19.11.2021
Human Rights Without Frontiers
Christian marginal groups (victims)

When media wrongfully stigmatize and fail to publish the judicial truth: the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses

Le Soir, La Capitale Sud-info, Bruxelles News, Nieuwsblad, VRT Nieuws and Bruzz which had very imprudently reported in 2018–2019, as a breaking news, the alleged failure of the Belgian Jehovah’s Witnesses association to report sexual abuse in their midst were the only media outlets to report about the 5th of October 2021 court decision dismissing the charges against this religious group. They can be commended for that.

Human Rights Without Frontiers has identified three well-known TV channels – RTBF, RTL and VRT – and several major newspapers such as La Libre Belgique, La Dernière Heure and Het Laatste Nieuwswhich have failed to report the dismissal of the case against the association of Jehovah’s Witnesses wrongfully suspected of hiding cases of sexual abuse in its midst and holding so-called internal trials, generally favourable to the alleged perpetrators.

The federal prosecutor’s office explained that after three years of investigation the case had been dismissed and he was quoted by the daily newspaper Le Soir as saying

“It is possible that there were facts, but if so, they took place in the intra-family sphere. These facts cannot therefore be attributed to the Jehovah's Witnesses association.”

Links: Le SoirLa Capitale Sud-infoBruxelles NewsNieuwsbladVRT Nieuws and Bruzz


Part I

The context

In December 2018, the Belgian media suddenly made their headlines with catchy titles targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses. The movement was hereby publicly suspected of covering up or hiding cases of sexual abuse in its midst, silencing the victims and their families.

The suspicions were based on a report of the Centre for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations (CIAOSN)[1], a state-sponsored organization, also known as the Information Center on Cult or the Cult Observatory.

The authors of the CIAOSN report cited newspaper articles published in the Netherlands as the rationale for investigating the activities of the Jehovah’s Witness organization in Belgium. They also claimed that three testimonies collected by the Dutch association Reclaimed Voices were concerning facts which had allegedly taken place in Belgium. The CIAOSN investigators transmitted their report to the Federal Parliament and strongly recommended a parliamentary inquiry.

The Belgian anti-Jehovah’s Witnesses campaign on the issue of sexual abuse in Europe started in the Netherlands with a number of reports published by Reclaimed Voices, an association founded by three former Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim to defend the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ children and not to campaign against their organization. Afterwards, an association called Reclaimed Voices/ Belgium was created in the Flanders and started an anti-Jehovah’s Witnesses campaign about alleged sexual abuse in their midst and other issues.

This paper analyses the media campaign targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses on the issue of sexual abuse and the interactive dynamic between the actors involved in it. The objective was not to check the truthfulness of the testimonies and the accusations mentioned in various reports. It was not to deny either the existence of possible sexual abuse in Jehovah’s Witnesses families or by people participating in or leading their religious activities.

This paper comprises of three parts: A chronology of the campaign, an investigation about the actors involved in it and conclusions.

The anti-Jehovah’s Witnesses campaign: A story in four acts

Act I (2018): The report of the CIAOSN, a time-bomb

On 30 November 2018, the CIAOSN closed a 28-page report[2] about the management of sexual abuse on minors inside the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses and transmitted it to the Federal Parliament. This report comprises of four parts:

  • Part 1: The organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses (pp 1–4)
  • Part 2: State of play in 13 countries about initiatives denouncing internal procedures of Jehovah’s Witnesses in cases of sexual abuse on minors (pp 6–10)
  • Part 3: State of play in Belgium (pp 12–14)
  • Part 4: Conclusions (pp 15–17)

Annexes (pp 18-28)

Noteworthy is that the section on Belgium only covers two pages of short descriptions of seven alleged cases or reports published in the Belgian media in 20 years’ time, between 1996 and 2017. In an additional paragraph, the CIAOSN justified the rationale of its decision to investigate the management of sexual abuse inside the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses as follows:

In June 2018, the CIAOSN received the notification according to which three of the 286 testimonies received by the Foundation “Reclaimed Voices” in the Netherlands concern facts which have allegedly taken place in Belgium. From June 2018 on, the CIAOSN received several direct and indirect testimonies from individuals claiming to have suffered from sexual violence in the midst of the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgium when they were children. These testimonies suggest that the management of sexual abuse in Belgium is similar to other countries.

Two points need to be raised about the CIAOSN’s position.

The first source justifying the CIAOSN’s move was that the Dutch association had transmitted them three Belgian cases. We contacted Reclaimed Voices on this issue and they denied such a news made public in Belgium, saying in an email dated 10 February 2021:

The information in the report of the CIAOSN is not correct. On 29 March 2019, we sent an email to Ms Kerstine Vanderput about this inaccuracy. At that time, it came to our attention that Koen Geens, Minister of Justice (CD&V) had said on Radio 1 in Belgium: ‘It is the CIAOSN itself which has gone to the Netherlands to find this information and has stated that among the 286 Dutch complaints there were three Belgian ones’. Something similar was said on television at ‘Van Gils & Guests’. In the Dutch media, we have only testified about the situation in the Netherlands. The figures that were mentioned are only alleged victims of abuse in the Netherlands.[3]

It is difficult to understand how such an unfounded information could be reported by the CIAOSN without any fact-checking and communicated to the Prosecutor’s Office.

As to other testimonies ‘received directly or indirectly’, the second source of information, there are no details in the CIAOSN report concerning the collection methodology, their number, their source, their nature or the dating of the alleged sexual abuse cases.

Last but not least, the CIAOSN Report does not address the issue of the distinction to be made between institutional abuse and family abuse, a point among many others stressed by Prof. Holly Folk in her article “Jehovah’s Witnesses and Sexual Abuse: Belgium and the Netherlands” published In Bitter Winter.[4]

This CIAOSN Report was however the time-bomb that exploded in the Belgian media less than a month later and triggered a chain reaction of stigmatizing news and comments failing to be confirmed by serious investigation.

On Thursday 20 December 2018 at 6.30am, Belga press agency published a breaking news which immediately inflamed all the media: “Sexual abuse on minors among Jehovah’s Witnesses? The Information Center on Cults requests an inquiry”.[5]

Very soon, as it could be expected, the question mark disappeared from the title in the media online:

Twenty-four minutes later, La Libre Belgique and La Dernière Heure titled “Sexual abuse on minors among Jehovah’s Witnesses: An inquiry is necessary”.[6]

At 1.35pm, Le Soir, another leading newspaper, made one more step, titling “How Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgium silence sexual abuse on minors inside their community”[7]

On the same evening, the Belgian francophone TV channel RTBF announced in its 7.30pm TV News[8] that the CIAOSN was asking the House of Representatives to establish an inquiry commission about possible sexual abuses ‘among’ Jehovah’s Witnesses. In addition, the RTBF posted on its website an article titled “Sexual abuse on minors among Jehovah’s Witnesses? The Information Center on Cults demands an inquiry.”

The RTBF TV news was followed by an interview of Frédéric Hoebeeck and his wife Céline Rouge, both former Jehovah’s Witnesses and co-founders of the non-profit association CheCoPa, the symbolic acronym for the French words “CHEnille, COcon, PApillon” (caterpillar, cocoon, butterfly).

The RTBF also gave the floor to a spokesperson of Jehovah’s Witnesses and was the only media to do it. He explained the internal procedure in force in cases of alleged sexual abuse: to investigate the case and protect children if there are strong suspicions and tell parents to contact the police.

The RTBF finally justified its report by concluding that “in the Netherlands, in eight months’ time, the authorities have collected 286 testimonies of sexual abuse; this country has about 25,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, a number close to the one in Belgium.”

By the end of the day, public opinion and political decision-makers in Belgium were unavoidably convinced that sexual abuse on minors had been practiced for a long time and in total impunity inside the Belgian movement of Jehovah’s Witnesses because their community leaders were illegally hiding such facts. Moreover, the CIAOSN appeared to be a necessary vigilance mechanism for the protection of children against Jehovah’s Witnesses and on its website, it published a call for collecting testimonies of (former) Jehovah’s Witnesses who were victims of or knew about sexual abuse[9].

 

Footnotes

[1] The CIAOSN is the “Centre d’Information et d’Avis sur les Organisations Sectaires Nuisibles”. It is a state institution under the Ministry of Justice which was created in 1998 after the House of Representatives had published in 1997 a controversial report on harmful sectarian organizations to which a list of 189 allegedly suspicious religious groups had been attached.

[2] Official title: “Signalement sur le traitement des abus sexuels sur mineurs au sein de l’organisation des témoins de Jehovah” du 30 novembre 2018. As of 1 March 2021, the report was not available on the website of the CIAOSN. The author of this paper got it from another researcher. It is said by the Belgian Federal Parliament to be an intermediary report (See
https://www.ciaosn.be/54K3713001.pdf).
 
[3] Excerpt from the email of Reclaimed Voices: “De informatie in het rapport van het IACSSO is incorrect. Wij hebben op 29 maart 2019 mevrouw Kerstine VanderPutte over deze onjuistheid gemaild. Het viel ons destijds op dat Koen Geerts, minister van Justitie (CD&V) daags ervoor in België bij radio 1 het volgende meldde: "Het is het IACSSO zelf die in Nederland informatie is gaan halen en heeft vastgesteld dat van die 286 Nederlandse klachten er drie Belgische waren". Iets soortgelijks werd op tv gezegd, bij Van Gils & gasten. Wij hebben in de Nederlandse media steeds alleen gecommuniceerd over de Nederlandse situatie. Aantallen die genoemd zijn betreffen alleen (vermeende) slachtoffers van misbruik in Nederland.

Note: Kerstine Vanderput is the director of the CIAOSN. Van Gils & Gasten is a Flemish TV program.

[4] Jehovah’s Witnesses and Sexual Abuse: Belgium and The Netherlands, by Prof. Holly Folk, 13 January 2021, Bitter Winter, https://bitterwinter.org/jehovahs-witnesses-and-sexual-abuse-2-belgium-and-the-netherlands/

Holly Folk is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington. She has previously taught at Indiana Purdue University and the University of Indianapolis. In 2019, she has served as Program Chair for the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting. She has lectured and published extensively on new religious movements, religion in Eastern Asia, new Christian groups, and communal studies. 

[5] Des abus sexuels sur mineurs au sein des témoins de Jéhovah? Le Centre d'information sur les sectes réclame une enquête, RTBF, 20 December 2018, https://www.rtbf.be/info/belgique/detail_une-enquete-est-necessaire-sur-des-abus-sexuels-sur-mineurs-au-sein-des-temoins-de-jehovah?id=10102767.

[6] Des abus sexuels sur mineurs au sein des témoins de Jéhovah: Une enquête est nécessaire, La Libre Belgique, 20 December 2018, https://www.lalibre.be/belgique/des-abus-sexuels-sur-mineurs-au-sein-des-temoins-de-jehovah-une-enquete-est-necessaire-5c1b2f7ecd70e3d2f7592726.

[7] Comment les Témoins de Jéhovah en Belgique taisent les abus sexuels sur mineurs au sein de leur communauté, Le Soir, 20 December 2018, https://plus.lesoir.be/196635/article/2018-12-20/comment-les-temoins-de-jehovah-en-belgique-taisent-les-abus-sexuels-sur-mineurs.

[8] RTBF TV news (video), 20 December 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2g8Pw2K7pE.

[9] https://www.ciaosn.be/actu.htm


Part II

Act II (2019): The tsunami

Two months and a half after the publication of the CIAOSN report, the issue made the headlines again with the creation of a working group in the House of Representatives which was commissioned to inquire about “the management of sexual abuse on minors inside the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses”. The parliamentiary group was presided by André Frédéric, a Socialist MP who is the chairman of a Belgian anticult group named AVISO and quite recently the president of FECRIS, a pan-European anticult organization. 

On 12 March 2019, La Libre Belgique published a press release of Belga titled “Pedophilia among Jehovah’s Witnesses examined by the House of Representatives”[1]. It stressed that according to the CIAOSN report, Jehovah’s Witnesses are against pedophilia but “the situation is less clear on the ground”.

On 27 March 2019, VRT1, a well-known Flemish Television released a 35-minute investigation program titled “The secret of Jehovah”[2] which dealt with the internal management of sexual issues by the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Flanders and abroad: masturbation, homosexuality, incest, sexual abuse in family and in the community. For their investigation, the journalists talked with victims, former elders and former members of the internal judicial committees. One of them was Patrick Haeck, a co-founder of the anti-cult association Reclaimed Voices/Belgium.

On the next day, the VRT published an article on its website titled “Jehovah’s Witnesses' scandal: state intelligence to home in on sects” in which the then Belgian Minister of Justice, Koen Geens (Flemish Christian democrat) was reported to have said to VRT 1 that he wanted

“Jehovah’s Witnesses wishing to leave the organisation to receive help from the cults’ watchdog” (CIAOSN). And he added "I will also ask the secret services to take a closer look at the activity of cults.”

On 1 April, RTL, a major francophone TV channel, covered the issue in its evening TV news[3] after having posted two long articles on its website[4].

In the aftermath of the VRT documentary, a series of articles was published in Fædrelandsvennen, a major Norwegian newspaper,[5] and by the website of Avoid Jehovah’s Witnesses[6], run by a former Jehovah’s Witness in Ireland.

Act III (2019): The police search of the Belgian Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters

On 25 April 2019, the Federal Judicial Authorities searched the Belgian headquarters of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Association in Kraainem, on the outskirts of Brussels[7].

A spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses then said to Brussels Times: “We attach a great deal of importance to the welfare of children, and invariably report any allegations to the authorities. There is no place within our community for anyone who might carry out such practices.”

Conclusions

Sexual abuse on minors is a horrible plague and suspicions of such cases must immediately be reported to the relevant civil authorities for the protection of the minors. The police and secular courts are indeed better equipped to investigate abuse claims than religious and other communities and to identify the real facts.

Sexual abuse exists in all realms of society, in families as well as in institutions: religious communities, schools, sports centers, summer camps, clubs, and so on.

Sexual abuse on minors has not only happened in a religious institutional setting but also in schools, summer camps and various sports, such as athletics and swimming.

The facts are usually denounced years and decades later when victims are adults. Many cases which have emerged in the last few years date back to the last century where that sort of phenomenon was massively and wrongfully disregarded and silenced by families, society and leaders in charge of institutions. In those times, the police and the judiciary were also failing to take domestic violence into consideration. Times have fortunately changed.

In the last few years, the Roman Catholic Church has been in the eye of the cyclone on this issue. Hundreds of clergymen around the world, even at the highest level, have been convicted and sentenced by courts. Moreover, the Church has been accused of covering up such criminal behaviors and a number of prelates have recognized it. France is the latest example of this tragedy.

The organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses is now at the heart of media campaigns in several countries targeting their alleged mishandling of sexual abuse cases they may have been aware of in the past.

In the case of Belgium, a court has declared unfounded the suspicions and the accusations of former embittered members after three years of investigation. A number of mainline media outlets should have been more prudent in their coverage of the report of the CIAOSN, should have double-checked the data and carried out a counter-investigation instead of escalating the stigmatization with catchy headlines day after day.

If such headlines had affected Jewish, Muslim or other religious communities, they would have provoked a general outcry, and rightly so. They would have been assimilated to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or incitement to hatred towards a religious minority, even if the accusations had been founded. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were not founded, a judge said, and his decision was not appealed.

The judiciary has professionally dealt with this issue but a number of media outlets have not. In the meantime, moral damage has been committed and the accusations will persist as proven facts in the minds of public opinion as their refutation by a court has dramatically remained either unreported or under-reported by the media in comparison with the magnitude and the intensity of the stigmatization. Moreover, their fake news continue their life on internet, inexorably.

Stereotyping, demonizing, scapegoating and discriminating against religious, ethnic or other human groups are not acceptable in our democratic societies. Justice and restraint must always prevail.

 

Footnotes

[1] La Chambre se penche sur la pédophilie au sein des témoins de Jéhovah, La Libre Belgique, 12 March 2019, https://www.lalibre.be/belgique/politique-belge/la-chambre-se-penche-sur-la-pedophilie-au-sein-des-temoins-de-jehovah-5c87cd467b50a60724b42065.

[2] VRT Eén, Pano, Het Geheim van Jehova (The Secret of Jehovah), YouTube, 3 April 2019,
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPE3akJgkgA.

[3] Pédophilie au sein des Témoins de Jehova: des victimes brisent le silence et racontent leur calvaire (video), RTL Info, 1 April 2019, https://www.rtl.be/info/belgique/societe/viols-et-agressions-sexuelles-sur-mineurs-au-sein-des-temoins-de-jehova-des-victimes-racontent-leur-calvaire-video--1112795.aspx.

[4] Les cas de pédophilie cachés au sein des Témoins de Jehova pour ne pas salir leur communauté, RTL Info, 1 April 2019, https://www.rtl.be/info/belgique/faits-divers/les-cas-de-pedophilie-caches-au-sein-des-temoins-de-jehovah-pour-ne-pas-salir-leur-communaute-1112611.aspx.

Les actes pédophiles au sein des Témoins de Jehovah sont dénoncés depuis plus de 30 ans. Pourquoi rien ne semble changer? (video), RTL Info, 1 April 2019, https://www.rtl.be/info/belgique/societe/les-actes-pedophiles-au-sein-des-temoins-de-jevoha-sont-denonces-depuis-plus-de-30-ans-pourquoi-rien-ne-semble-changer-video--1112804.aspx.

[5] Fædrelandsvennen, 2019, https://www.fvn.no/nyheter/norgeogverden/i/GGOg4l/-Mannen-hadde-innrommet-overgrep-mot-ti-barn-Likevel-fikk-jeg-beskjed-om-a-ikke-ga-til-politiet-med-saken.

[6] The man had admitted abusing ten children. Still, I was told not to go to the police with the case, 2019, https://avoidjw.org/en/news/man-admitted-abusing-10-children/.

[7] Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters searched, VRT News, 30 April 2019, https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/en/2019/04/30/jehovahs-witnesses-headquarters-searched/.

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