A Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Manchester has been criticised by the Charity Commission over its handling of allegations of child sex abuse by a senior member.
Victims of a convicted paedophile, Jonathan Rose, were forced to confront him face to face and answer questions about their abuse, including from him, at a three-hour meeting, the charity watchdog found. One alleged victim was criticised in correspondence as a troublemaker who was “economical with the truth”.
The charity’s trustees failed to provide “accurate and complete answers” to the investigation, the commission wrote, identifying “misconduct or mismanagement in the administration of the charity”.
The Charity Commission launched an inquiry into the Manchester New Moston congregation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2014. This followed reports that women who were abused by Rose, an “elder” who was jailed for child sex abuse in 2013, had been forced to confront him after his release from prison as he sought to rejoin the congregation.
The commission also launched an investigation into safeguarding by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Great Britain (WTBTS), the umbrella charity that oversees the UK’s 1,350 Jehovah’s Witness congregations and is believed by investigators to play a key role in deciding how claims of abuse are handled.
Concerns about how the Jehovah’s Witnesses handle such allegations have also surfaced in Australia, where a royal commission found congregations wereencouraged not to report claims to the police, and in the US, where efforts to investigate allegations have resulted in fines of millions for withholding details of alleged child abusers.
The UK investigations have been delayed by a thicket of legal challenges thrown up by the charities. WTBTS dropped the last of its cases in January.
The Manchester New Moston inquiry found that in 2012 a woman referred to as Person A alleged that Rose, who was by then an elder and trustee, had abused her when she was a child in the 1990s.
After he was charged with the offence, the Charity Commission contacted the trustees and was assured he was no longer allowed to carry out pastoral or promotional duties. Rose resigned as a trustee but continued to carry out some of these duties, the commission found. At least two of the trustees who decided how to deal with Rose were close friends, raising what the commission called potential “conflicts of loyalty”.
The charity said they had no knowledge of any similar allegations against Rose. But the inquiry found they did not provide “complete and accurate answers”: three of the trustees had been involved, directly or indirectly, when a girl known in the report as Person B made an allegation to the elders of sexual abuse by Rose in 1993. Rose stood trial for the offence in 1994 and was acquitted.
After news emerged of Rose’s 2012 arrest, Person B and elders of a neighbouring congregation flagged up the historical allegation. But New Moston elders wrote she had “a history of being economical with the truth and seeking to cause trouble”, and they “do not view [her] as a reliable witness”. As Rose had been 19 and she had been 15 at the time, they viewed the allegation as “a matter between two teenagers” and “not the same kind of wrongdoing”.
Rose was jailed for nine months for historical child sex offences against Person A and a third woman, Person C, in autumn 2013. Elders from other congregations decided to “disfellowship” – expel – Rose.
He appealed and within weeks of his release the appeal committee announced meetings bringing Person A, B and C face to face with him. Person B was told action against Rose would be dropped if at least two of them did not attend. The appeals committee chair told the inquiry he did not remember saying this.
In a three-hour meeting, the report said, Rose asked Person B: “What was I supposed to have done to you that night?” Another member of the committee asked: “Did you ever egg him on?”
After the charity commission raised concerns about the meeting with the congregation’s trustees and WTBTSB, Rose was disfellowshipped.
The trustees of the Manchester New Moston congregation failed on several fronts to deal properly with the allegations of child sexual abuse, the commission found: it did not identify Person B’s allegation as child sexual abuse, or take this into account when considering Person A’s account; it failed to suspend Rose from activities; it did not consider the trustees’ conflicts of loyalties; and it did not keep proper records.
Together with the handling of the hearing and the lack of openness surrounding the previous allegations relating to Rose, these amounted to “misconduct or mismanagement”, the inquiry found.
The woman known as Person B told the Guardian: “I want the organisation to remove those elders that dealt with me the first time around as they covered it up then, and again when Rose was accused by others.
“It has been proven they have misled both the organisation and the Charity Commission, and although they have offered an unreserved apology to me through an overseer, they refuse to apologise to any of the victims and their families, publicly or privately. They’re not repentant for their actions and the congregation is still being misled.”
Harvey Grenville, the Charity Commission’s head of investigations and enforcement, said the victims of abuse had been “badly let down” by the charity. “The trustees should have made the victims’ welfare their first priority. Instead, their actions and omissions, both in response to allegations of abuse, and in their attitude towards our investigation, fell short of what the public would expect of those running a charity in a modern society.”
The charity had improved its policies on child safeguarding since the investigation was launched, and victims are no longer forced to recount allegations in front of their abuser, the commission said, welcoming the change.
Kathleen Hallisey, a senior solicitor at Bolt Burdon Kemp, who represents several victims of alleged abuse by members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, said: “It’s really concerning, to be complimentary, when they have produced a five-page safeguarding policy which certainly isn’t in line with current safeguarding.”
A statement from the Jehovah’s Witnesses said: “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse in all 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.”
It said the organisation had a robust safeguarding policy, which was followed by “imposing restrictions on the perpetrator and by ensuring that he had no unsupervised contact with children during congregation meetings”.