On February 4, 2019, rumors of the release of a new Elders manual, meant only for the eyes of the top leaders in each congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW), began to surface on ex-JW forums across the Internet. Less than 24 hours later, the manual was leaked and seemingly non-stop analysis and comparison to previous versions began.
The secretive manual is only distributed to those who hold the position of Elder. Showing the manual to anyone else is strictly forbidden.. Each congregation is lead by a group of men known as the Body of Elders, all of whom hold the honored title. The manual instructs them in administering to their congregation and how the Elders above them can assist in their duties. Topics also include pornography, child abuse, and “medical matters”.
According to Jason Wynne, founder of AvoidJW.org, previous versions of this manual left much “open to interpretation by bodies of elders,” but “the language has been significantly simplified to be clear, concise and direct” in this latest edition.
Child Sex Abuse
One notable and significant change lies in the chapter addressing child abuse. The manual clearly states “the victim, her parents, or anyone else who reports such an allegation to the elders should be clearly informed that they have the right to report the matter to the secular authorities.”
This is undoubtedly a welcome change among abuse survivor advocates. While the family is not necessarily encouraged to go to the authorities, the mere recognition of their right is an improvement in JW policy. There are countless stories in which survivors of sexual abuse and their families chose not — in some cases even actively discouraged — to report the incident to authorities because of JW beliefs that all organizations, outside the religion itself, are corrupt.
In January 2018, the Truth & Transparency Foundation (TTF) released letters thoroughly documenting one such instance.
In addition to the already released Elders manual, today the TTF also releases another internal manual, often informally referred to as the “branch manual”. The January 2015 edition of the same manual was used as an exhibit in an investigation conducted by the Australian government into child sex abuse, but chapters four and five were nearly entirely redacted. Today the largely revised August 2018 edition is published without redactions.
This manual is only distributed to the highest leaders within Watch Tower (WT), the governing JW organization. A group of eight men comprise the Governing Body, the most senior leaders of the organization. Below them are six Branch Committees, each responsible for administering a specific area of the worldwide religion. The branch manual is for members of the Governing Body and the Branch Committees only.
Jennifer Torres, an ex-JW, says that she would have benefited greatly as an active JW from seeing this manual, especially as a woman. “If you were to ask a JW woman, they would have no idea how the Branch Committees affect them,” she says.
When Torres’ family experienced inappropriate interactions with leaders in her congregation, they reported the problem, but it did not improve. Assuming the problem was isolated to only their congregation they moved to a different one. The problem persisted and little did she realize that it was systemic, something that publicly publishing the branch manual would have empowered her to know and make suggestions to correct it.
In addition to the light shed on the systemic workings and problems of Watch Tower (WT), Torres is interested to see if WT has changed their approach to the destruction of records. The 2003 branch manual, leaked in 2011, shows that they do not destroy records even if a JW voluntarily disassociates with the Church.
Such policies have changed, undoubtedly in response to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The manual now states in Chapter 3 paragraph 103(d):
“If a data subject requests access to, correction of, or deletion of personal data or sensitive personal data about himself, the organization will fairly consider granting the request by balancing the interests of the individual in gaining access or correcting or deleting data against the legitimate religious interests of the organization, including whether granting the request would endanger the organization’s right to religious freedom and practice.”
In April 2018, the TTF released documents in various European languages that Jehovah’s Witnesses in the EU were asked to sign. By doing so, they agree that they “consent to the use of my personal data so that I may participate in some religious activities in connection with my worship. . .”
Watch Tower did not respond to the TTF’s request for comment before this story was published.