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Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal: shunning is a crime

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Following success in the courts of Belgium in getting religious shunning recognised as a crime, a group of ex-JWs, led by Patrick Haeck attended Belgian courts to hear JW appeal the verdict. This is their experience:

A Day in a Belgian Courtroom to Hear JW’s Appeal the Verdict

By Patrick Haeck

On March 22, 2022, a group of 19 ex-JWs and I spent a long and difficult day in front of the Court of Appeals in Ghent, Belgium. In the morning, three lawyers presented their arguments as to why JW’s were appealing the decision of the court that mandated shunning was a hate crime.

A picture of Patrick & Belinda Haeck, 2 of the 20 ex-JW’s, who were in the courtroom

In contrast to previous court sessions where the only JW representative was David Vandendriessche (managing director of the Belgian Bethel), there were 25 JW’s present, including circuit overseers, leading elders, some JW-family members and reinstated JW’s. Two of the ex-JW’s told me that they found all these prominent JWs present intimidating. But I reminded them of the incredible opportunity this was to introduce first-hand to active and naïve JW’s, the misery caused by their mandated-shunning policy.

We first heard Master Ramon Scherer try to shame the court for making a decision, reminiscent of that of the 16th century when William Tyndale was found guilty of printing the Bible in English, and of all places his trial and execution took place here in Belgium. Master Ramon then showed he was a dyed-in-the-wool JW by telling the three judges he wanted to make a ‘prediction’: They would hear terrible stories and it would take a whole day to tell everything. And if that wasn’t enough, later in the day, he reminded everyone that his ‘prediction’ had come true, a prophecy had been fulfilled! It was like he thought he was back in the Kingdom Hall talking to JW’s and not in a courtroom, trying to appeal the Court’s original ruling that shunning was a crime.

We next heard from Master Denys, who actually caused more distraction by repeatedly calling me Filip Haeck, instead of Patrick Haeck, revealing his lack of dossier knowledge.

Finally, we listened to Master Dimitri De Beco, who tried to prove that this was a civil matter over which this court has no jurisdiction. He played down shunning as family quarrels. The actual crime could not be proven and the verdict of the first judge refers to the ‘co-perpetrator’, without indicating who ‘the perpetrator’ is. JW’s were following biblical principles and being persecuted due to their faith. In the verdict JWs are called a cult twice and that is insulting. They argued the first judge and the public prosecutor are biased: it is a JW right to exercise their worship as they understand the biblical guidelines, the testimonies are implausible, the judge should not force families to get along, the judge was misled, etc. Nothing we had not heard before.

Then we heard a strong statement from the prosecutor general who restated the earlier position of the Prosecutor General’s Office that he would not tolerate the accusation of bias. The three appeal judges heard everything with an unemotional face, but it seemed clear to me that the JW’s had shot themselves in the foot.

The courtroom building—Palace of Justice—in Ghent where the Appeal was convened

After a lunch break, our attorneys, Master Nathalie Dejonghe, Master Emilie Deneve, Master Eveline Vanhoecke, Master Jan Vanhulle for Unia, and Master Christine Mussche argued for why JW-mandated shunning is a crime. The psychological and emotional damage caused by ostracism/shunning was explained using the book ‘Ostracism’ from Prof Kipling Williams. The sad stories of the many victims were again illuminated, the attempts to intimidate the members of the non-profit organisation toward the victims and how, as a result of this, people were often admitted to the clinic with suicidal tendencies. It was stressed that this was not just any crime, but an ‘ongoing crime’. Doctor’s certificates were brought out to refute the fact that no harm was ever proved. The victim’s stories were highlighted to show the deep human suffering that JW’s cause through their shunning practices. Shunning was called for the first time ‘granting a social death sentence’ by our lawyers.

All ex-JW victims who had taken legal action were given the opportunity by the President (Presiding Judge) to say a few words.

In my speech, I wanted to focus on the JW’s claim that they were applying Bible principles with their shunning policy. So, I started by reporting that in 2006 I was falsely accused of practising spiritism and attending séances – in other words, witchcraft. I pointed my thumb back at my JW judges, JW elders sitting behind me who were there in the Appeals courtroom having to listen to me. I asked the President if I could use my Bible as many of the JW’s had done and he said “yes”. After reading Exodus 22:18 and Leviticus 20:27, which state that you cannot let a witch live and must even stone her to death, I explained that in the 15th century, Torquemada burned at least 10,000 women at the stake as witches and that three times as many women were accused of witchcraft.

A painting depicting several images of witchcraft in the 15th century

When I mentioned the 15th century, I deliberately looked at Master Ramon Scherer, who had talked about the 16th century, and said that I assumed that this court had probably not sentenced too many witches. But JW’s do. Fortunately, they don’t apply all biblical principles and I was just barely stoned. I explained that my experience illustrates that ‘applying biblical principles’ is often outdated and has no place in our modern society. But then I reminded everyone that my request for the court today was to reaffirm shunning as a crime.

I pointed out the various groups of victims of shunning, including one person whose partner decided to go back to being a JW resulting in bitter struggles over the children. Then there were the children who become estranged from their parents, who miss their grandparents because their parents are no longer JW’s, etc. I highlighted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is about the rights of ‘human beings’ and not of ‘an organisation’. JW’s violate Article 30 of the UDHR by appropriating ‘freedom of worship’ as an organisation in order to steal it from their members.

Finally, I took advantage of the willingness of JW’s to explain biblical principles and asked the Court President if I too could again read from Bible, the Sermon on the Mount. And it was allowed! I read and commented on Matthew 5:43-48. JW’s take the role of victim and are ‘persecuted’ according to Master De Beco. It is I who is labeled as an enemy. But here in the Bible Jesus tells us to love me, pray for me and even salute me! Because of the preponderance of JW’s present, I did not ask the victims to stand.

The big surprise for me were two of the people who decided to attend. One was a former JW and attorney, who came to sit by our side, as well as the daughter of a prominent and deceased circuit overseer. Also present was a woman who has two children with her partner (not married) and whose partner only recently turned out to be a DF person. His attempts to return caused inhumane problems. She does not want to marry him and neither of them want to leave the family. Talk about a stalemate!

Benny Bonte pointed to the beautiful painting on the wall of the courtroom depicting the Good Samaritan. He told how we as victims were abandoned by our former fellow believers even when they were still our fellow believers. He made a request to the court to be like the Good Samaritan and come to our aid.

A picture of the Good Samaritan on the wall of the Courtroom

The most weight was put on the shoulders of Cecile Temmerman who was a faithful JW for more than 35 years. Her son, Pascal Mertens, took part in the investigation into the JW paedophilia policy after infiltrating one of the Belgian congregations as an unbaptised person. When it became apparent what he was doing, both Pascal and his mother were labelled as ‘bad association’. Although Cecile was not disfellowshipped, she has been shunned for the last three years. To hear a 78-year-old sweet woman, who has done nothing but live with her son in his home, reporting about the damage she is still suffering, was heartbreaking. She told about having many nightmares and how she has to tie herself up in bed in order not to fall down or start wandering – something she never suffered from before the shunning started.

Master De Beco was allowed to finish with a 5-minute rebuttal. By this time, he was clearly impacted emotionally from hearing the victims’ stories. We saw him literally wringing his hands several times. He showed himself to be a decent person who did his utmost as a lawyer with the means made available to him by the JW’s.

A picture inside the courtroom. JW’s sat inside the middle field; Ex-JW’ sat at the left side behind the bench; at the end are 3 large black chairs for the appeal judges; on the left there is another high chair where the chief prosecutor was seated, on the right side is the Registrars’ PC.

Unless the Court needed more time, the President declared that the three judges would make a ruling on April 26 and, in the event of a postponement, he would communicate this in good time. Afterwards, we no longer saw the haughty David Vandendriessche, who walked away as if nothing could happen to him. However, he seemed to sense what was apparent to all the ex-JWs present—the JW’s did not make a very good impression. The somber faces of the circuit overseers and elders with their wives spoke volumes.

Finally, I can report that it has been 12 years since I ‘taught’ with a Bible in hand and that this will likely be the last time, at least to a JW audience 😊

An important update: The Judge has just informed us that the Court will make a ruling on Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal of the new law–Mandated Shunning is a Hate Crime in Belgium–on May 31, 2022. However, the Court announced on May 30 that there would be yet another delay. Per Patrick Haeck: “The verdict was postponed again for an unknown reason. Judges do not have to explain why they want more time. But, of course, I have a presumption, which is that they want to make their verdict legally tight in the knowledge that the JW shunning policy will undoubtedly be brought to the EU Court. And in that case, I am more than happy to grant the appeal judges the additional time.”