Ouderling is rechercheur, rechter én psycholoog
Marinde van der Breggen en Rianne Oosterom
Rogier Haverkamp, as an elder, wanted to help the abused girls in his congregation with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He tells how he was opposed. Haverkamp’s story seems symbolic for dealing with abuse with Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Whether it is normal for a brother from the congregation to touch her breasts, the sixteen-year-old girl asks Rogier Haverkamp. The elder stands still in the middle of the street in a quiet residential area in Flanders. Did he hear that correctly? Next to him is a young sister with whom he is proclaiming the joyful message of Jehovah.
“No, absolutely not”, he answers.
The man does not only do it to her, the girl says. According to her, he has touched more girls, including his own daughter.
The event on that day in 1999 is the beginning of a difficult process for Haverkamp (now 53). The Fleming is at that time a faithful witness of Jehovah in the congregation in his home town. He got the faith from home. At eighteen, he had been detained for a few months because he had refused military service – Jehovah’s witnesses do not serve in the army of the world. So he does not.
Haverkamp wants to find out the abuse story to the bottom. That suits him, he is always thorough. Just as determined as he usually passes doors of unbelievers, he now visits the girls who would be indecently touched by Brother Henry. “I immediately involved two other elders, the case was serious enough”, says Haverkamp now, eighteen years later.
The approach to sexual abuse is a problem within the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The handling of abuse cases takes place indoors and has traumatic consequences for victims. This is evident from discussions that Trouw conducted with victims, members and former members. This article tells the story of an ex-witness who tried to bring an abuse case. In another Trouw article, another victim, Marianne de Voogd, tells about the abuse that happened to her. Tomorrow is in the Verdieping, Trouw’s daily supplement, the story of Mark, a male victim.
From the stories it becomes clear that victims of sexual abuse do not get help in many cases. It also appears that perpetrators are kept out of the wind and little is done to ensure that they do not go wrong again. This creates a very unsafe situation for children.
The Christian community – labeled by some as a sect – has about 30,000 in the Netherlands and 25,000 supporters in Belgium and is also called the Watchtower Society.
Abuse is preferred by the organization under the carpet, say the people involved. Even if there is someone within the faith community who wants to help the victim to get justice, this is made impossible by the community’s policies and practices, they see.
The Watchtower’s abuse policy is documented in many secret documents that are in the hands of this newspaper. A book entitled ‘Graze the flock of God’ forms the basis. That book is given to all elders, the men who give pastoral guidance to the congregation. It is strictly secret for anyone who is not an elder. Ordinary believers are not aware of the contents of the book.
In addition to the book, there are hundreds of letters from the Governing Body, the highest governing body of the society. It is based in the United States and formulates the policy that is followed all over the world. The letters complete the elders’ book, or make changes to it.
In all these documents, the Jehovah’s Witnesses say that they disapprove of sexual abuse and take it seriously. They handle abuse cases internally, because they believe that their own, comprehensive legal system is superior to that of society. As believers they only have to account to Jehovah for their actions. Not for the ‘dish of the world’, they find. They seldom report abuse.
After the outpouring during the field service, Rogier Haverkamp goes in search of evidence. According to the elders’ book, a confession of the perpetrator is required, or at least two witness statements. All ten girls who speak Haverkamp testify that Henry has abused them: convincing evidence.
There is sufficient ground to start a ‘judicial committee’: a group of elders who judge the matter. In the worst case, a perpetrator is sent away from the community. He may no longer have contact with the members, even if they are family members.
But that only applies if there is sufficient evidence and the perpetrator shows no repentance. If he goes through the dust, then the Jehovah’s Witnesses are manageable: he may stay, but must surrender his privileges. For example, he may no longer pray aloud or give instruction during meetings. These rules are meticulously elaborated in the elders’ book and the letters of the Governing Body.
A committee is set up to deal with Henry’s case. When the elders from the congregation tell Henry about the accusations, he immediately gets into the car. He drives from his home to the branch office in Brussels – the main location of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgium – where he repents in tears about his actions and promises never to do it again.
A day after Henry has reported to the branch, Haverkamp receives a phone call from branch overseer Louis de Wit. The remorse of Henry is sincere, de Wit thinks according to Haverkamp. He remembers that De Wit ordered him not to exclude Henry. The committee will decide on this, Haverkamp replies, De Wit is not allowed to influence their judgment. But the other two elders with whom Haverkamp forms the committee do succumb to the overseer. Henry’s repentance is real, they find. Because they are in the majority, there is no matter.
Haverkamp is furious. He remembers that during the conversations with the committee Henry argued that his daughter is partly guilty because she would have deceived him. That is a sign for Haverkamp that he does not repent. “Someone who regrets does not try to put the blame in someone else’s shoes. Especially not in that of the victim. ”
The committee judges that Henry must apologize to the girls, and he does. But Haverkamp does not feel that justice has been done to them. Moreover, he fears that Henry will go wrong again in the future. “I thought, that man needs help. And the best help I can give him is to report it to the police. ”
Going to the police is not common with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The community teaches that it is unheard of for a witness to challenge a brother to the ‘dish of unbelievers’. Yet the guidelines in the secret elders’ book for ordinary believers prescribe that a victim may never be forbidden to go to the police.
This guideline is immediately followed by a reference to the biblical text Galatians 6: 5, which states: “For every man must bear his own burden”. In practice, victims and those involved are discouraged and sometimes absolutely forbidden to go to the police, several victims and ex-elders confirm to Trouw.
Another ex-elder who in the past handled an abuse case says that he did not even consider reporting that case. “No elder would take that initiative. “We have to watch out for Jehovah’s name, that it does not get stained,” it says. They’re afraid of hanging out the dirty laundry. “Because the elder is still Jehovah’s Witness, he does not want his name in the paper.
The bailiffs at the branch have gotten the air from Haverkamp’s intention to file a complaint against Henry. He is called immediately. According to Haverkamp, overseer David Vandendriessche tells him that it is not his job to go to the police. If someone goes to the police, that must be the victim himself.
And that should not be encouraged, Vandendriessche adds, according to Haverkamp, nicely.
Haverkamp is protesting, something must be done with a view to protecting other children, he says. According to him Vandendriessche gives him in plain words to understand that the overseers have decided that no declaration may be made. If he does, Haverkamp will lose all his privileges, Haverkamp remembers Vanderdriessche’s words.
Haverkamp is an elder and has all kinds of administrative and teaching functions. He is also a pioneer, a title that you get when you do field service for more than 90 hours per month. Haverkamp: “I have given in to the pressure of that threat.”
Neither De Wit nor Vandendriessche nor the branch wants to react to these events. The legal department of the Brussels office says that for ‘ethical reasons’ – ethical considerations – it does not respond to specific cases.
Rogier Haverkamp takes his duties seriously in his home church. He is well aware of all the rules that exist, giving lessons to elders for years. But even an experienced elder like Haverkamp can not get the right way of dealing with an abuse case completely clear. A self-made flowchart based on the elder’s book and the letters of the Governing Body, which extends over five A4 pages, must assure him that he does not make mistakes when speaking in an abuse case.
The men who lead a committee and make decisions about complex matters such as sexual abuse are electricians or bus drivers in daily life. At the Jehovah’s Witnesses they are detective, judge and psychologist at the same time. “The elders are hardly aware of the regulations,” says Haverkamp. “The majority of them are absolutely not suitable to represent such interests. It is as if you ask the tiler: Do you want to become a judge? ”
Henry leaves after the events from Flanders, although he remains a witness. In the years that follow, he separates from his wife and marries someone else, an action for which he is excluded. But in 2007 he wants to come back to the municipality. Henry writes a letter to the branch office in Brussels: “I offer you my sincere apologies for the suffering I caused to the church and to Jehovah’s name.”
Henry joins his old congregation again, but this time he marks a different location within the Flemish city. Haverkamp, who is still a member of the municipality where everything happened at the time, hears that Henry is back and that he is giving Bible study to two young girls and his daughters.
Haverkamp sees it with surprise. He asks an elder from Henry’s congregation if they are aware that he has abused children in the past. The elder has no idea and believes nothing. But, Haverkamp says, upon inquiring, the city overseer (controller) of the municipality confirms his allegations. Yet Henry may continue to do Bible study with the girls and the elders are not informed of Henry’s history. “I keep an eye on him,” said the city overseer, according to Haverkamp.
Someone who has been accused of abuse, proven or not, must be watched, the guidelines state in the elders’ book. He or she may not simply deal with children. A file must also be sent when moving house in which the new municipality is informed of the situation – unless the branch considers after thorough consideration that the perpetrator is no longer a danger.
In 2011, twelve years after the field service, Rogier Haverkamp stepped out of the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He decides to file a complaint against Henry. The police will conduct an investigation. A detective will visit the now-grown women who have been abused by Henry. They are then still witnesses of Jehovah.
It is clear to the detective that something has happened, he tells Haverkamp. But none of the women want to talk. They do not want to “testify against their brother,” they say. In addition, the abuse is now barred. The police are even investigating whether there are recent facts about which an indictment can be posted, but that does not matter.
Rogier Haverkamp still regrets that he did not go to the police at the time. Haverkamp: “I was of the opinion that it was the responsibility of Louis and David. I thought: I must acknowledge the authority given to them by God. ”
The names of Rogier Haverkamp and Henry are fictitious for privacy reasons. Their real names are known to the editors. This also applies to the ex-elder who was involved in the handling of an abuse case. Henry has been asked several times about his side of the story, but he has not responded to those requests.
This article is based on a large number of documents, correspondences and interviews with twenty people, including four victims of sexual abuse, four ex-elders, three leaders in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, five ex-members, perpetrators of abuse and experts.
The stories of victims follow the same patterns and are supported by (personal) documents, testimonials from third parties and sound recordings that are in the possession of Trouw. The policy described in this article is based on the secret elder’s book of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and thousands of letters from the Governing Body (the highest body within the organization) to the local congregations and is confirmed by those involved.
– The story of Mark, who was abused by a son of the overseer of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, appears Saturday in the Floor.
Who wants to say something about sexual abuse at the Jehovah’s Witnesses can report via firstname.lastname@example.org.
What possibilities does Dutch law offer?
Religious communities have a special position in Dutch society, where sects benefit from it.
Churches have traditionally enjoyed the freedom to resolve their own conflicts in an ecclesiastical court, explains Fokko Oldenhuis, professor of law and religion at the University of Groningen. At least, as long as their approach is not in violation of the law.
That is not the policy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, says Freek Koster, former vice president of the Supreme Court and in the past involved in the investigation into sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. Failure to report abuse is not punishable, as is someone advised not to go to the police.
Not to inform other municipalities or those involved that there is a pedophile in their midst is also not in violation of the law. Koster: “It is, of course, very annoying, and it was also blamed for the leadership of the Catholic Church that they left high-risk priests among children in the neighborhood.”
Even in an ordinary lawsuit, only accusations of abuse are not enough to come to condemnation, says Koster. Yet two witnesses are not always needed, as is the rule of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Koster: “There is very little to come. For example, someone who found the victim very emotional after the abuse, or physical signs in the victim. ”
Justice itself can initiate a criminal investigation into an individual abuse case. But it is only through civil law that the Watchtower may be tipped off, according to Koster. A victim of abuse can hold the organization responsible for the damage suffered, he explains. But, he warns, even then it is still a ‘big job’ to show that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have not acted adequately. “Not every carelessness or negligence is an unlawful act.”
– Children Jehovah’s poorly protected from abuse
– “This is our secret. If you open your mouth, I’ll do something to you. ”
– Everything you need to know about the Jehovah’s Witnesses