‘A paradise for pedophiles’
Marinde van der Breggen & Rianne Oosterom
22 July 2017
The way in which Jehovah’s Witnesses deal with abuse cases is traumatic for the victims, according to research by Trouw. Mark (37) was sexually abused as a child and fought for recognition.
Groningen, 2010. Mark grabs his phone with clammy hands. He is in the car, the radio is soft. He checks the number of circuit overseer Klaas van de Belt, controller of local Jehovah municipalities. Mark has been trying to gain recognition as a victim of sexual abuse for fifteen years. He is fed up.
If this fails, he gives up the fight.
The phone is ringing. Klaas would have a conversation today with Wilbert, the abuser. A decisive conversation. He promised Mark that he would persuade Wilbert to make excuses. That means a lot to Mark. He wants to leave the past behind. He presses ‘record’ – he wants to listen to this phone call later.
Mark: “Hey Klaas, you speak to Mark.” Klaas: “Hi Mark, we did have a very good conversation. A very good atmosphere and willingness from Wilberts side. But he needs further help. So yes, we will continue to do so. To really bring the case to a good end. “(…) Mark:” Okay, but what kind of term? “Klaas:” Sorry, I can not say. The intention is to work very hard. “Mark:” So you keep me informed? “Klaas:” Yes, of course, you’re important too, are not you? I just hope, Mark, that we can help you. “Mark:” That would be nice, yes. “Klaas:” But the other side also needs help, that has become even more clear to us this afternoon. “
It is 1994, sixteen years earlier. Mark is fifteen and his grades at school are bad. Since a biology lesson about venereal diseases, he often lies awake at night. He is afraid that he has a disease. When he comes back from a meeting with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he says, “Mom, I want to tell you something.”
He tells what really happened six years ago when the 17-year-old son of the head of the congregation went up with him during Bible study to ‘play school’ or ‘to read’. With a toilet roll under his arm.
For three years, from Mark’s seventh to his tenth year, Wilbert closed the curtains of Mark’s bedroom almost weekly and locked the door, while members of the congregation studied under the words of Jehovah. It started with masturbating, says Mark. But it was getting worse.
“The abuse consisted mainly of oral satisfaction. I had to do that to him. I had to undress and he was on my genitals. He shared his sexual fantasies, about a woman from our town, for example. He used violence. He punched me, exercised power. “
Wilbert was already 2 meters tall as a 17-year-old, says Mark. “I had a lot of respect for him, so I listened to him. As a little boy, I thought: this is just part of it. What ‘we’ can not really do, he said often. When it was over, he said: “You can not say this to anyone, because then Jehovah becomes angry.”
The mother of Mark hears this whole story. “We need to go to the vice squad with this story soon,” she says. But first, she tells Mark’s father and the elders of the Jehovah’s church.
With Jehovah’s Witnesses, elders are detective and judge at the same time. They investigate a possible crime and deal with sufficient evidence with an internal lawsuit. They deem to be proven abusive if there are two witnesses to the abuse or a confession. If that is not the case, then they let the situation rest.
The elders promise to talk with Wilbert. When they confront him with the abuse, he denies everything. Because Mark is the only witness, the elders leave the case for what it is.
Neither the elders nor Mark’s parents report. “My mother said: ‘If we go to the police, you will soon have big headlines and we do not want to infect the name of the community anyway?'”
Three kinking knees on the sidewalk in front of the Groningen Kingdom Hall (the church building of the Jehovah’s Witnesses). It is half a year after Mark has informed his mother. Mark, his father and Wilbert have been instructed by the elders to “just walk out” to talk about the abuse.
When Mark confronts Wilbert with the abuse, it rejects it as mutual masturbation. Mark gets the assignment from the elders to forgive and forget, he remembers. He thinks this is an impossible task. “I felt very lonely, could not go anywhere with my story for years.” What strikes him the most is that he remembers that an elder dismisses the abuse as ‘child’s play’.
In the years that followed, Mark continued to hold talks with the municipal leaders. He searches the internet for information about how the witnesses deal with abuse. He makes PowerPoint presentations there, which he shows to the elders. They do not do anything with it, according to Mark.
He has fallen in love with a girl from the municipality. They marry and flee together to Delfzijl. The now 23-year-old Mark is depressed. He comes into the sickness law, has to swallow pills. The abuse plays a part of him.
He decides to resume the fight and approaches the national administration of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In 2002 he wrote a letter to them: “It is all so high that I dream about it even in my sleep. And I’m very nervous. “
Letters follow back and forth. But much does not happen, according to the correspondence owned by Trouw.
When Mark scrambles therapy from his depression after a number of years, he leaves the case – it does not help anyway. He is so finished with the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2008 that he leaves the community behind him.
But when he moves back to Groningen a year later, 30 years old, the memories come up again. There, in the city where it all happened, he decides to fight for justice one more time and circuit overseer Klaas van de Belt engages.
In August 2009 Mark has a conversation with Klaas and elders of the City Park municipality, where Wilbert still goes. They promise that they will persuade Wilbert to apologize. He has already admitted the abuse to them half-heartedly.
In the spring of 2010 Klaas has a conversation with Wilbert, more than twenty years after the abuse. That is the moment that Mark thinks: if this does not work, I give up the fight.
2010, clammy hands in the car. Klaas on the line. Recorder on, the conversation continues.
Mark: “How do you see the future?” Klaas: “I think that a breakthrough is coming. That regret is shown for the things that went wrong. That’s what it’s about, eh Mark. That he understands what happened. That intention has already been there this afternoon. There is no point in telling further, more help is needed. “Mark:” No, that is clear. Okay, then I’ll wait. “Klaas:” Mark, it looks positive, can I just say that? Also by your fine willingness to talk to us again. If you believe in Jehovah, Mark … please keep serving Jehovah from your side. “(Silence) Mark:” Yes, but too much has happened for that. “
After this telephone conversation Mark does not hear anything for a long time. Until he is called by one of the elders. They do not want anything against Wilbert because Mark no longer meets the ‘organizational requirements’: he no longer belongs to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Only when he comes back can they take steps.
On July 12, 2010, Mark sends a letter to Klaas and the elders. “Unfortunately, you have not told anything about the conversation with Wilbert and about where I am now. I know that others, like my parents, have patience. That adorns them. Only I do not have that patience anymore. I am now going my own way. “
Mark succeeds in leaving the past for what it is. He does think that something must fundamentally change in the Jehovah’s Witnesses when it comes to abuse. Only for that reason does he tell his story. “It is a paradise for pedophiles there,” he says.
Wilbert now lives in the neighborhood next to Mark’s. In 2015 they meet in the supermarket. Mark does not greet Wilbert, he just looks at him. After all these years he can look into the eyes of the man whose eyes he has always avoided.
• Investigate Jehovah’s Witnesses
Trouw did extensive research into sexual abuse by Jehovah ‘ s Witnesses in the Netherlands. Yesterday, the newspaper published two stories showing that the way the community deals with sexual abuse is traumatic for victims. Matters are handled in-house, abuse is almost never reported, revealed by interviews with victims and (ex-) members and internal documents held by Trouw.
According to the people involved, perpetrators are held over their heads. This creates a very unsafe situation for children. These findings are in line with a report published in November an Australian committee of the Jehovah ‘ s Witnesses.
• No substantive reaction
Wilbert and Mark actually have other names that are known to the editors. Wilbert does not want to tell his side of the story, he writes in a letter. “The things that have happened are very regrettable. I want to leave this behind me, I hope you understand that. “
The management of the municipality in Groningen does not want to respond to the case. Circuit overseer Klaas van de Belt says he has done ‘every possible effort’ to bring Mark and Wilbert together. “An excuse is very important to a victim.” He regrets that Mark has withdrawn. He does not want to go into the matter in terms of content. “I think we should handle this kind of thing very well and it’s nice if you can do that internally.”
Who wants to say something about sexual abuse at the Jehovah’s Witnesses can report via firstname.lastname@example.org