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 opened their own investigations.
Considering the explosive findings of the Catholic Church investigation, attorneys and child welfare advocates are watching the Jehovah’s Witnesses inquiry closely.
“With the grand jury, the real value, in my view, is you see a real pattern across the organization; they paint a picture of how the organization operates,” said Marci Hamilton, CEO of Child USA, a think tank for child abuse prevention. “They could also decide to file criminal charges against religious leaders, but we haven’t seen a lot of that.”
Former Jehovah’s Witnesses, survivors of abuse in the religion and their advocates have called for a government inquiry into the Watchtower’s child abuse policies in the U.S. for years. The Pennsylvania attorney general’s current investigation into the Watchtower appears to be the first of its kind in the U.S.
In 2015, a Royal Commission in Australia held public hearings on child sexual abuse in Jehovah’s Witness congregations in which Watchtower officials were questioned under oath. Investigators obtained the Watchtower’s child abuse files in Australia and found records of 1,006 alleged child sexual abusers and more than 1,800 alleged victims. None of the perpetrators had been reported to police. The Royal Commission referred information relating to more than 500 alleged perpetrators to police.
“The Australian Royal Commission did an intense study at the national level of religious groups, studying and bringing to light sexual abuse in religious institutions,” Hamilton said. “The study they did was groundbreaking. They now have a certified record of how organizations handle child sexual abuse. We don’t have that.”
To date, the Watchtower has refused to comment or grant an interview to Reveal. In a written statement, the organization said that Jehovah’s Witnesses “abhor child abuse” and that it complies with all child abuse reporting laws.
It’s unclear whether Pennsylvania investigators have subpoenaed the documents in the Watchtower’s child abuse database, but they have reached out to victims.
In June, Sarah Brooks was leaving her house for work when she saw a well-dressed man walking up to her door.
“At first, I thought he was a Jehovah’s Witness doing the preaching work, coming to knock on my door, because that’s what they do and that’s what they look like,” she said.
It turned out the man was a special investigator with the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, Brooks said. He told her that he was looking into the Watchtower’s child abuse policies and asked if they could talk.
Brooks, 32, was sexually abused when she was 15 by two adult members of her York, Pennsylvania, Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation. She’s currently preparing a lawsuit against the Watchtower for failing to protect her and report her abuse to police. She gave testimony to the grand jury in August for an hour and a half.
“The jury was a couple feet away from me,” she said. “It was very emotionally draining. It was like a roller coaster the whole day. I’d never met them, I didn’t know their names and here I am telling them how I was touched and where I was touched.”
Investigators also asked about documents pertaining to her case and how the organization handles documents related to child abuse. In Brooks’ case, she says internal documents that would’ve helped prove her case went missing. A former elder has said he and other elders were ordered to shred documents in the case.
“They mentioned the headquarters up in New York multiple times, so I feel like they’re ready to go to the top,” she said. “I would hope that some governing body members are put behind bars for everything they’ve covered up. And I want their policies to change.”
Brooks’ attorney, Jeff Fritz, represents four Jehovah’s Witnesses abuse survivors who he says have been called to testify and expects to take the stand himself this month. He says local and national leaders’ failure to report Brooks’ abuse crossed the line into criminal conduct in Pennsylvania, where clergy are mandated reporters.
“There’s clear evidence that elders knew what occurred and never reported it,” Fritz said. “We’re probably past the statute of limitations on that criminally, but just the exposure of it is helpful – known abuse that they don’t do anything about.”
Brooks eventually reported the abuse to police herself, and both of her abusers served time in jail after pleading guilty to corruption of a minor.
The grand jury investigation comes as the Watchtower faces legal pressure over its child abuse policies on multiple fronts. In August, New York enacted the Child Victims Act, opening a one-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits against organizations that failed to protect them, even if the statute of limitations has run out on their cases. Current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses who were abused are hoping that because the religion’s leadership is based in New York, their cases will be heard even if their abuse occurred in another state.
So far, more than 1,300 lawsuits have been filed against various individuals and institutions under the Child Victims Act. New York state officials said they do not track how many involve specific groups or institutions.
“What will be interesting is how the civil cases in New York will provide additional information for the grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania,” Hamilton said. “My assumption is that civil attorneys would cooperate with them. There could be a lot of information sharing.”
In the United Kingdom, the Watchtower is one of several religious organizations under investigation by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Last month in London, the inquiry held a preliminary hearing to lay ground rules for taking testimony and gathering evidence. A key debate centers on how much documentation, including records in the Watchtower’s child abuse database, the organization will have to turn over to investigators.
“Watchtower should disclose the number of abusers the organization is aware of,” said Lloyd Evans, a former Jehovah’s Witnesses elder who is under consideration to testify at the hearings in March. “Whether IICSA chooses to pursue that or not, we have yet to learn. I think if Watchtower wants to engage in full transparency, you would like to think they would divulge that information.”
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.