Pennsylvania opens grand jury investigation into Jehovah’s Witnesses’ cover-up of child sex abuse

For decades, leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion have kept allegations of child sexual abuse in their congregations secret from police as a matter of policy. They have maintained an internal database containing the names of alleged abusers in their U.S. congregations, but repeatedly have violated court orders to hand it over. 

Still, they have avoided reckoning with law enforcement agencies – until now.

The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office has opened a grand jury investigation into how Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders handle allegations of child sexual abuse, according to three people who have been called to testify in closed-door hearings. 

Mark O’Donnell, a former Jehovah’s Witness, told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that Pennsylvania investigators visited his home in Baltimore in June and interviewed him for three hours.

O’Donnell, 52, was a Jehovah’s Witness for 30 years. He left in 2014 after learning about child abuse cases, locally and elsewhere, that were covered up by the organization. Since then, he has become a vocal critic of the Watchtower, the religion’s parent organization, traveling around the country to observe civil court cases against the organization and publishing stories online. As a result, O’Donnell has become a popular recipient of leaked information from inside the Watchtower and local congregations, much of it pertaining to child abuse.

“They asked a lot of questions about my upbringing and documents I’d received,” O’Donnell said. 

The investigators’ sights were aimed across state lines to New York, he said, the home of the religion’s world headquarters.

“They made it clear that they wanted to go to the top of the organization,” O’Donnell said. “That even if an organization is headquartered in another state or country, they were not going to let it be a barrier to their investigation.”

The investigators asked him to testify in front of the grand jury, which he did for several hours in August and December. “They wanted to understand how the child abuse policies operate,” he said, “how the governing body operates.”

The Governing Body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses – eight men, who, followers believe, are the earthly channel for the voice of God – are the spiritual leaders of the religion, like the pope is to the Catholic Church.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office declined to comment on the investigation or confirm whether one was underway. The prosecutors have the power to pursue criminal charges. Or they simply could release the findings of their inquiry publicly, as this same team of investigators did in 2018 for their bombshell investigation into systemic sexual abuse issues in six of Pennsylvania’s eight Catholic dioceses. 

That report renewed focus on the Catholic Church’s practices, revealing that 301 priests had been accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 kids across the six dioceses and were protected from exposure by church leaders. Since the findings were released, the U.S. Department of Justice has served subpoenas on seven Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, and attorneys general in more than a dozen other states have op...

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