Trouw – 8th December 2018
‘The church is not a sanctuary and must stand up for the most vulnerable’
Your own legal system as with the Jehovah’s Witnesses is more common, but can not be a paper tiger.
In search of documents about the internal handling of abuse cases, the judiciary was lodged at the head office and two church buildings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in mid-November. Experts from church law have observed: as far as they know, this has not occurred in the Netherlands before. The Public Prosecution Service does not keep a separate register for prayer houses, but reports that this is indeed ‘not often’.
“Obviously there has been no reason to search churches before,” says Leon van den Broeke, chairman of the center for religion and law at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. In the abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, the bishops themselves set up an independent commission. The Deetman committee agreed with the Public Prosecution Service that it would report criminal offenses. That’s what she did, and that resulted in lawsuits. The Jehovah’s have always kept such an independent investigation.
What does the raid mean?
Van den Broeke: “Private communities were always able to keep things reasonably indoors. Now society demands more transparency, especially in case of a sensitive case such as abuse. Society is on top of it, the pressure is increasing, also from the government, you can see this search of the two kingdom halls of the Jehovah’s. ”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their own legal system. How special is that?
“Not. Many churches have that. If they are not an association or foundation, denominations have a wider organization freedom. A denomination is governed by its own statutes, insofar as they are not in conflict with the law. That is regulated in the Dutch Civil Code. In principle, the government will not act soon and the civil court will not interfere in such an internal legal system, certainly not if it contains the principles of proper case law – a fair trial, hearing and rebuffing – and the denomination also acts on it. ”
Does such an internal judicial process apply to all cases, including abuse?
“Which can. But such an internal system deals more often with matters concerning disturbed relations, for example between a minister and the municipality. Or a bookkeeper who has been too generous in the church. But abuse can also treat a religious community in principle itself, although that does not alter the fact that victims themselves can go to justice, or that the justice itself does research. Other social relations also have their own disciplinary rules, just look at the world of sport. ”
Is such an internal system in the church over Dutch law?
“That’s not how I would formulate it. Religious communities have a great freedom of organization, which derives from constitutional religious freedom. But that does not mean that they can arrange everything themselves, freedom is not absolute. In the event of a suspicion of a criminal offense, the justice system will act. The church is not a sanctuary, nor is it a holy place for justice, except during religious meetings. ”
But is not a church much less than a football canteen?
“The knowledge about religion has become less in society, people no longer grow up with it. But if it is right – and that’s what I’m going to think about – then justice does not just enter a church building, it moves within the jurisdiction of the law and treats the kingdom hall just like the boardroom of a sports association. ”
Should other religious communities now also fear justice?
“No, they better not get panicky and do things or leave them out of a cramp. You can also reverse it: what do religious communities have to fear? But this incident may well be a reason for other denominations to take a close look at their own judicial process. Is that a paper tiger, or does it actually offer protection for fellow human beings? Because if a denomination has to stand for something, then it is to stand up for the most vulnerable.”
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