Charity Commission
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Watchdog reports on investigation into Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain

The Charity Commission has today published a report of its inquiry into Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain.

The inquiry opened in May 2014 to investigate the charity’s handling and oversight of safeguarding matters, including child protection advice provided to individual Jehovah’s Witness (JW) congregations.

This followed significant interaction between the Commission and the charity since October 2007, concerning the way in which safeguarding incidents or failures were handled within JW organisations and, specifically, the adequacy of the guidance that the charity provided to various JW congregations. JW organisations reported to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (‘IICSA’) that a total of 67 allegations of child abuse were made between 2009 and 2019 against 67 individuals involved in JW congregations, whether as Elders, ministerial servants or otherwise.

During the course of the Commission’s interaction with the charity from 2007 onwards, including during the period of the inquiry, JW congregations have revised and updated their safeguarding policies on several occasions, and the Commission remains engaged with JW congregations on safeguarding matters through its ongoing interaction with the Kingdom Hall Trust (see below).

One key issue which emerged during the inquiry was the extent to which the charity itself remained responsible for ensuring children and vulnerable people are safe from harm within JW congregations.

Notwithstanding the charity having had an historic role in interacting with the Commission over JW safeguarding, the Commission’s report concludes that Watch Tower is no longer the body responsible for safeguarding within JW congregations, and therefore the inquiry can be closed. It is the Commission’s view that following the merger of Kingdom Hall congregation charities with the Kingdom Hall Trust in March 2022 (‘KHT’) that KHT is now the body responsible for safeguarding congregation members. The Commission has opened a compliance case to work with KHT’s trustees to ensure that the safeguarding policies, guidance, and procedures of KHT provide a safe environment for beneficiaries within all JW congregations.

The Commission’s report is critical of the charity’s trustees’ conduct during the inquiry, expressing the view that on occasions the trustees were “not as straightforward or transparent as they should have been” in relation to JW child safeguarding responsibilities, and that during certain phases of the investigation, “the trustees’ communications were protracted, with the charity’s responses often failing to provide the information requested or sufficient clarity to satisfy the inquiry, giving rise to further questions.”

The inquiry noted that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that these behaviours were deliberate attempts to obstruct the inquiry.

The report also details that legal challenges brought by the charity, which sought to challenge some of the regulator’s decisions and orders, which partly explain the significant delays to the inquiry.

Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission said:

We are clear that a charity must be a safe, trusted environment and that protecting people and safeguarding should be a governance priority for all charities, regardless of size, type or income. I am pleased that this long-running inquiry, which demonstrates the Commission’s resolve and determination to ensure that safeguarding policy issues are addressed comprehensively by charities, has now concluded.

Our continuing regulatory compliance case involving the Kingdom Hall Trust aims to ensure that the KHT’s safeguarding policies and procedures  protect congregation members and those that come into contact with KHT.

The full inquiry report is available on GOV.UK.

Timeline of significant developments prior to, and during inquiry

2007

  • Commission opens statutory inquiry into the London Mill Hill Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses after an Elder was convicted for historic sexual offences. The Commission’s inquiry into the London Mill Hill Congregation finds that it did not have a child protection policy.
  • One of the outcomes from the Commission’s inquiry into the London Mill Hill Congregation is that the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain agrees to develop a child protection policy which would be disseminated to all JW congregations.

2010

  • In May 2010, the Commission seeks advice on the draft policy from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (‘NSPCC’).
  • A summary of the NSPCC’s findings is supplied to the charity. The charity also seeks its own advice from a safeguarding consultancy.
  • In finalising the policy, the charity chooses not to adopt all of the NSPCC’s recommendations.

2011

  • Watch Tower distributes child protection policy which all Elders of JW congregations are expected to adhere to.

2013

  • Following the conviction of a former ministerial servant of a JW congregation charity, Charity Commission writes to Watch Tower to raise concerns about the policy and its implementation.
  • Commission seeks advice from NSPCC, which finds the policy to be at odds with UK legislation and guidance.
  • The charity updates and recirculates the policy.

2014

  • March: Commission meets with the charity, to raise its concerns about the revised policy, which does not address concerns raised by NSPCC. The trustees do not clearly set out that Watch Tower is no longer responsible for drafting and disseminating the policy, nor do they state which organisation is now responsible for this.
  • May: Charity Commission opens statutory inquiry.
  • August: Watch Tower challenges decision to open inquiry and legal orders requiring the charity to submit information to the Commission, beginning a period of several years during which the work of the inquiry is constrained.

2016

  • December: Supreme Court refuses the Watch Tower permission to appeal a decision of the Court of Appeal dismissing the appeal against the Commission’s investigation.

2019

  • September: Charity Commission informs Watch Tower that it had commissioned the Ineqe Safeguarding Group to undertake independent review of JW’s child safeguarding policies and procedures.
  • December: Ineqe’s report is provided to Watch Tower, ahead of planned meeting to discuss the findings. The charity cancels the meeting asking to provide a formal response to the independent report.

2020

  • January: Charity provides inquiry with written opinion from its safeguarding expert, which states that the Ineqe report was out of date. Watch Tower demands the inquiry is terminated, claiming the grounds for the inquiry no longer exist.
  • June: After careful consideration, the Commission refuses the request to close the inquiry.
  • July: Charity instigates Judicial Review procedures against the Commission’s refusal to conclude the inquiry and in respect of disclosure.

2021

  • Trustees’ cooperation with inquiry improves following permission from the High Court for Watch Tower to bring Judicial Review procedures against the Commission.

2023

  • Commission concludes that Watch Tower is not the organisation that is currently directly responsible for the safety of JW beneficiaries.

Notes to Editors

  1. The Charity Commission is the independent, non-ministerial government department that registers and regulates charities in England and Wales. Its purpose is to ensure charity can thrive and inspire trust so that people can improve lives and strengthen society.
  2. In September 2021, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation reported on its investigation into Child Protection in Religious Organisations and Settings. The report refers to the Commission’s statutory inquiry into Watch Tower, and cites from oral evidence given by Commission staff about the challenges faced by the regulator in its investigation. That report is publicly available.
  3. The full inquiry report is available on GOV.UK.

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Original article link: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/watchdog-reports-on-investigation-into-watch-tower-bible-and-tract-society-of-britain

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