UK

Jehovah's Witnesses let sex offender interrogate victims

Judicial panel posed by actors
Image caption The Charity Commission says Jehovah's Witness elders let a convicted sex offender cross-examine victims (posed by actors)

Jehovah's Witnesses have been severely criticised by the Charity Commission for allowing a convicted sex offender to interrogate his victims.

The commission's report said the women had endured "inappropriate and demeaning questioning".

And Jonathan Rose had challenged them during a meeting with Church elders, after he was released from prison.

A Jehovah's Witness statement said "appropriate restrictions" were imposed on anyone guilty of abuse.

Rose was convicted in 2013 of the historical sexual abuse of two girls, aged five and 10, and sentenced to nine months in prison.

Both he and the girls, at the time of the assaults, were members of the New Moston Kingdom Hall, in Manchester.

At the time of his conviction, Rose was a senior member, or "elder", of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

He appealed against a move to expel him, a process known as "disfellowshipping".

In order to decide his fate, a group of elders had called the two women to a meeting at the Kingdom Hall, along with a third woman who had alleged in the 1990s that Rose had assaulted her, the report said.

'Very intimidating'

Over three hours in April 2014, the women were individually questioned by Rose and a room full of male elders.

In an audio recording made by one of the women and passed to the BBC, Rose is heard saying to one woman: "Give me one reason why I would touch you?"

He is heard challenging the woman, accusing her of making up the allegations and asking her to relive the assault.

"What I am saying to you is this didn't happen," he says.

"What was I supposed to have done to you that night?"

One of the elders asks: "Did you ever egg him on?"

"It was worse than the court case," another of the women told the BBC.

"I felt everyone was on his side. I felt I was in the wrong. I felt very intimidated that it was all men, very, very intimidating. I was shocked he was able to talk to me.

"He kept making out that I was lying. He kept saying why did I make it up, why would I say something like that, and at no point did I feel he was going to admit it.

"I got to the point where I thought, 'He genuinely believes he's not done anything wrong.'"

She added that another of the women had burst out of her meeting in tears, claiming Rose had asked if "she'd enjoyed it".

In 2014, the Charity Commission, which regulates both the New Moston Kingdom Hall and the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain - the main UK Jehovah's Witness organisation, opened an investigation into how the trustees of the church had handled the case.

The movement launched several legal actions to stop the inquiry, claiming the commission was acting beyond its remit.

Eventually, the challenges were thrown out by the courts, and the report says: "The trustees of the charity... acting on legal advice, declined to engage with the commission following the opening of its inquiry."

'Mismanagement'

The report also found the charity's trustees had failed to tell the commission about the allegation against Rose from the 1990s, as they should have done.

In a subsequent letter to the regulator, the trustees described the incident as merely "a matter between two teenagers", evidence, says the report, that they did not properly take account of the earlier incident when considering the new allegations.

The report said they also failed to fully enforce the restrictions they had put on Rose's activities, allowing him to continue participating in the Church, and they "did not deal adequately" with the appeal meeting, allowing the questioning to take place, and therefore failing in their duties to protect people from harm.

Taken together, the failures "constitute misconduct or mismanagement in the administration of the charity" by the trustees, the report said.

"This has to be dealt with in a way that is sensitive to the victims who have gone through this terrible ordeal," said Michelle Russell, director of investigations at the Charity Commission. "In this case, they let the victims down."

'No unsupervised contact'

A statement from Watch Tower said: "Jehovah's Witnesses abhor child abuse in all of its forms and do not shield wrongdoers from the authorities or from the consequences of their actions. All allegations of abuse are thoroughly investigated and appropriate restrictions are imposed on any person who is guilty of child sexual abuse.

"For years, Jehovah's Witnesses have had a robust child safeguarding policy. The trustees followed the policy by imposing restrictions on the perpetrator and by ensuring that he had no unsupervised contact with children during congregation meetings.

"The trustees will continue to concentrate on doing all that they can to safeguard children and to care for the spiritual needs of the congregation."

Jonathan Rose told the BBC he had no comment to make.

The commission is now undertaking a wider inquiry into how Jehovah's Witnesses across the UK handle allegations of child sexual abuse.

One particular concern is the Church's policy of dismissing an allegation if it fails its two-witness policy, which states two people need to have seen the abuse for the Church to proceed with a full investigation.

There are also calls for the independent child abuse inquiry to examine the Church's policy.

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