In recent months, a grand jury in Pennsylvania accuse nine men of being connected to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ child sexual abuse investigation. This is part of what’s considered to be the most extensive and most comprehensive investigation of abuse within the church’s history in the US.
A series of charges were filed in the past year, fuelling speculations that the jury could release findings uncovered from a four-year investigation that started in 2019 to the public. The investigation is similar to a grand jury proceeding on child sex abuse committed by Catholic priests, which resulted in a lengthy 2018 report stating how priests abused children in seven decades. The report also described how church officials covered up these incidents of abuse.
A similar report was also released this April in Maryland, which detailed how 150 priests in the Archdiocese of Baltimore sexually abused 600 children, spanning eight decades of abuse and coverups by officials.
But the Catholic priest sexual abuse reports in Pennsylvania and Maryland don’t include what critics say is a systemic cover-up and mishandling of child sexual abuse cases within the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Critics accused church elders in the Jehovah’s Witnesses of treating child sexual abuse as a sin rather than a crime, which would compel them to document the cases internally but not report them to authorities. They were even accused of letting these child sexual abuse suspects remain active in their congregations with access to children from unsuspecting families.
Church elders were also criticized for requiring a second witness for child sexual abuse complaints, a virtually impossible standard in cases of molestation. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesperson Jarrod Lopes denied these allegations.
He said the church treats child sexual abuse as a crime, and members have the right to report cases of sexual abuse to the authorities. Lopes added that the second-witness rule applies only to matters concerning internal church discipline, and elders comply with reporting laws even without a second witness.
Dozens of people had provided their testimonies before the secret grand jury in Harrisburg, while others gave information to the state’s attorney general. Some reports even detailed how investigators showed keen interest in how the Jehovah’s Witnesses have responded to the allegations.
Martin Haugh, one of the testifiers, is a former church elder from York Haven and a father of one of the victims within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He left the church in 2016 and has provided information to investigators inside and outside the grand jury proceedings about the church’s structure and how it handles child sexual abuse cases. Haugh said this would be the first time the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been investigated on a vast scale.
At a news conference earlier in February announcing the charges, Michelle Henry, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, said the defendants “even used their faith communities to prey upon the victims.”
When asked about looking into the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an organization, Henry said it was an ongoing investigation at the time.
But Dan Kiss, defense lawyer for 57-year-old Robert Ostrander (one of the accused), said his client only knew about the investigation after being charged with indecent assault, corruption of youth, and other offenses last October. Kiss said Ostrander, a Windsor, New York resident, denies all the accusations.
“Honestly, this appears to be some sort of attack on their religion,” Kiss said. “You have all these Jehovah’s Witnesses getting charged with some sort of inappropriate behavior. I’m hoping that this is not the attorney general’s office piling on due to their religious beliefs.”
Brett Hambright, the spokesperson for the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, responded by saying that the documents charging the defendants were “articulate incidents where defendants used their positions of authority within Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations to build trust with children who they later abused.”