09:00 - 15 July 2002


The Jehovah's Witness Church in Scotland has vehemently denied allegations that it shelters paedophiles.

A Panorama programme screened last night on BBC TV claimed the church had records of known paedophiles within the faith that it refused to share with police.

The programme profiled an Ayrshire teenager who allegedly told elders at her church she was being abused by her father.

She claimed to have been told not to go to police, despite the fact that the man had already confessed to elders that he had abused her.

A spokesman for the British branch of Jehovah's Witnesses condemned paedophilia as "abhorrent" and stated the programme had failed to examine cases in which the church had approached the police.

The investigative programme claimed that the Watch Tower Society kept a worldwide database of members accused of child abuse. The list, which is claimed to contain more than 20,000 names, is based on details held by each Jehovah's Witness congregation and has many names that have never been reported to police.

Panorama claimed a code of silence existed within the faith based on Biblical teachings that members should turn to elders and not the police, and that members believed a crime had not taken place unless two members of the faith could give evidence of it.

Spokesman Paul Gilles yesterday denied that any Jehovah's Witness congregation would shelter a paedophile from the police.

"Sexual abuse of children is not just a terrible sin but also a crime that can leave lasting emotional scars on its victims," he said. "Jehovah's Witnesses everywhere abhor the sexual abuse of children and will not protect any perpetrator of such repugnant acts from the consequences of his gross sin."

Explaining why the church had chosen to snub the programme, Mr Gilles said: "We decided not to take part for two reasons.

"One is Jehovah's Witnesses are featured in the programme. We follow the Bible in everything we do and the way to resolve difficulties between spiritual brothers and sisters is not in the public.

"Our views are based on deeply held convictions which can't be expressed just in a few soundbites which might be edited. That's why we have chosen to address the allegations on our own website so we can give detailed answers in context."

However, the church did provide the programme with information on its policies towards child abuse.

Mr Gilles, speaking before the programme was aired, said he did not expect it to give an even-handed view.

"I don't expect it to be a balanced programme from what I have seen so far," he said. "They have highlighted cases which could have been handled better. We told them we can't discuss specific cases.

"They have trawled newspapers to find cases where things had gone wrong, but they didn't trawl newspapers to find cases where we had gone to the police."

The spokesman did accept there were cases of child abuse within the faith that could have been dealt with better and expressed regret at them.

Explaining the Jehovah's Witness process for reporting such matters, Mr Gilles said: "When a report is received, elders contact our national office in London for guidance to ensure that, firstly, the alleged victim and other potential victims are protected from possible abuse, and secondly that counsel is given to report crime to the proper authorities and to comply with any additional legal requirements.

"Jehovah's Witnesses further believe that it is the absolute right of the victim, his or her family or anyone else to report the matter to the authorities if they so choose. There are certainly no sanctions against any congregation member who reports an allegation of child abuse to the authorities."

About 8,600 Jehovah's Witnesses made the trip to Perth yesterday for the final day of the Zealous Kingdom Proclaimers Convention. The conference attracted visitors from throughout the UK and as far afield as the US. Organiser Bill Reid said: "The people of Perth have responded very well to us being here, from taxi drivers right the way through."