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

The indictments announced Friday are the latest charges in an ongoing probe that has identified 14 suspects.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry speaks into a microphone at a podium.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry speaks during a news conference, Friday, July 7, 2023, in Philadelphia. 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. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

A Pennsylvania grand jury investigating child sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses community has charged five more 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.

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Mark Haugh of York Haven, Pa., a former elder who left the church in 2016 and now advocates for survivors of abuse in the church, applauded investigators.

“I hope elders are arrested who knew about child abuse and covered it up and then it happened again,” said Haugh, who testified to the grand jury about the church’s structure and about his own daughter’s abuse within a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation.

He also hopes organizational leaders are called to account, “because it’s not just a Pennsylvania problem, it’s a national problem.”

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.

The five charged were David Balosa, 62, of Philadelphia; Errol William Hall, 50, of Delaware County; Shaun Sheffer, 45, of Butler County; Terry Booth, 57, of Panama City, FL; and Luis Ayala-Velasquez, 55, of Berks County. Four were taken in custody, while Balosa was being sought. It was not immediately clear if any of them had lawyers representing them.

Church spokesman Jarrod Lopes said in a statement that while the church cannot comment on specific grand jury actions, “the news of someone being sexually abused, whether a child or an adult, sickens us.”

The church has long worked to “educate and warn parents through our publications, meetings, and website, about how to protect their children in a variety of circumstances,” he said. “We also are quick to support and offer pastoral care to those affected, while working to ensure that unrepentant perpetrators are removed from the congregation. Anyone who has been victimized has the full support of the congregation to report the matter to the authorities.”

The church has also said that the second-witness rule applies only to internal church discipline and that elders comply with mandated-reporting laws.

In one case, the grand jury obtained records from Sheffer’s congregation in Zelienople, documenting an internal investigation into his conduct. In three other cases, alleged victims testified that they told elders of their abuse. The grand jury presentments — statements outlining the charges — give no indication that any elder ever contacted police to report abuse.

One of the nine earlier defendants killed himself before he was arrested, Henry said.

The grand jury probe of Jehovah’s Witnesses began with a referral from a county prosecutor 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 a case with some parallels, a state grand jury investigation into child sexual abuse by Catholic priests culminated in a lengthy 2018 report that concluded hundreds of priests had abused children in Pennsylvania over seven decades and church officials had covered it up. More recently, 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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