Jehovah's Witnesses sued over 'historical sex abuse'

By Claire Jones
Victoria Derbyshire Programme

  • Published
Jehovah's Witness pamphlets

At least 20 former Jehovah's Witnesses are suing the group over historical sexual abuse they say they suffered.

The group has a policy of not punishing alleged child sex abuse unless a second person, alongside the accuser, has witnessed it - or an abuser confesses.

It says its elders "comply with child-abuse reporting laws even if there is only one witness", though, and always tell police if a child is in danger.

But one former elder said it had been failing to involve the authorities.

Image caption,
John Viney said his abuser had gone on to abuse other children

John Viney, who says he was abused between the ages of nine and 13, by "a distant family member who was an active Jehovah's Witness", added children were still being abused and the religious organisation was "inadvertently" protecting their abusers.

"The way that Jehovah's Witnesses handle matters within the congregation, it's a closed shop," he told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme.

"I know for a fact now that there are parents that haven't done anything about the abuse of their children by others because they don't want to bring reproach on Jehovah's name."

Mr Viney's own daughter, Karen, was abused as a child - and has since spoken out about it publicly.

But when she left the organisation, Mr Viney disowned her - something he has regretted ever since.

"When I was an elder and a dad, I put being an elder absolutely first," he said. "And that was a mistake."

Mr Viney said he had eventually reported his own abuser to the police, in 2019, after years of being too "ashamed", only to be told the man had gone on to abuse other children and died in prison.

"What would have happened if I had had the courage and common sense to come forward [at the time]?" he said.

Thomas Beale, a solicitor representing some of the former members, said they had decided to seek compensation after asking the group for an apology only to find it "denying what has happened or refusing to engage".

Those taking the legal action say the organisation is "vicariously liable" for the abuse they say they suffered. Some claim it was negligent.

If you have had a similar experience, and would like to share your story, contact the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme by emailing

Information and support for those affected by sexual abuse can be found on the BBC's Action Line page.

One woman, Emma - not her real name - said after she had been abused she had been visited by elders who had repeated scripture "about why we should keep it in-house, not follow the laws of the land".

And she had been asked to recount explicit details, with the elders "glaring at me".

Several former members have also told BBC News they were made to discuss their allegations with elders at a "judicial committee", while their alleged abuser sat next to them.

Emma's abuser was jailed for two years.

But, she said, following his release, he had been welcomed back into the organisation.

Image caption,
Labour MP Sarah Champion said elders in the Jehovah's Witnesses felt child abuse should be dealt with "internally" within the group

Labour's Sarah Champion, the chair of a cross-party group of MPs looking at adults who experienced child sexual abuse, said she had "very serious concerns" about a convicted child abuser being allowed "back into a community where they have access to vulnerable people".

She said she had met elders who "believe that there is more than enough safeguarding in place... [but] couldn't think of an example when they would go to the police about their concerns".

And the group saw child abuse as "a sin that they need to deal with internally".

"That's really concerning to me," she added.

The Charity Commission has been investigating the Jehovah's Witnesses organisation since 2013.

A spokeswoman said the inquiry remained ongoing, but would not comment further.

'Educated parents'

A Jehovah's Witnesses spokesman said: "The only way that a child abuser can gain access to children in a religious organisation like ours, which does not have any programmes that separate children from their parents, is through parents themselves."

He said that for "decades", the organisation had educated parents "about the dangers of child abuse and how they can protect their children" and parents and victims were informed they had the right to report the matter to the authorities.

"If a congregant has been guilty of child sexual abuse, our elders inform parents with minors so that they can take measures to protect their children," he added.

Follow the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme on Facebook and Twitter - and see more of our stories here.