Oxygen's The Witnesses revisits long-running claims of protections given to alleged pedophiles within the denomination

By Jeff Truesdell
January 13, 2020 03:39 PM

Alleged sex abuse of children within the Jehovah’s Witnesses has long been in the headlines.

In 2016, an investigation by a royal commission in Australia found the religious denomination had logged allegations against 1,006 of its members there, yet reported none to authorities. In April The Atlantic magazine revealed the sect maintained a list of accused pedophiles within its membership going back decades. Courts have repeatedly fined its parent organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, for resisting orders to turn over confidential documents tied to those allegations.

And last week, allegations raised in a Montana case surfaced again when that state’s Supreme Court reversed an earlier $35 million decision against the Jehovah’s Witnesses for failing to report to authorities a member who sexually abused a girl.

In February, Oxygen will premiere a two-part documentary about the Jehovah’s Witnesses in which a journalist who has spent five years looking at the group alleges “an abuse story that has layers of coverup.”

RELATED: Man Gets Prison After Confessing Sex Abuse to LDS Clergy — and Wife Sues Church for Turning Him in

“If you ask a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses how child abuse gets handled in their congregations, it would come as a total shock to them that it’s not supposed to be reported to police,” Trey Bundy, a journalist from The Center for Investigative Reporting, says in the Oxygen documentary, The Witnesses, which debuts February 8 and 9.

The Montana case illustrates what many advocates against sex abuse say is a problematic loophole. In that case, the state’s Supreme Court cited an exemption to state law that otherwise requires clergy there to report suspected abuse. The court held that clergy “are not required to report known or suspected child abuse if the knowledge results from a congregation member’s confidential communication or confession and if the person making the statement does not consent to disclosure,” says the unanimous majority opinion by Justice Beth Baker, reports the Associated Press.

Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Sign up for PEOPLE’s free True Crime newsletter for breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases.

An attorney for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Joel Taylor, told the AP: “No child should ever be subjected to such a debased crime. Tragically, it happens, and when it does Jehovah’s Witnesses follow the law. This is what the Montana Supreme Court has established.”

Currently, only 28 states require clergy members to report suspected child abuse and neglect, according to the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Oxygen documentary includes interviews with four former Jehovah’s Witnesses members who recount details of sexual abuse they allege occurred while they were members of the organization. Also interviewed is attorney Irwin Zalkin, who has represented 24 former or current members of the denomination in lawsuits alleging abuse that was brought to the attention of Jehovah’s Witness elders.

“They don’t tell anyone else why the person is being disciplined,” Zalkin told Newsweek in August 2019. “And if someone confesses and demonstrates — in their mind — that they’re repentant, they’ll get a ‘private reproof,’ which is like a slap on the wrist.”

The Witnesses premieres Saturday, February 8 and Sunday, February 9 on Oxygen (7 p.m. ET/PT).