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Inside the brutal world of the Jehovah’s Witnesses

2021-10-08 Source:www.abc.net.au Author:Adam Harvey, Mary Fallon, and Lucy Carter

Since the royal commission exposed the cruel treatment of victims of child abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses, little has changed.

But in a landmark civil case, former member Amy Whitby is taking on the secretive religious group in court.

Eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses around the globe believe that Armageddon is imminent, and the only path to survival is to follow the organisation’s strict rules.

A US-based Governing Body of eight men sits at the pinnacle of the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe these men are anointed as the voice of God on Earth.

All Witnesses are expected to obey instructions and doctrines that influence every aspect of life: Women are considered subservient to men, higher education is discouraged and homosexuality is not permitted.

Doomsday images from Jehovah's Witnesses publications.

The organisation’s in-house production studio and publications pump out fear-driven content that keeps followers afraid that the end is coming and that they are being persecuted by the outside world.

Witnesses are also taught to distrust everyone outside the group.

The Governing Body oversees a vast global real estate portfolio, including Kingdom Halls built by congregations around the world.

The Australian branch owns at least 440 properties including a sprawling headquarters in western Sydney. Last year, it reported an income of more than $32 million.Kingdom Halls built by congregations around the world.

As a religious charity, it receives significant federal and state tax exemptions.

Amy’s fight for justice

Amy Whitby and her mother, Theresa Clare, left the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2015.

Ms Clare said she left after realising the extent of abuse within the organisation, including allegedly against her own daughter.

“They rip your reputation apart. They rip you apart as a person.  I mean they even ripped me apart as a mum,” Ms Clare said.

They are scarred by what allegedly happened to Amy as an 11-year-old girl growing up in the remote Queensland town of Mount Isa. Amy said she was abused by a trusted member of the congregation, inside the home her family shared with another Jehovah’s Witnesses family.

“The job of an elder is to shepherd the congregation, to look after the flock, to keep them safe. That’s their job because we’re Jehovah’s people and it’s their job to keep us safe and they failed,” Ms Whitby said.

Ms Clare told Four Corners she complained at the time about Amy’s abuse to a Witness elder.

“There were meetings with the elders in my friend’s home, but I was never believed. I was told that I was mental. They used my illness against me because I had that breakdown and I suffered manic depression,” Ms Clare said.

As part of Ms Whitby’s legal case, she is claiming that the Jehovah’s Witnesses elders must have known her alleged abuser had been convicted the previous year of offences against an eight-year-old boy.

“There’d just be no way that those elders would not have known that he was charged, arrested by the police and then went to court,” Ms Clare said.

“It just doesn’t happen in that religion. People spy on each other, you’re told it’s your responsibility. You hear something about someone you are to report it.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses say local elders weren’t aware of the prior conviction, and, regardless, the organisation isn’t responsible for the acts of its members within Despite Ms Clare’s complaints, the man remained in the congregation and even took to the stage to deliver Bible readings.

“It would make me so angry to the point that I would get up and I’d go outside and I’d just pace. I’d just be going around and just that anger, because all I wanted to do was run in there and scream at them that he shouldn’t be allowed up there,” Ms Whitby said.

Ms Whitby is now taking legal action against the local Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation and the Australian head office. She’s suing for breaching the duty of care they owed her, by failing to protect her and allowing sexual abuse to occur.

“I feel like what happened had a bit of a domino effect on the rest of my life. I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if that hadn’t have happened, my self confidence, my self worth,” Ms Whitby said.

Attempts to settle have so far failed and Ms Whitby’s case is now headed to trial. It would be the first time in Australia that the Jehovah’s Witnesses organisation has defended sexual abuse allegations in court.

Ms Whitby’s lawyer Lisa Flynn said courts in overseas jurisdictions have found the Jehovah’s Witnesses liable for failing their duty of care to children.

 “We think that the Australian courts will make that same determination when they’re called on to do so.”

Lawyers who have battled the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the US and UK have told Four Corners the organisation has a global problem with both child abuse and the way it responds to victims.

They say the organisation drags cases out until the last possible moment, then settles to avoid a courtroom examination of its practices.

In Australia, a similar pattern is being seen.