Child Protection Inquiry Hears Evidence Against Watch Tower Society
Added: (Sun Jun 19 2011)
Pressbox (Press Release) -
MEDIA RELEASE: Victoria's Child Protection Inquiry Hears Evidence Against Watch Tower Society
June 16, 2011
The Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry recently heard testimony from Mr Steven Unthank in relation to the effectiveness of the current working with children legislation as a whole. Mr Unthank gave testimony in relation to the effects of the ongoing failure of Victoria Police Command to uphold the right by policing and enforcing child protection laws, primarily the mandatory working with children laws which were introduced "to assist in protecting children from sexual or physical harm."
The Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry was announced by Premier Ted Baillieu on 31 January 2011 to
"comprehensively investigate systemic problems in Victoria's child protection system and make recommendations to strengthen and improve the protection and support of vulnerable young Victorians."
Mr Unthank's appearance and testimony at the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry was prompted by the personal written advice of the Honourable Frank McGuire MP, State Member for Parliament.
The Chair of the Inquiry, the Honourable Philip Cummins, a former Victorian Supreme Court judge who has had a long commitment to child protection, upon learning that the Watch Tower Society corporation, as a tax exempt "religious organisation", refuses to comply with the Victorian Working with Children Act 2005 for its directly appointed elders within the Religion of Jehovah's Witnesses, made the following comment
"no one is above the law."
Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry Panel member, Mr Bill Scales AO, expressed controlled shock and disbelief that there was a religious organisation currently operating with impunity within the State of Victoria in outright defiance of mandatory child protection laws, and that there were over 2,500 vulnerable children involved.
Mr Scales AO, a current Victorian Council Member and a Member of the National Education Advisory Committee, questioned Mr Unthank in great detail about the operating of "over 150 ministry schools and secondary schools" weekly within churches of Jehovah's Witnesses across the State of Victoria with well over 1,000 enrolled children as regular students. Mr Scales AO was also informed that the religious school's teachers, overseers, and instructors were ordered by the Watch Tower Society to
"not comply with mandatory child protection laws."
It was also discussed during the hearing that each offence of non-compliance by corporate officers and elders of the Watch Tower Society is
"an indictable criminal offence which carries up to two years imprisonment per offence."
Documented evidence was also submitted that the Watch Tower Society officially claims that
"we don't typically work with children, we don't have Sunday schools so that law doesn't apply to us."
A recently commissioned report, not submitted to the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry on the day, documents that the Watch Tower Society actually conducts these schools on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays each week, and that there are between 1,000 and 2,000 enrolled children as regular students. The report also found that the Working with Children Act 2005 does apply to the Watch Tower Society as a "religious organisation" and also to their appointed elders and ministerial servants in their capacity "as a minister of religion or as part of the duties of a religious vocation." The report also stated that child counselling, child mentoring and child discipline form a large part of "the work of being an elder" and fall within the catagory of the "Internal Ministry" within the Religion of Jehovah's Witnesses.
While being questioned about the refusal of Watch Tower Society appointed church elders within the Religion of Jehovah's Witnesses to personally comply with the minimum mandatory child protection laws, Mr Unthank responded to the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry Panel that
"if a religion or a religious corporate hierarchy orders its members not to comply with state authorities or the law then the members will obey without question."
Mr Unthank then explained that such members of this type of corporately controlled religion are often too scared to do anything other then to "obey when they disagree," as they may face religious sanctions, including excommunication and the potential loss of their friends and, in some cases, even the loss of their entire family.
Though not mentioned during the Inquiry, Mr Unthank did later explain in an interview that "coinciding with the introduction of mandatory child protection laws and working with children laws in the State of Victoria for "religious organisations" in July 2008, the Watch Tower Society published and released in Victoria, a series of instructions for members of the Religion of Jehovah's Witnesses, covering unquestionable obedience to the leaders of the Watch Tower Society, their lawyers, and their organisational and corporate arrangements regardless of the type of instructions issued, and regardless as to whether they are lawful or not."
Mr Unthank went on to explain that these written instructions were bundled together under the subject of "Be Obedient To Those Taking The Lead" and stated in writing that
"this organizational arrangement calls for each of us to be obedient and submissive...Some obey when they agree with the direction coming from those taking the lead but refuse to submit when they disagree with the direction or cannot see the reason for it. Keep in mind, though, that being submissive can include the idea that we obey even when we are not inclined to do so. Each of us, then, does well to ask himself, 'Am I obedient and submissive to those taking the lead over me?'"
Mr Unthank further added that, "religious sanctions and discipline can be imposed by corporate officers and lawyers representing the Watch Tower Society upon members of the Religion of Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to comply with their instructions, such as those involving orders instructing non-compliance with mandatory child protection laws, which, if complied with, may identify or expose any convicted child sex offenders and other convicted serious criminals who are currently masquerading or serving as elders within the religion, and who regularly are assigned to work with children, all with the full knowledge and protection of the Watch Tower Society corporation."
During the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry, Mr Unthank highlighted that the Working with Children Act 2005 allows for the criminal charging of any such religious or corporate hierarchy, including every single leader and director, over breaches of working with children laws, and that such action, in lieu of any individual minister, would protect all concerned, including the children, their families, the community and especially those too scared to stand up for child protection within the Religion of Jehovah's Witnesses.
One of the unique features of the Working with Children Act 2005 is that it is not the responsibility of a "religious organisation" to self-determine whether they work with children or not. The Act clearly states that a "minister of religion" who is engaged by a "religious organisation" does work with children by default, if children make up a part of the church or congregation. This can be likened in the same way that a "minister of religion" or elder works with adults, if adults make up part of the church or congregation.
The Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry was also presented with evidence that only members of Victoria Police, the Federal Police, and the Victorian Institute of Teaching were granted exemption from compliance with the working with children laws, as these organisations and individual members underwent an even more rigourous screening process than the Working with Children Check.
Compliance with the working with children laws became compulsory for "religious organisations" on 1 July 2008.
Evidence was also presented from the Department of Justice that as of 31 March 2011 there have been 738,563 Working With Children Check Unit Assessment Notices issued to adult members of the Victorian community allowing them to work with children, thereby providing evidence that the community takes the matter of child protection and compliance with the working with children laws very seriously.
The Watch Tower Society is the only identified organisation currently operating within the State of Victoria that refuses to comply with child protection laws and mandatory working with children laws as it applies to their 600 appointed ministers of religion within the church of Jehovah's Witnesses, since 1 July 2008.
While making no direct written submission of his own, Mr Unthank did however, submit a number of letters from various governmental agencies and politicians to the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry Panel which highlighted the failure of the State's child protection system in relation to enforcing the Working with Children Act 2005, and the failure and ongoing refusal of Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland to police and enforce the laws since taking up office in March 2009, when he was first personally made aware of ongoing criminal breaches of mandatory child protection laws by the Watch Tower Society.
Among the documents submitted to the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry was a letter dated 5 May 2011, which was personally issued by Attorney-General Robert Clark to the Honourable James Merlino MP, Member for Parliament.
"Dear Mr James Merlino MP
"RE: Working with Children Check...
"The Department of Justice takes Mr Unthank's allegations seriously and has dealt directly with both Mr Unthank and the Jehovah's Witnesses on a number of occasions.
"Mr Unthank first wrote to the department alleging breaches of the Act by the Jehovah's Witnesses in July 2008. The department responded by referring Mr Unthank to the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Unit of Victoria Police, emphasising the importance that he report his allegations to the police. Correspondence was also sent at this time to the management of Jehovah's Witnesses in Australia informing them of their obligations under the Act.
"Ministers or Elders within the Jehovah's Witnesses are required to undergo a WWC Check under section 9(3)(i) of the Act (religious organisations) if their work satisfies the definition of child-related work under section 9(1) of the Act.
"The department has written to the management of Jehovah's Witnesses in Australia on a number of occasions, most recently in November 2010, informing them of their obligations under the Act and offering to meet and conduct information sessions for their staff and Ministers.
"Victoria Police have responsibility for investigations and enforcement of the Act and it is therefore appropriate that the WWC Check Unit refer matters of alleged breaches to Victoria Police for action.
"Staff from the WWC Check Unit continue to liaise with Victoria Police about matters raised by Mr Unthank and understand that Victoria Police is actively dealing with Mr Unthank's claims.
"I trust this has addressed your concerns...
"Robert Clark MP
Also submitted to the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry was a Sunday Herald Sun newspaper article by Graeme Hammond which reported that Mr Unthank is to launch a private criminal prosecution against the Watch Tower Society over its refusal to comply with the Working with Children laws.
The April 10, 2011, Sunday Herald Sun newspaper article stated that
"Mr Unthank, from Toongabbie in Gippsland, says he is frustrated over inaction by police and the Justice Department after the religion decided its ministers were not required to undergo police checks. He hopes the state will take over the prosecution after court documents are filed."
The Chair of the Inquiry, the Honourable Philip Cummins, having retired from the office of Supreme Court judge in November 2009, questioned Mr Unthank in detail about the "private criminal prosecution" and was impressed with the action taken to protect vulnerable children and satisfied with the response that
"the matter is now being handled by the Chief Magistrate."
Mr Unthank also explained that he had personally met with the Senior Registrar of the Latrobe Valley Magistrates' Court, an hour prior to his appearance at the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry, to confirm that his testimony at the Inquiry is not in breach of any legal requirements or obligations.
Several weeks earlier, on 28 April 2011, Mr Unthank had lodged and filed criminal charges against the Committee of Management for the Religion of Jehovah's Witnesses for breaches of the Working with Children Act 2005. Due to the serious nature of the allegations and charges, the "Charge-Sheet And Summons" was referred by the Senior Registrar of the Latrobe Valley Magistrates' Court to the Victorian Chief Magistrate. It is currently being reviewed.
It was acknowledged by the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry Panel that the working with children laws were primarily enacted to
"assist in protecting children from sexual or physical harm by ensuring that people who work with, or care for, them have their suitablility to do so checked by a government body."
The Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry Panel also acknowledged that the Working with Children Act 2005 primarily prevents
"convicted sex offenders and child sex offenders, drug dealers and murderers from having easy access to children."
Evidence was also presented that the working with children laws will have been in place for an entire five years at the end of the month of June, with the past three of those years (July 2008 to June 2011) applying to "religious organisations."
At the conclusion of Mr Unthank's submission to the Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry, and his answers to the many questions, the Chair of the Inquiry Panel, the Honourable Philip Cummins, made special mention that Mr Unthank presented his submission within the parameters of the Inquiry's Guidelines for making a submission, and then went on to highly commend Mr Unthank for his submission and the solutions presented to the Panel which included
"policing and enforcing of the Working with Children laws."
The Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry Panel will provide a report by 4 November 2011 to the Minister for Community Services who has ministerial and governmental oversight of the Working with Children Act 2005. The report will be tabled in Parliament.
END OF MEDIA RELEASE
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Related Stories and Information
Link to Victoria's Department of Justice's Working with Children website:
Link to Premier's State Media Release:
Link to Sunday Herald Sun newspaper story "Taking on Watch Tower"
Link to Media Release "Watch Tower Society Launches Religious Attack On Steven Unthank":
Link to official Protecting Victoria's Vulnerable Children Inquiry website:
Link to further Media Releases: