Imagine that there is a group telling its members that the Devil is in charge of our world. That this group teaches they are God’s only organization. Every other group, every other religion and every government, is run by the Devil.
Imagine that children raised in the organization are taught, from a very young age, that anyone outside the group is not to be trusted, even their teachers (if they are not home-schooled) and those in law enforcement are to be feared because they are part of the Devil’s organization.
Now imagine that this church also teaches that a man is the undisputed head of the family, his orders are to be followed without question. A woman must submit to her husband, just as he submits to God. Similarly, the children must obey their father, no matter what. The church picks certain men from the congregation to be elders, to “shepherd” and guide the rest, morally and scripturally – and if they feel a woman has misbehaved, they must speak to her husband about her behavior, relying upon him to correct it. Women, of course, cannot be elders, nor can they take place in the formal operations of the organization. They can clean the building and support their husbands, but that is the full extent of their authority.
Imagine that this church, recognizing that they do not live completely outside the reach of secular law, have conceded that there must be some process in place to address possible abuses of power. The process they put in place is simple – anyone who feels they have been wronged can talk to the elders, who will call a meeting between the person who feels wronged, the person they believe wronged them, and a council of three elders, who will do what they feel is right to correct the situation. If there is a dispute as to the veracity of the claims the accuser makes, the elders must call eye-witnesses to the wrong.
Now imagine that, based on their interpretation of scripture, this group has a rule that all claims of wrongdoing must be supported by either a confession on the part of the wrongdoer, or by two reputable eye-witnesses to the event. In a case where there are no eye-witnesses, the elders will stop the judicial process, counselling the accuser and the accused to settle their differences privately.
What would happen if a young woman were raped by her father, who is an elder in the church? She has been told that if she knows of a wrongdoing, she must report it to the elders. Even though she knows that he is a friend of the very man who attacked her, she has no choice but to go to another elder.
Imagine that the organization has another rule: If a teenager wishes to speak to an elder about her father, even to accuse him of pedophilia, she must do so only with her father present, and then only after speaking to him about it first. Even though she doesn’t tell the elder what she wants to speak to him about, once he hears that she wants to tell him about something her father has done, the discussion is over: she must bring her father into this discussion.
Imagine that when the conversation eventually happens, there are five people in the room – the girl, her father, and three elders, all friends of her father. If she wishes to complain against her father’s frequent sexual attacks upon her, this is the only way she is allowed to make that complaint. She is not urged to tell the police or seek medical or psychological help, nor is she told whether or not the men believe her. She is told not to spread ‘rumors’, and made to repeat her story over and over again, with her father listening not a few feet away, even interjecting, and threatening to beat her once he gets her home. After it is all over, her father was kicked out of the congregation – not for the attacks on her, but because of his affair with another woman – and the daughter has a new status in the congregation as a social pariah, with the tongues wagging behind her back calling her ‘liar’, ‘seducer’, ‘slut’. Even her mother does not support her.
Now imagine that you’re not imagining.
This horrible set of circumstances did indeed happen, to a woman of my generation, in Australia. The group exercising the coercive control? The Jehovah’s Witnesses. I honestly wish this was fiction, and I honestly wish that I had not, in researching this, had to watch a purported man of God tell the Australian Royal Commission that he ‘honestly couldn’t understand’ why another woman, put in a similar situation, would have felt uncomfortable at a meeting with three men and her male accuser, with no friend on her side, no other woman in the room, and having to explain in detail a sexual attack made by a man sitting a few feet away from her. He could not understand why she felt uncomfortable. “We offered her scripture,” he told the Commission with a blank expression.
This is a perfect storm of undue influence: secrecy, threats of shunning and damnation, disenfranchisement, and automatic compliance combine, creating a fertile breeding ground for the perpetration and maintenance of pedophilia. The end result: an entire religious organization devoting its energy – and the donations of its faithful – to the task of protecting not its children, but the predators.
There’s nothing more I can add here. No words can convey my indignation that a supposedly religious organization could do this to its children, and my absolute appalled rage and shock that any so-called ‘shepherd’ could defend such policies without blinking an eye.
For those who wish to watch the hearings, you can see them here, but if, like me, are easily enraged by smug pseudo-clergy defending the indefensible, I would not recommend it.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about an ecclesiastical cover-up of pedophilia that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!