"Private prosecution gets thrown out of court," Louis Nelson, Latrobe Valley Express, 27 Feb, 2012 ... A Toongabbie man's personal quest to
[Right: Traralgon Kingdom Hall with sign.]Right: Same Traralgon Kingdom Hall without sign: Pics by Bryan Petts-Jones. According to this JW News.net article, the Traralgon Kingdom Hall's sign was taken down, following a meeting by the Australian Branch Overseer with the elders of the Traralgon Congregation, apparently meaning it has been closed down (at least to members of the public) by the Watchtower!]
Carpenter Steven Unthank, a former Jehovah's Witness member, took his former religion to the Latrobe Valley Magistrates' Court in a private prosecution for failing to ensure its ministers adopted Working with Children Checks, as required by State Government legislation. See Steven Unthank's home page. Also see threads on Jehovah's Witness.net, including: 26 Jul 11, 18 Oct 11, , 17 Dec 11, 18 Dec 11 & 2 Jan 12.
The prosecution, comprising a total of 35 charges against five organisations which make up the Jehovah's Witnesses structure, alleged religion elders had engaged "in child-related work at the Traralgon Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses ... knowing that (they did) not have a current 'Assessment Notice' as required under the working with Children Act 2005." Mr Unthank said he hoped the court case, if successful, would set a precedent for all religions, nation-wide, who "refused to take leadership and the law seriously". This could be taken as implying that not only Jehovah's Witnesses in Australia "refused to take leadership and the law seriously" but so do "all religions," in Australia, including all Christian denominations. Well, the denomination I belong to, Churches of Christ, as far as I am aware, has made it mandatory for all its members who work with children to have a Working with Children Check card, in those Australian States which have a WWC system.
However the charges were officially withdrawn by the director of the Office of Public Prosecutions on Tuesday, as they were "not seen to be in the public interest". The court, before Magistrate Daniel Muling, heard the Department of Public Prosecutions had applied to take over the conduct of proceedings to withdraw all charges.This may look like a defeat but in reality it is a great victory over the Watchtower by Unthank! As a Western Australian high school teacher I know that those Australian States, which have mandatory Working with Children Check systems, like Victoria and Western Australia, have very stringent child protection laws, which they take very seriously, and we can be sure that the Victorian Office of the Child Safety Commissioner will ensure that all JWs who require a WWC will have to get one, and those who have any relevant criminal history, won't be allowed to be alone with other people's children.
Mr Unthank said he, and other members of the Traralgon congregation who wished to remain anonymous, were "disappointed" with the decision, and said it "sent a very clear message" to religions who "thought they were above the law". Unthank's disappointment is understandable, but he is wrong that JW's, and religions, in general are "above the law". The WWC law only applies to adults being in a "working" (i.e. non-family) context with children under 18:
"Working with Children Check In 2006, the Victorian Government introduced a new checking system to help protect children under 18 years of age from physical or sexual harm. The Working with Children (WWC) Check creates a mandatory minimum checking standard across Victoria. The WWC Check helps to keep children safe by preventing those who pose a risk to the safety of children from working with them, in either paid or volunteer work. If you work or volunteer with children you may need to apply for a WWC Check. Employers, volunteer organisations and agencies must ensure that any of their staff or volunteers who need a WWC Check have applied." ("Working with Children Check," Department of Justice, Victoria, Australia).
The WWC was introduced by State Government in 2005 to ensure volunteers and employees, including ministers of religion, working with children went through background checks. However, the Jehovah's Witness' corporate body, the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society, informed Victorian congregations their elders required the WWC in November last year. This alone is a great victory for Unthank, because it will weed out those elders who have child-related or sex-related criminal histories. And that does not necessarily mean convictions. If there is a pattern of unproven allegations or not-guilty findings against a person that will be taken into account in whether he/she will be granted a WWC card.
Also, this is a tacit admission by the Watchtower that JW elders are, in effect, "ministers of religion" in the same sense that clergy are in Christian denominations.
Jehovah's Witness Traralgon Chaplain Albert Helbling said due to the "family orientated" nature of the religion, with Bible study classes "always conducted in the presence of family members", its six elders - some of which he said already held a WWC - had not seen the need for the background checks. "Families are responsible for their children, they stick together and work together; that's how we operate;" Mr Helbling said. "If a parent is not with the children, it's because the parent has agreed that the child goes alone with another family. "As far as we're concerned, we've never had a problem with (not having the WWC); from our stand, is all we can see (Mr Unthank) is trying to cause ill feelings and problems." This shows that JWs do consider themselves above the law, in that they had to be `dragged, kicking and screaming' to obey this WWC law. In my Churches of Christ denomination, for example, every adult who works with children under 18, has to have a WWC card, with no exceptions.
Conjecture remains over whether Jehovah's Witness members, involved in door-to-door preaching methods in the company of children, referred to as 'publishers', were required to undergo the background checks. In an audio recording of a letter from the Watchtower Society, read to a local congregation in late 2011 and heard by The Express, it was stated door-to-door activities were part of a member's "personal ministry", and 'publishers' were not representatives or volunteers of the Watchtower Society. However the letter reading went on to state, "nevertheless, an individual may volunteer to apply (for WWC)", which Mr Unthank said was the religion absolving itself of responsibility, and putting the onus on individuals.This is a lie that JW's going door-to-door are "not representatives ... of the Watchtower Society." JWs are given very specific directions about what doors they must knock on, how many, and what they are to say. It is only an attempt by the Society to isolate it from increasing legal action that it is trying to separate itself from its individual JW members.
Watchtower Society senior elder Alan Wood, confirmed a letter had been sent out to Victorian congregations "about November" last year, informing elders of their requirement to apply for WWC. This came after a Watchtower Society spokesperson told the Herald Sun in July last year it did not believe its ministers were required to obtain background checks "because they did not typically work unsupervised with children". While Mr Wood said that "unclarity" initially surrounded the legislation and WWC criteria, he confirmed the Watchtower Society had been in discussions with the Department of Public Prosecutions, but would not comment on whether it was ordered to conform with the legislation, or had voluntarily accepted it. ... Reading between the lines it is clear that the DPP gave them a choice: either "conform with the legislation" or be prosecuted! So much as Unthank (and other who are opposed to the Watchtower, including me) would have liked to see this matter be decided in court, with the inevitable precedent it would set in other jurisdictions, the fact that the Watchtower has been forced to comply with Working with Children legislation, is a very significant victory in itself.
And also we may not have heard the last of this, as it spreads to other Australian States, and maybe even around the world. Another important aspect of Australian Working with Children law is Mandatory Reporting of child sexual, physical and emotional abuse by those who are deemed by the law to be teachers, whether paid or unpaid. This means that JW elders might go to prison if they don't report each and every instances of child sexual abuse they become aware of to the relevant secular authorities. So congratulations to Steven Unthank on a great victory over the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society!