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

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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.

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.”

Church spokesman Jarrod Lopes has challenged the criticisms, 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.

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 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.

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