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May 24, 2007 12:51PM

Watching the Watchtower

Jehovah's Witnesses settle cases as its missionaries ask about "scandals in the various churches."

Ted Olsen

One of the most frequent reader responses to David Neff's article on Knocking, the PBS documentary on Jehovah's Witnesses, is that it did not address the allegations against church officials.of abuse and coverups.

It really wasn't relevant to a discussion of this particular documentary, but yes, we are aware of the cases. In fact, we covered them before the rest of the media.

And now there's a big development: silentlambs, a Jehovah's Witness-focused victims rights organization similar to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), discovered that the Jehovah's Witnesses recently settled 16 abuse lawsuits. The organization says other abuse suits are still pending, but doesn't know how many.

One odd personal anecdote:

A couple of weeks ago, I answered a knock at the door and found two eager young evangelists. I was watching my young

son at the time, and was unable to invite them in, but I let them ask their lead-in question: "Do you think that the scandals in the various churches have affected their ability to minister effectively?" (I'm paraphrasing here; knowing a bit of JW theology, it's possible--even likely--that their question may have ended in a slightly different phrase than "minister effectively" and they might have had another word for "churches".)

"I'm not sure what you mean by the scandals," I said, thinking at the time that they were from evangelical and evangelistic church down the street. (They were dressed too casually to be Mormons.)

"You know, like pedophile priests," said the woman evangelist, the only one who talked during our brief conversation.

"Well, if you mean those particular priests, then yes, of course it's going to affect their ability to minister," I said. "If you mean the churches' witness or the witness of the larger body of Christ, I guess my view is that God always works amid man's massive sinfulness, and that when Jesus said the gates of hell would not prevail against the church, he was talking about the hell of sin in the church as much as he was talking about anything. There are always consequences for sin, and I think we're seeing a lot of that right now, but the church is the Body of Christ and he's bigger than these scandals."

She smiled. "Sounds like you know your Bible," she said, and handed me her literature. "Here are just some items to help you as you read your Bible and look for answers..."

It was then that I saw the Watchtower Society name on the material. I handed it back. "No thanks," I said. They smiled and thanked me for my time, and were starting to turn around when I decided it wouldn't hurt to ask my question. I was curious about whether they had actually planned to use the Jehovah's Witness abuse scandal as an evangelistic tool. If so, that would have made quite an article.

"Um, you do know that one of the biggest abuse scandals right now is in the Jehovah's Witnesses, right?" I asked. It was immediately clear from the woman's expression -- a grimace, then the smile again -- that they had not intended to use their own scandal in their pitch.

"Oh," she said, "you mean that one case where a man followed a boy into the bathroom...?"

"No, actually, not just that. Massive numbers of accusations," I said.

"Well, the difference in our church is that we kick those people out as soon as we learn about the situation," she said.

"Actually, I work for a magazine that has done some reporting on this," I said, "and the big issue for me was that people making the accusations were saying they got kicked out because they didn't have 'two or three witnesses' to the abuse."

I can't remember exactly what she replied, but she said she was sure that I wasn't quite right about that. And by now she was eager to take me up on my earlier goodbye. She had already moved a step or two back.

"Well, anyway," I said, "I'm not interested in arguing about abuse cases. That's my day job and I'm watching my son right now, happily not talking about this kind of thing. But really. You might want to think about another lead-in question."

I'm curious: Did anyone else get a JW visit lately with this opening line? Does anyone know if these opening lines come from a central office, or are they the responsibility of the individual missionaries?



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