The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office reportedly is investigating whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses repeatedly failed to report child sexual abuse allegations to authorities in what is believed to be the first wide-scale examination by a U.S. law enforcement agency.
The attorney general’s office told USA TODAY it “cannot confirm or deny the existence of investigations.”
But Mark O’Donnell, a former Jehovah’s Witness who left the religion when he was 46, said the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office interviewed him last summer at his home in Baltimore. Then he was subpoenaed to testify before a statewide investigating grand jury in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
O’Donnell provided USA TODAY a copy of his subpoena.
O’Donnell said he first testified before the grand jury for more than two hours on Aug. 22 about his experiences as a Jehovah’s Witness and the structure of the governing body and congregation.
A former Jehovah’s Witness elder testified next, O’Donnell said. O’Donnell said he testified again in December. He also outlined the chain of events in a new post he wrote Saturday for JW Survey, a website critical of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
O’Donnell said he doesn’t want to destroy anyone’s faith; He wants transparency.
“Witnesses believe that they’re obeying God, that they’re putting God’s law ahead of man’s law,” he said. “And the reality is that they’re harming people.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses U.S. Branch in WallKill, New York, provided a statement to USA TODAY, saying the organization “care(s) deeply about children” and always tries to follow the law.
“Any suggestion that Jehovah’s Witnesses foster or enable abuse is false,” the statement continued. “We welcome an opportunity to explain our beliefs and practices to government officials and look forward to any recommendations they may have as we continue to focus on educating and equipping parents to protect their children from the horrible crime of abuse.”
Lawsuits filed across the country since the 1990s have accused the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their legal corporations — including the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc. — of failing to report child abuse.
In 2018, a Montana jury awarded $35 million to Alexis Nunez, who said she was sexually abused for years by a member of the Thompson Falls Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Two others told elders in 2004 that they had been abused by the same man, according to court records, but the elders never reported it to authorities.
The elders expelled the abuser from the congregation but then reinstated him, court records state. The man continued to abuse Nunez until 2007, according to the lawsuit.
The defense argued in court records that the elders were exempt from Montana’s mandatory child abuse reporting law because of an exception that allows clergy members to keep certain communications confidential.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the case. Last month, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in the organization’s favor, finding that the lower court erred when it said Jehovah’s Witnesses had a duty to report. In its opinion, the court said the Jehovah’s Witnesses were exempt.
That was not the first time the organization argued it has no duty to report suspected abuse.
In 2014, the state of Delaware sued a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation and two elders, accusing them of failing to report child sexual abuse to authorities. A female member of their congregation had raped a teenage boy, according to the Delaware Sex Offender Central Registry.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses and elders initially argued they were exempt from Delaware’s child abuse reporting law. They later reached a settlement with state officials, agreeing to pay $19,500 to the Delaware Department of Justice, participate in child abuse prevention training and report such allegations to authorities, court records show.
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In August, Heather Steele sued several Jehovah’s Witnesses entities in New York, claiming religious leaders in 1982 tried to discourage her family from cooperating with a criminal investigation there into an elder who had been molesting her for eight years. According to the lawsuit, the sexual abuse began when she was 2.
Steele worked with law enforcement anyway. Her abuser, Donald Nicholson, was convicted of sexual abuse and served 3 1/2 years in prison in New York, according to Department of Corrections and Community Supervision records. When he was released, Nicholson moved to New Jersey where, according to the lawsuit, he was reinstated as a Jehovah’s Witness.
The scope of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office’s investigation into the Jehovah’s Witnesses is unclear.
But the office has significant experience investigating sexual abuse at religious organizations. In 2018, it released a report that detailed findings of a statewide investigative grand jury that had spent two years examining the Catholic Church’s handling of child sexual abuse allegations.
The jury identified 301 “predator priests” and found that “senior church officials, including bishops, monsignors and others, knew about the abuse committed by priests but routinely covered it up to avoid scandal, criminal charges against priests, and monetary damages to the dioceses,” according to the release.
The grand jury found that most of the allegations were now too old to be prosecuted. But some individuals did face criminal charges.
The attorney general’s office charged the Rev. John Sweeney with sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy in the early 1990s. Sweeney pleaded guilty last year to indecent assault, court records show. He is currently in prison.
The Rev. David Poulson faced myriad charges, including corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children, for repeatedly sexually assaulting one boy and attempting to assault another, according to court records and a release from the attorney general’s office. Poulson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.
O’Donnell said when people speak out about their experiences, it becomes easier for others to share their stories.
“It takes a few people that are willing to come forward and do the right thing in order to get the ball rolling,” he said, “and to provide sort of a safe landing place for those people who are suffering because of what an organization did.”
Marisa Kwiatkowski is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team, focusing primarily on children and social services. Contact her at [email protected], @IndyMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855.