The retired pastor of a Horsham church was sentenced to 200 years in federal prison Thursday for video-recording himself sexually abusing two children over a period of years.
Jerry Zweitzig, who led the nondenominational Horsham Bible Church until his retirement in 2016, apologized for his actions moments before U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone imposed the maximum punishment for each of the seven child pornography counts to which he had pleaded guilty, with each to be served consecutively.
As recently as earlier this year, prosecutors noted, the 72-year-old Hatboro resident was still seeking to justify and explain away the abuse he inflicted on children.
“Children are taught to be ashamed of their bodies,” Zweitzig said during a presentencing interview quoted in court filings, in which he discussed the elder of his victims. “I taught [the child] that in the house, there was nothing wrong with nudity. … I really felt that I was trying to help.”
The mother of Zweitzig’s victims rejected that assertion in a letter submitted to the judge.
Her child, she said, “learned about deception at a young age from a man who stood at the pulpit every Sunday preaching the word of God. While he talked to the congregation about how they should be living, he spent his private time getting sexual satisfaction from abusing my children.”
Zweitzig’s sentencing came nearly two years after his arrest by Horsham Township police and six years after the elder child first accused the pastor of abuse in a report to police.
Zweitzig did not meet the children through his work as a minister, but maintained a close relationship to his victims' family. The Inquirer is not identifying them or describing the nature of their ties to Zweitzig in line with its policy to not identify sexual abuse victims.
When first confronted by police in 2014, Zweitzig denied any illicit contact and insisted he had done nothing more than speak to his accuser about puberty.
It wasn’t until the child made a more detailed complaint in 2018, after moving out of the area, that investigators obtained a search warrant for the pastor’s home. There, they found a cache of thousands of sexually explicit photos and videos of children he had downloaded as well as the videos he shot of the child who made the complaint.
In footage from 2014, Zweitzig was seated on a bed as he encouraged the child, then age 9, to feel free to tell him anything “without having to be afraid.” He mentioned that soon the child would have a significant other but that underage people “don’t know what they’re doing.”
The video showed Zweitzig pulling down his pants and masturbating in front of the child, who then ran out of the frame, visibly distressed, to hide in a bathroom nearby. Other images shot by Zweitzig depicted the child in various states of undress or being forced to perform sex acts on him.
When confronted by a family member about those images after his arrest, Zweitzig maintained that he didn’t believe that they were illegal because he took them only for his personal use, prosecutors said.
It wasn’t until after Zweitzig pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges last year that investigators discovered another video in his collection — this one, shot in 2010, of him abusing the one victim’s then-infant sibling. He was charged in a separate case and pleaded guilty to those charges in May.
“The depravity of [Zweitzig’s] conduct cannot be overstated,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric L. Gibson said in court papers leading up to the pastor’s sentencing. “Undoubtedly, [he] has left his victims' self-worth and ability to trust in tatters, and their psyches will struggle to heal for the rest of their lives.”
Zweitzig’s attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Katrina Young, described her client Thursday as “deeply remorseful” and “extremely ashamed and regretful” despite his initial failure to acknowledge his actions.
She suggested that his upbringing in an extremely devout family and immersion in the world of the church contributed to his failure to seek help earlier for his sexual impulses toward children.
“From a very young age, Mr. Zweitzig was taught that faith was the only means of overcoming problems and that prayer was the only cure for psychological issues and addiction,” she said, though she added: “To be clear, Mr. Zweitzig makes no excuses for his behavior and fully acknowledges the gravity of his offenses.”
In addition to his prison term, Zweitzig was ordered to pay restitution to his victims. He still faces state charges brought by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office for the abuse he inflicted on the elder child.