The Jehovah's Witnesses organisation keeps a sex offenders register that nobody outside the church is allowed to see, a former "elder" tells Panorama. Bill Bowen, who has spent his lifetime as a Jehovah's Witness and nearly twenty years as an elder, says the organisation covers up abuse by keeping this database secret. His sources indicate there are 23,720 abusers on the list - who are protected by the system. "They [the Jehovah's Witnesses] do not want people to know that they have this problem", he tells Panorama. "And by covering it up they just hurt one person. By letting it out, then they hurt the image of the church." Bible-based policy Victims of abuse feel they cannot speak out According to the Jehovah's Witnesses' interpretation of the Bible, allegations of child abuse must first be reported to the organisation's legal desk. The police are sometimes never told. Action can only be taken within the congregation if there are two witnesses to a crime or a confession from the accused. And if a member of the congregation is suspected or even convicted of child abuse, this fact is kept secret. Bill Bowen, from Kentucky in the United States, resigned as an elder in 2000 in protest at this child protection policy. He told Panorama: "These men remain anonymous to anyone outside the organisation and anyone really inside the organisation unless you are personally reporting the matter." Danger ignored The story of one young Jehovah's Witness from Scotland whom Panorama spoke to illustrates the danger of such a policy. Alison Cousins was let down by the Jehovah's Witnesses' policy on child protection When Alison Cousins was abused by her father she followed the procedure she had been taught - she turned to one of the elders. Unknown to her at the time, her sister had also reported her own abuse by their father in the same way. Despite having known for three years that Alison's father was a paedophile, the same elders sent Alison back home, where she continued to be abused. In the end Alison went to the police and her father was sentenced to five years in prison. We have a duty to protect and if we're not told, we're unable to protect Detective Sergeant Wallace Burgess But the police had been the last to know. Detective Sergeant Wallace Burgess of Strathclyde police said: "They had told several people before coming to the police and these people had not reported it either to the police or the social services. "We have a duty to protect and if we're not told, we're unable to protect." Legal advice: "walk away" "With regard to any allegation concerning child molestation, the first edict elders are given is to call the legal department", says Bowen. Little over a year ago, Bowen, as a concerned elder, rang the legal desk and asked for advice on how he should handle a suspected case of abuse in his congregation. The advice was: "You just ask him again: 'Now is there anything to this?' If he says 'no', then I would walk away from it... "Leave it for Jehovah. He'll bring it out." Despite this, the Head of Public Relations, J R Brown, maintains: "We have a very aggressive policy to handle child molestation in the congregations and it is primarily designed to protect our children." When asked by Panorama about the number of suspected paedophiles on the database, Paul Gillies from the Jehovah's Witnesses Office of Public Information in the UK said: "It is not meaningful to focus on the number of names we have in our records". With regard to their policy on reporting abuse to the authorities, he referred us to the 8 October 1993 issue of Awake!, page 9, which states: "Some legal experts advise reporting the abuse to the authorities as soon as possible. In some lands the legal system may require this. But in other places the legal system may offer little hope of successful prosecution."