An order by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Australia to destroy confidential records could undermine a child abuse compensation claim currently being prepared for the Supreme Court of Victoria. A lawyer representing the victim says she was shocked to learn that the Christian body had ordered confidential documents, including notes taken by elders investigating child sexual abuse, to be destroyed.
“These are the sorts of documents that are required by law to hand over, so if they’re being destroyed, it’s incredible,” Dr Judy Courtin told INQ. “Such evidence can be critical to whether a case gets up or not … It could be critical to the whole case.”
INQ reported this week that a body representing the Jehovah’s Witnesses sent a letter to all Australian elders ordering confidential documents to be destroyed, including those of judicial committees — quasi courts in which three male elders make “judgments” of wrongdoing. The letter, dated August 28, was sent out by the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Australasia).
“We ask that each elder check his personal computer, or hard copy files, and even his meeting bag, to ensure that no confidential correspondence is retained outside the congregation’s confidential file,” the letter stated.
A spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses Australasia has declined to answer questions about the letter, but said in a statement that records relating to child abuse were “retained in harmony with all legal requirements”. He also directed INQ to recent articles in the Watchtower magazine, denouncing child sexual abuse as a “repugnant, wicked deed”.
Courtin, who represents victims of institutional sexual abuse, says the destruction of documents could have huge ramifications for victims inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who she says are only now starting to come forward and take their cases to court.
“If there are documents out there showing an organisation knew about an abuse and they’re being destroyed, that’s destroying vital, critical evidence,” she said.
The letter comes at a pivotal moment for the secretive Christian sect, which is facing mounting global scrutiny over the way it handles child abuse cases. In March it was revealed it had catalogued decades of alleged child abusers, most of whom had never been reported to law enforcement agencies. The database reportedly included “at least two decades’ worth of names and addresses — likely numbering in the tens of thousands — and detailed acts of alleged abuse”, all scanned and searchable in a Microsoft SharePoint file.
During a 2015 hearing, the royal commission heard that it was normal practice for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to destroy notes about child sexual abuse allegations. Jehovah’s Witness elder Max Horley said he destroyed notes from a meeting about a particular incident despite it being of a “very serious nature”. He also told Justice Peter McClellan he would have destroyed any notes about the incident to protect the congregation and individuals involved.
“That’s our practice,” he said.
One of the key recommendations of the royal commission’s final report was for the Catholic Church to amend a series of church laws relating to child sexual abuse, including removing the requirement to destroy documents under certain circumstances.