in Norway, Hermoso says.
– If the Norwegian women had wanted to give statements, the Norwegian police would have to have contacted us through our office for international affairs in Madrid.
– The Norwegian police did just that, but never got an answer to whether it was possible to interrogate him or not. In your opinion, why was that?
– The case in itself was uncomplicated to investigate due to the fact that the mother of the child had witnessed the abuse. But again, he had no criminal record, there were no other witnesses, photographs, videos or other evidence related to sexual abuse of children. That’s why we closed the investigation so quickly. I think this must be the explanation.
– We know the Guardia Civil made contact with the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation during the investigation. Were they willing to share information with you?
– As part of any investigation, Guardia Civil makes contact with people who have a relation to the charged person. If he belongs to a congregation, the Guardia Civil will questions them, Hermoso says.
His colleague, Beatriz Garcia,stresses the importance of getting a conviction in this case at all.
– Very often, in cases like this, we have no witnesses and no solid evidence. This time, there is a reliable adult witness, in one of the instances. Yet, the child said it had happened repeatedly. But this time it was enough to get a court sentence, she says.
The Guardia Civil could not find evidence to prove the other instances the child told about. Hence, “The Elder” received a relatively short prison sentence.
– If he had been convicted for multiple instances of abuse, his sentence would have been longer. Absolutely, says Hermoso.
“The Elder” in our story belonged to the Scandinavian Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Altea. The congregation has moved since his arrest. Their meetings are now held in a new Kingdom Hall in an industrial area in the outskirts of the village La Nucia. While driving there, we pass through the Norwegian Colony and the Scandinavian Park.
A Kingdom Hall is used by different congregations of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They use the same room at different times during the week. Just before 6 pm on Sunday eventing, the Kingdom Hall in La Nucia is filled with Swedish and Norwegian citizens, and a few from Denmark.
Barely 40 souls find their way to the chairs the day. Facing a podium and a microphone, there is little in that reminds of the esthetique you will find in a Catholic, or even a Lutheran church. The interior is modest, almost spartanic.
30 of the congregations members are absent today, due to a missionary effort towards Scandinavians in Mallorca, we are explained.
Mr Odd Inge Tvedt welcomes us. He has been an Elder for several years, and still is.
We ask that we may be present at the meeting and talk with him afterwards. The topic: How the group handled the case where one of the elder brothers was caught for abusing a child sexually.
After nearly two hours of lectures, song and biblical studies, the meeting is over and people say goodbye.
The two elders show us the library room in the Kingdom Hall, and agrees to tell us about the case.
– This is a very sensitive case, says Jovan Malajescu, in Swedish.
– I know the case well. I had to deal with it, says Odd Inge Tvedt.
The two Elders confirm that it is as we thought: the man we are curious about was in deed and Elder when he abused the girl.
– His appearance was full of love, and he was a very including person, good to the people around him, Tvedt says.
– You get the feeling of having been fooled. This really affected me. I was really deeply affected when it happened.
Tvedt and Malajescu talks about the central guidelines in the Jehovah’s Witnesses for dealing with cases of sexual abuse. It is required to start an internal process to find out whether or not the accused person may still be a Jehovah’s Witness. This must be done whether or not there is a criminal investigation by the police.
– We comply with Spanish law in these cases, and with Norwegian law. But in addition, we have our internal guidelines.
– If we learn about cases the involves abuse of children, we ask the the police is contacted. A key role for us, is to support the victims, as well as the other people involved. In such cases there may be many people who are having a hard time. Sometimes people may also need help with reporting a the case to the police, Tvedt says.
In this case, it was the mother of the victim who reported “The Elder” to Spanish Guardia Civil.
Aside of the police process, there was a separate process within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as is required in the internal guidelines.
– I can not go into detail about our investigations i such a case. But I can tell you how it concluded. This man is no longer a Jehovah’s Witness. He has been excluded, Tvedt says.
But is there a way back to the congregation after this? Is there forgiveness to find for such a crime?
– Yes, that is possible. Forgiveness is possible when there is sincere regret and people show that they are willing to change. However, forgiveness and trust is not the same thing. He may return and sit in on meetings. But he will never again have privileges and responsibility, and never be alone with children in the congregation. All parents will be warned strongly against this person, says Tvedt.
– When the case here in Spain was known, similar abuse cases involving the same man emerged from victims in Southern Norway. Did you know of these stories?
– Not before. No. It came as a shock. But as he has been exposed, it is not very surprising, really. People who do this sort of thing, rarely change behaviour. They can keep on doing it for a very long time.
“The Elder” in our story was caught in the act by an adult witness. The court believed both her and the child who was his victim, although only this one incident had solid enough evidence for conviction. But what does the Jehovah’s Witnesses do when there is only one child’s testimony against an adult?
– It is difficult when you have only one child’s tale of something that has happened. You can warn other parents in the congregation. But there is little in the case for the police, if there is no evidence, says Jovan Malajesku.
– When is there enough to involve the police?
– It is clear, if two or more children tells stories about the same man, then the first testimony from a child is strengthened. Then we must report to the police, says Malajescu.
Tvedt says that the Jehovah’s Witnesses has a system with what they call “publisher cards”, where information about every baptised member of the organization. This document is passed onwards to the Elders whenever a person move and change congregation.
– If we write information about cases like this on the publisher cards, then the new congregation can be aware of earlier allegations, Tvedt says.
The wife of “The Elder” still lives in Altea. They are not formally divorced, but she says he can never return to her. This Sunday she is present at the meeting in the Kingdom Hall in La Nucia. The congregation is still important to her, and they have supported her during a difficult time.
Her attitude is warm and receiving, but she does not want to give an interview. Most of all, he wish is to forget the whole case.
Still she reveals to us that she never suspected her husband, but she feels deceived by him, the whole marriage was built on lies.
The alleged sexual abuse cases against several children in Norway, are known to her. But that no one warned her about her husband before it was too late, she thinks may be due to the fact that these incidents took place many years ago, at a time when such cases were not discussed in society in general.
She is relieved that the man was convicted, and that he still is imprisoned. In her opinion, he deserves that. Now, she just wants to get on with her life.
Refuses to talk
The prison Centro Penitenciario is located in close proximity to the small village Villena in the province of Alicante. The place is desolate, and the tall barbed wire fences leaves nothing to the imagination about what kind of facility this is. This is where the man now is serving the last year of his sentence. When he is released, probably some time in the fall of 2018, he has turned 88 years. In addition he got five years probation, so if he commits another crime, he can expect not only additional prison time, but a far harder sentence in court.
Fædrelandsvennen has, with help from a spanish investigative journalist, tried to get in touch with the man through his lawyer. We wanted to hear “The Elders” own version of the case, especially if he had any comments regarding the accusations from several women in his former congregation in Norway.
Our spanish colleague reports back that the man has no wish to talk to us. Instead, he instructed his lawyer to convey to us the following message:
“You can go fuck yourselves”.
In the small town in Southern Norway, the man's former stepdaughter remembers even more. She needs professional help to recall episodes, so many things has been displaced from her mind. It’s painful for her, and difficult for her whole family. She still goes back and forth to whether she shall report him to the police for what he did to her.
– I’ve considered reporting him more than once, she says.
What really hit her was when a spanish newspaper reported that it was a mitigating circumstance that the man never before had committed sexual abuse.
– I felt very, very angry inside, because that’s just not true.
Her own case is outdated, but cases like hers often gets investigated i Norway anyway if they are reported to the police.
– I think the elders in our congregation here in Southern Norway should have gone to the police and told them that the case in Spain, has a similar history here. I could have reported my own story to the police, but not other peoples stories. That’s what they, the elders, ought to have done. But they didn’t. That’s what really disappoints me. Because a case like this, never disappears or gets outdated for the person who is abused. That pain stays with you for the rest of your life.
Fædrelandsvennen have made several contacts with the Elder who is currently in charge in the man’s congregation in Southern Norway. He has been made aware of the content of this article, as well as the critique from the previous stepdaughter of the convicted man.
He does not want to give any comments to us.