[Original publication date: March 8, 2004]
Maintaining a “Clean image” took priority. Colleagues concealed sex abuse to protect faith,” statement by a Jehovah’s Witness elder. In Toronto, two church elders from an Ontario group of Jehovah’s Witnesses were more worried about the “clean image” of their faith than they were the well-being of a young sexual abuse victim, according to one of their former colleagues.
By James McCarten / The Canadian Press
Harald Momm was one of eight elders in the Shelburne, Ontario congregation in 1990 when he learned that one of their young disciples had accused her father of sexually abusing her several years earlier.
But fellow elders Steve Brown and Brian Cairns were more interested in protecting the accused, Gower Palmer, than they were the welfare of his young daughter, Momm testified.
“They didn’t want to have anything to do with the law of the land … they wanted it kept quiet, and we didn’t agree with that,” he told lawyer Charles Mark.
“This has been going on for 13 years and all I ever got out of it is: ‘It is important to keep a clean image. Never mind about the victims.'”
Brown, Cairns and the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society of Canada are among the defendants in a civil suit launched in 1998 by Vicki Boer, Palmer’s daughter and herself a former Witness.
Boer, now 31, alleges the defendants failed to allow her adequate treatment for the abuse she suffered between the ages of 11 and 14 in the family home in Shelburne, about 100 kilometers northwest of Toronto.
Rather than immediately inform the Children’s Aid Society and permit Boer to seek counseling outside the church, she was required, according to Biblical principles, to confront her father and allow him to repent his alleged sins, the suit alleges.
During the final weeks of 1989 and early months of 1990, controversy raged within the Witness community over Boer’s complaints, particularly amongst the eight elders charged with overseeing the congregation.
Momm was one of a group of five who argued that Ontario law required them to immediately report a case of sexual abuse and allow the alleged victim to seek medical help and psychiatric counseling.
“(Brown’s) reply to me was that he didn’t see it that way,” Momm said.
“I emphasized to him that we would have to do this reporting or I would do it myself. He made no comment.”
Eventually, the case was reported to Children’s Aid and the police, although no charges ever ensued. Five elders, Momm among them, resigned.
Meanwhile, Palmer (the remaining elders were convinced of his spiritual repentance) rose through the ranks and enjoyed a level of privilege within the congregation normally reserved for the most respected members, said Momm.
Boer’s 58-year-old father continues to live in Shelburne and has never been criminally charged.
During cross-examination Thursday, lawyer Colin Stevenson attacked Momm’s motives for disagreeing with Cairns and Brown, suggesting the rift in the elders had been present long before the allegations surfaced.
He also argued that Momm and his allies were confusing the spiritual law of the Witnesses, which imposes a three-year statute of limitations on such things as abuse, with the law of the land, which requires immediate reporting.
At no time did Cairns or Brown ever directly tell Momm that they were trying to protect Palmer or that they were more concerned about the image of the church, Stevenson said.
And he made note of the fact that Momm himself, fearful that Cairns and Brown had no plans to report the abuse, did not go to the authorities.
“You yourself were concerned about the risks of potential prosecution for not reporting, were you not?” Stevenson asked.
“Yes,” Momm said.
“And you yourself did not report it to the Children’s Aid Society?” Stevenson continued.
“No, and I regret it to this day,” came [Momm’s] reply.
John Saunders, at the time a researcher at the Watchtower’s Canadian headquarters in Georgetown, Ontario, told the court that he recommended in a memo that in cases of sexual abuse, the victim and abuser should not be made to confront each other.
“I included a note suggesting elders not force victims of abuse to face their abusers since these kinds of confrontations are potentially psychologically dangerous,” Saunders testified.
The recommendation was not included in a July 1988 directive from the Georgetown office advising elders to follow provincial law and notify authorities immediately in cases of sexual abuse.
While victims of sexual abuse normally aren’t identified in public, Boer has agreed to allow her name to be publicized as part of her effort to promote what she alleges is widespread abuse within the confines of the church’s congregations.
As part of their beliefs in a strict interpretation of Bible teachings, Jehovah’s Witnesses reject anything political or “worldly” that distracts from their focus on Christ and the second coming, which they consider imminent.
Birthdays, secular holidays and Christmas are not celebrated; children are often required to leave class during the Lord’s Prayer and the national anthem.
END OF ORIGINAL POST
Assistant Editor’s Note:
This was not the end, or even really the beginning of Vicki Boer’s journey through the long fight for justice. Follow this link to a later story about her and how she related to the Candace Conti Case that went through California courts a decade later.