NATIONAL NEWS

Authorities charge 5 more in probe of child sexual abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses in Pennsylvania

Jul 7, 2023, 9:37 AM | Updated: 10:02 am

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Pennsylvania grand jury investigating child sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses community has charged another five people with raping or molesting children as young as 4, the latest developments in an ongoing probe that has identified 14 suspects.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry, at a Friday news conference, said that while the misconduct dates back years or even decades, “the trauma endures for these victims.”

Henry did not address the church’s handling of complaints, but said the investigation would continue.

Critics say that Jehovah’s Witnesses elders have treated child sexual abuse as a sin rather than a crime, documenting complaints in internal files but not reporting them to authorities. And they say the church often required a second witness to substantiate a complaint, a standard that can be impossible to meet when perpetrators often isolate their victims.

Church spokesman Jarrod Lopes has challenged those conclusions, saying that elders comply with reporting requirements and that members are also free to report sexual assault to authorities. He has also said the second-witness rule applies only to internal church discipline. Lopes did not immediately return a message seeking comment Friday.

Attorney Matt Haverstick, who has represented Pennsylvania congregations in the state’s investigation, did not immediately return a call for comment on Friday.

The grand jury probe of Jehovah’s Witnesses began with a referral from a county district attorney who felt the state should take a broader look at the issue. Dozens of witnesses then testified before the secret grand jury in Harrisburg or provided information to the attorney general’s office.

In the charges announced Friday, Henry said that the men had groomed or gained access to the children through the church, sometimes when the child’s family took the person into their home. One person said that she was raped 50 or more times between the ages of 7 and 12 by a church member who was 18 when the assaults began. Others involved less serious charges of inappropriate touching.

Four of the five suspects are in custody, with bail set, while the other person is being sought, she said. One of the nine earlier defendants killed himself before he was arrested, she said. It was not immediately clear if any of the new defendants had lawyers representing them.

In a case with some parallels, a state grand jury investigation into child sexual abuse by Catholic priests culminated in a lengthy a similar report was issued in Maryland.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, an international Christian denomination founded in the Pittsburgh area more than a century ago and headquartered in New York state, claims 8.7 million members worldwide, including 1.2 million in the United States.

Members will not bear arms, salute a national flag or participate in secular politics. Believers are known for their evangelistic efforts, including knocking on doors and distributing literature in public spaces.

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Religion writer Peter Smith in Pittsburgh and videojournalist Tassanee Vejpongsa in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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Authorities charge 5 more in probe of child sexual abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses in Pennsylvania