The Charity Commission has opened statutory inquiries into the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses and one of its congregations amid concerns about safeguarding and whether trustees have complied with charity law.
The regulator announced last month that it had opened an operational compliance case into the Manchester New Moston Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses after it emerged that a former trustee of the charity, who served nine months in prison for the indecent of assault of two girls, was allowed to question his victims in front of congregation elders after his release.
The commission said today that it had since then opened statutory inquiries into the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain and the Manchester congregation because of concerns about safeguarding issues and related matters.
A spokesman for the Watch Tower Society said it would challenge the commission’s decision to open statutory inquiries into both charities at the charity tribunal.
The commission said its inquiry into the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain would examine the charity’s handling of safeguarding matters, "including the creation, development, substance and implementation of its safeguarding policy"; the administration, governance and management of the charity; whether the charity’s trustees "have complied with and fulfilled their duties and responsibilities as trustees under charity law"; and the charity’s safeguarding advice provided to congregation charities.
The commission said it opened a case into the charity in July last year amid concerns about its approach to safeguarding matters.
It said its concerns had been "amplified by recent criminal cases concerning historic incidents of abuse involving individuals who appear to have been connected to Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations and/or the charity".
The regulator said its inquiry into the Manchester congregation would also look at the charity’s safeguarding policy, procedures and practice; how the charity dealt with the risks to the charity and its beneficiaries; and whether the trustees of the charity had also complied with their duties under charity law.
"The commission has serious concerns about Manchester New Moston Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, having most recently opened a case into it in December 2013," a statement from the regulator said.
The statement said that the commission was not a safeguarding authority and, as such, would not investigate allegations or instances of abuse in either case.
A statement issued by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Britain on behalf of it and the Manchester New Moston congregation said the commission’s decision to open statutory inquiries into both charities had been "premature".
It said the trustees of both charities were "disappointed that the commission decided to open its investigation based on incorrect and incomplete information and without giving the trustees an opportunity to respond as the commission had agreed".
It said that Jehovah’s Witnesses "abhor the sexual abuse of children. Our charities’ child safeguarding policy and procedures are designed to protect children and comply with the law.
"For decades, Jehovah’s Witnesses have educated parents on how they can protect their children from sexual abuse. In these circumstances, the trustees are surprised that the Charity Commission has decided to launch an investigation into their safeguarding policy and procedures."
The commission said 1,354 individual Jehovah’s Witness congregations were registered as charities.
The Watch Tower Society had an income of £30.6m and an expenditure of £31.5m in the year to the end of August 2013.