Mia was five years old when she faced a big mystery. What did the 15-year-old, who took care of her while her parents were away, mean when she said she should stimulate him? And why had he taken off his trousers?
She should know soon. At some point she had to satisfy him orally, he moaned. Mia was disgusted, she told her mother about the boy’s demands. The five-year-old knew her mother spoke a lot about God and sin and went from house to house with a magazine. But she had little use for the term “Jehovah’s Witnesses”.
The fact that her parents belonged to the community almost destroyed Mia’s life. Because the mother was horrified when she heard about the abuse – not about the boy, but about the dangers that could threaten him.
Mia’s mother spoke to the boy’s mother, but then the five-year-old was told not to talk to anyone about it. She was involved in something that God finds absolutely reprehensible. And she shouldn’t ruin the future of the perpetrator.
Now she grew up with the thesis that she was no longer a real virgin, “damaged goods”, as Mia calls it herself. She tried to take her own life several times. It was only much later, long since grown up, after therapy, that she broke away from Jehovah’s Witnesses and turned to the Independent Commission for the Study of Child Sexual Abuse.
She told her story and linked it with the decisive message: “Now I am no longer a silent victim. I have dignity.” Mia’s story is one of the cases that the Commission will present at a press conference in mid-May. The Commission would like to process many more of these cases nationwide, acts that sometimes date back decades.
That is why she is asking those affected and eyewitnesses to get in touch and tell their terrible stories. The commission wants to find out what conditions have made child sexual abuse possible in the past among Jehovah’s Witnesses. But also: Are there structures that hinder clarification and processing? Work begins as soon as the reports are received. In any case, the so-called two-witness rule was an enormous problem in the clarification and processing. It states that an abuse victim must present at least one second witness who confirms the abuse if the perpetrator does not confess. In practice, of course, this is as good as impossible, which perpetrator abuses in front of witnesses?.
In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, so-called church courts have dealt with the cases of abuse. In this court older men sat and judged. If there were no second witnesses, then the elders were instructed to place the matter in Jehovah’s hands.
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Means: The child was not helped, the crime was not reported. Sanctions for the perpetrators by the court were apparently mild. They were no longer allowed to speak in meetings, but they were not threatened with expulsion from the community. Matthias Katsch, also a member of the Commission, says: “The two-witness rule served to protect the perpetrator.” And the rigorous isolation of the community from the outside world has had a major impact.
“Children are socialized in a closed microcosm,” says social psychologist Keupp, “they have no other network than members of the community.” A few years ago, a state government commission in Australia documented hundreds of cases of abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia, with the help of internal Documents of Jehovah’s Witnesses documented. The two-witness rule was mentioned again and again.
Udo Obermayer was a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses and an elder, later he left the community and founded the dropout aid organization “Help” in 2018. At the press conference he said “that a police report is now possible, but not mandatory. Only if the victim wants it.”
Obermayer also makes it clear that it is not supported if investigating or prosecuting authorities are involved. He notes that only members willing to leave contact the authorities. Those who drop out, says Obermayer, are called liars by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“It is possible,” says Keupp, “that there are changes in individual points among Jehovah’s Witnesses, but this does not apply to cases in the past decades.” And it is precisely these cases that the commission wants to work through. “What we have found in Germany so far fits in with the knowledge that we have from the Australian Commission and from information from European countries,” says Katsch.
It is a problem for Obermayer that Jehovah’s Witnesses have religious privileges. “This means that they are allowed to regulate their own affairs internally.” The Catholic Church also has this privilege, “but,” says Keupp, “it is not allowed to regulate a single case internally because it has to report every case to the public prosecutor’s office”.
Mia doesn’t just have to process the abuse. She is also faced with a “harrowing experience”: “My parents created the climate for the abuse. They sold me for their religion.”