The Watchtower building - US headquarters of the Jehovah's WitnessesSuffer The Little Children
With the Catholic Church still reeling from revelations that it kept child abuse quiet, Panorama investigates a world-wide religion that stands accused of shielding ab
user s: the Jehovah's Witnesses.



Suffer The Little Children

Watch the programme on Sunday 14 July at 22:15 BST, on BBC One or from this page.

With the Catholic Church still reeling from revelations that it kept child abuse quiet, Panorama investigates a world-wide religion that stands accused of shielding ab user s: the Jehovah's Witnesses.

The programme tells the harrowing s tori es of children put at risk by the Watchtower Society's bible-based policies and unearths evidence of a database of members suspected of child abuse - many of whom have never been reported to the police.

The organisation claims to monitor the men accused of raping and molesting children but now faces allegations that it covers up crime and pressurises victims not to go to the police.

Panorama takes its evidence to the heart of the organisation and reveals the damage caused by the silent witnesses.

Production Team:
Reporter: Betsan Powys
Murdoch Rodgers
Assistant Producer:
Shabnam Grewal
Editor: Mike Robinson



Secret database protects pedophiles

Bill Bowen

The Jehovah's Witnesses organization keeps a sex offenders register that nobody outside the church is allowed to see, a former "elder" tells Panorama . Bill Bowen, who has spent his lifetime as a Jehovah's Witness and over twenty years as an elder, says the organization covers up abuse by keeping this database secret. His sources indicate there are 23,720 ab user s on the list - who are protected by the system. "They [the Jehovah's Witnesses] do not want people to know that they have this problem", he tells Panorama . "And by covering it up they just hurt one person. By letting it out, then they hurt the image of the church."

Bible-based policy

Girl in a shadow

Victims of abuse feel they cannot speak out

According to the Jehovah's Witnesses' interpretation of the Bible, allegations of child abuse must first be reported to the organization's legal desk. The police are sometimes never told. Action can only be taken within the congregation if there are two witnesses to a crime or a confession from the accused. And if a member of the congregation is suspected or even convicted of child abuse, this fact is kept secret. Bill Bowen, from Kentucky in the United States , resigned as an elder in 2000 in protest at this child protection policy. He told Panorama :

"These men remain anonymous to anyone outside the organization and anyone really inside the organization unless you are personally reporting the matter."

Danger ignored

The story of one young Jehovah's Witness from Scotland whom Panorama spoke to illustrates the dan ger of such a policy.

Alison Cousins

Alison Cousins was let down by the Jehovah's Witnesses' policy on child protection

When Alison Cousins was abused by her father she followed the procedure she had been taught - she turned to one of the elders. Unknown to her at the time, her sister had also reported her own abuse by their father in the same way. Despite having known for three years that Alison's father was a pedophile, the same elders sent Alison back home, where she continued to be abused. In the end Alison went to the police and her father was sentenced to five years in prison.

We have a duty to protect and if we're not told, we're unable to protect

Detective Sergeant Wallace Burgess

But the police had been the last to know. Detective Sergeant Wallace Burgess of Strathclyde police said: "They had told several people before coming to the police and these people had not reported it either to the police or the social services.

"We have a duty to protect and if we're not told, we're unable to protect."

Legal advice: "walk away"

"With regard to any allegation concerning child molestation, the first edict elders are given is to call the legal department", says Bowen. Last year, posing as a concerned elder, he rang the legal desk and asked for advice on how he should handle a suspected case of abuse. The advice was: "You just ask him again: 'Now is there anything to this?' If he says 'no', then I would walk away from it... "Leave it for Jehovah. He'll bring it out."

Despite this, the Head of Public Relations, J R Brown, maintains: "We have a very aggressive policy to handle child molestation in the congregations and it is primarily designed to protect our children." When asked by Panorama about the number of suspected pedophiles on the database, Paul Gillies from the Jehovah's Witnesses Office of Public Information in the UK said: "It is not meaningful to focus on the number of names we have in ou r r ecords".

With regard to their policy on reporting abuse to the authorities, he referred us to the 8 October 1993 issue of Awake! , page 9, which states: "Some legal experts advise reporting the abuse to the authorities as soon as possible. In some lands the legal system may require this. But in other places the legal system may offer little hope of successful prosecution."


Sara Poisson: obedience

The "elders" within the Jehovah's Witnesses church are regarded as God's representatives on earth. Other members are expected to act upon what the elders say.

Hebrews 13:17

"Be obedient to those who are taking the lead amon g you and be submissive for they are keeping watch over your souls."

Sara's story

Sara Poisson was a member of a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation in New Hampshire in the USA . She went to the elders because her husband was violent. She also suspected - rightly, it transpired - that he was sexually abusing her daughter. The elders told her she needed to pray more and be a better wife. She believed them and the abuse continued. Sara explained to Panorama why she did not simply leave with her children: "The elders are in place to govern on earth as a substitute I guess - I can't think of a better word - they're God's representatives on earth. "God's representatives on earth have told me repeatedly this is my fault. "I haven't figured it out yet... 'keep working at it and it will end'... "OK, so I did, and I kept trying to do that. "It would never have occurred to me to take this outside of the congregation."



History of the Jehovah's Witnesses

The Jehovah's Witnesses are a Christian sect with over six million members worldwide. They were founded in Pennsylvania in the USA in the 1870s by Charles Taze Russell as a bible study group. Pastor Russell, as he was often called, launched the magazine Zion 's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence in 1879. The group continued to preach, convert and publish its magazine and as the membership rose it expanded into neighbouring states. By 1880 there were scores of congregations around the United States and the following year the " Zion 's Watch Tower Tract Society" was formed. In 1884 it was incorporated, with Russell as president, and the name was eventually changed to the"Watchtower Bible and Tract Society".

International spread

By 1909 the work had become international, and the society's headquarters were moved to its present location in Brooklyn , New York . Printed sermons were syndicated in newspapers, and by 1913 these were being printed in four languages in 3,000 newspapers in the United States , Canada , and Europe . Books, booklets, and tracts had been distributed by the hundreds of millions. In 1931 the name "Jehovah's Witnesses" was officially adopted, replacing the original name that described members as "International bible students".

Present day

There are now approximately 6 million members around the world. All true Jehovah's Witnesses are required to go witnessing from house to house offering Bible literature, and recruiting and converting people to what they call "the truth". From fifty people preaching full-time in 1888, the organisation has grown to over 700,000 members worldwide. They work full time and unpaid as "pioneers", regularly spending at least 70 hours each month in door-to-door witnessing. In the UK there are about 120,000 members who live by the rules of the organisation and call themselves Jehovah's Witnesses.