Brian Chase listened carefully from his Tucson, Ariz., home last July as an investigator from the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office introduced himself over the phone.
After some idle chitchat, the investigator asked: Was Chase familiar with the office’s 2018 grand jury report, which showed that priests had sexually abused thousands of children at six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania?
“Just what was in the papers,” Chase responded, “and what I saw on Facebook.”
The investigator explained that the AG’s office was now working on a similar state inquiry, this time focused on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the agency was unsure of the scope of sexual abuse within the often-misunderstood religion, which was founded in Pittsburgh in the 1870s.
Chase, 52, had been raised a Jehovah’s Witness in Corry, a small town in Erie County. In the 1980s, when he was a teenager, Chase said, he was drugged and raped by a man who belonged to his congregation. Decades would pass before Chase understood that their stories were common within Witness communities across the country, but rarely reported to police.
“The scope,” Chase told the AG’s office official, “is pretty big.”
The existence of a Pennsylvania grand jury investigation into the Witnesses’ handling of child sex-abuse cases — the first of its kind in the country — was disclosed only a week ago, in a story by USA Today, which was met with a no comment from Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
But The Inquirer this week interviewed five ex-Witnesses who have testified for the grand jury, including Chase, and their recollections paint a portrait of an investigation focused on shattering the wall of silence that has long surrounded the religion’s reclusive leaders, and unearthing secretly maintained records about suspected pedophiles.
In a statement released after news of the grand jury became public, Witness leaders said they “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.”
Investigators have traveled to several states as part of the grand jury probe, and recorded testimony from former elders — the Witnesses’ equivalent of parish priests — as well as abuse survivors.
“I can tell you firsthand, I’ve been up to the grand jury a couple of times now, and I’m testifying next week,” said Jeffrey Fritz, a Philadelphia attorney who represents Chase and his wife as well as several other ex-Witnesses.
“They are dead serious about going after [the Witnesses’ leaders] in any way they can, similar to the Catholic Church.”
Such a declaration would have seemed unthinkable for much of the last two decades, which saw a muted law enforcement response to ex-Witnesses who described in the pages of court documents horrific sexual assaults they suffered as minors, and the religion’s ongoing efforts to hide their accounts from the public.
Sarah Brooks is another of Fritz’s clients; when she alerted her parents in the early 2000s to the fact that she was being abused as a teenager by a family friend and a relative, she was publicly shamed by an elder at her York County kingdom hall, and then shunned by other Witnesses. She twice reported the assaults to police, and her abusers were ultimately arrested in 2013, and pleaded guilty to corruption of a minor.
Brooks, now 32, testified before the grand jury in Harrisburg last year.
Investigators asked her to explain the Witnesses’ inner hierarchy, the system of elders and overseers who ultimately take direction from members of a small governing body whose orders must be closely followed by the religion’s eight million followers, which number more than 7,000 in Philadelphia.
At least three grand jury witnesses said investigators want to question governing body members, who work out of the organization’s sprawling headquarters in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., where they relocated several years ago, after selling their former Brooklyn headquarters for more than $1 billion to a real estate company run at the time by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law.
“I am completely ecstatic," Brooks said. "It’s all I can do to not skip everywhere. I just feel like after all of the numerous people I’ve gone to, I finally have gotten to a point in my life where someone is listening.”
Martin Haugh, a former Witness elder whose 4-year-old daughter was molested inside a Red Lion, York County, kingdom hall in 2005, was so relieved to have testified before the grand jury that he recently tweeted a photo of the subpoena he received beforehand.
“They are so close to you, the jurors,” he said. “When I was talking to the investigator about what happened to my daughter, one [juror] dropped his pencil. I heard a couple of gasps.”
Haugh’s daughter had been abused by an adopted relative, John Logan Haugh, who was finally arrested in 2018, after another elder read an Inquirer investigation that detailed the case, and then shared the man’s whereabouts with police.
Martin Haugh, 42, said investigators were particularly interested in discussing how elders compile child abuse records, and the direction they receive from the religion’s lawyers.
“We need the FBI to break down their doors,” he said.
Mark O’Donnell, a former Witness who has twice testified in front of the grand jury, told The Inquirer he spoke last year to an elder who had been alerted to an instance of three children who were being sexually abused by their father.
The elder told O’Donnell, 52, he had contacted the Witnesses’ legal department, which advised that he shouldn’t share the information with police. The same department later instructed the man to destroy handwritten notes he had taken about the conversation.
“He became so distraught that he resigned,” said O’Donnell, who has spent years collecting and publishing documents about abuse cases that the Witnesses never reported to police.
Pennsylvania investigators traveled to meet that former elder in Missouri, and later flew him to Harrisburg to testify.
O’Donnell’s second appearance in front of the grand jury centered on Witness documents, some of which date back to the 1980s, that have been leaked by whistle-blowers, and show how Witness leaders instructed their underlings to stymie law enforcement inquiries and withhold information about suspected pedophiles from unsuspecting congregations.
The religion has faced increased scrutiny in recent years, from a 2018 episode of an A&E series, Cults and Extreme Belief, to a story in the Atlantic last year that focused on O’Donnell’s efforts, and a recent Oxygen documentary, The Witnesses, which highlights ongoing reporting from Trey Bundy, a reporter at Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting.
For years, many ex-Witnesses had little choice but to grapple with their trauma silently. Survivors eventually began forming communities on social media — Reddit, YouTube, Facebook — and hoped that the religion’s leaders would be held accountable, either in a news story or a courtroom, for enabling abusers.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, Brian Chase can still trace the fallout from the rape he survived. He was reprimanded by Witness elders who learned that he had been abused, and then kicked out of his house by his parents, who mistakenly believed he was abusing drugs. He was shunned by those closest to him, and had to muddle through a period of homelessness and years of heartache and confusion.
He now works with nonprofits that advocate for legislation to benefit and protect abuse victims, a tangible way of healing and helping others who have had to dig out of their own personal hells.
Traveling 2,000 miles back to Pennsylvania, to testify for the grand jury, offered another chance to make a difference.
“I felt relief, and that I was doing a good thing,” he said. “I want to do whatever I can to prevent this from happening to other people."
The Inquirer’s investigative reporting is supported in part by the Lenfest Institute’s Investigative News Fund. Editorial content is created independently of the fund’s donors. A listing of Lenfest Institute donors can be found at lenfestinstitute.org. Gifts to support the Investigative News Fund can be made at www.inquirer.com/donate.