For more than two decades, disturbing allegations of child sex abuse have emerged at Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations across the country, even as the organization’s leaders have largely avoided serious law enforcement scrutiny.
That might be about to change.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has launched a grand jury investigation into allegations that Jehovah’s Witness officials have long been covering up reports of abuse, according to Mark O’Donnell, a former Witness who said he testified before the grand jury last year.
O’Donnell, 46, shared with The Inquirer a copy of the subpoena that he received before he traveled in August to Harrisburg, where he testified for more than two hours in front of 23 grand jury members.
The existence of the grand jury probe was first reported by USA Today. Witness leaders said in a statement to the newspaper that 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.”
A spokesperson for Shapiro declined to comment Saturday. Shapiro’s office led a landmark investigation into six Roman Catholic archdioceses that culminated, in 2018, with a report that identified more than 300 priests who had sexually abused more than 1,000 victims, dating back to the 1940s.
For years, O’Donnell, a Maryland resident, has detailed on a website nightmarish stories about children who have been sexually assaulted by Jehovah’s Witness elders and relatives. The site became a resource for journalists and ex-Witnesses — and a thorn in the side of Witness leaders who have been loath to publicly discuss the religion’s abuse problems.
The Atlantic last year wrote about O’Donnell’s efforts to bring transparency to a religious organization notorious for its secrecy. O’Donnell said he was contacted by an assistant deputy attorney general after that story was published, and then interviewed at his house.
“I was not surprised, because I get calls all the time from different agencies or journalists,” O’Donnell said Saturday, “but I did skip a beat when the attorney general of Pennsylvania called.”
The Inquirer published an investigation in 2018 that examined how Witness leaders routinely ostracized and punished survivors — and even their families — if they spoke out about their abuse or sought help from police.
The investigation helped lead to the arrest of a man who sexually abused a 4-year-old girl at a Witness Kingdom Hall in York County in 2005. Another story exposed video footage that showed Shawn Bartlett, a Witness official, instructing elders at a 2017 seminar to destroy handwritten notes and drafts of internal documents, because those records could prove harmful in litigation.
“So the organization has said, ‘We’ve run into difficulties in the past because of the records we have,' " Bartlett said in the video.
O’Donnell said he was shown footage of Bartlett that had been on The Inquirer’s website during his grand jury testimony.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses have more than eight million followers around the world and have counted multiple celebrities — Prince, Venus and Serena Williams, Donald Glover — among their ranks at one time or another.
The organization’s roots run deep in Pennsylvania. An Allegheny County man, Charles Taze Russell, founded the Witnesses in the 1870s. A 2014 Pew study estimated that more than 120,000 Witnesses call Pennsylvania home, while Philadelphia has more than a dozen congregations.
Glimpses of the organization’s response to abuse have emerged over the years in records leaked by whistle-blowers. A 1989 memo advised that elders should resist cooperating if police ever showed up at a kingdom hall with a search warrant.
"The need for elders to maintain strict confidentiality has been repeatedly stressed,” one portion of the memo said.
Witness leaders, faced with mounting legal bills from lawsuits filed by abuse survivors in the United States and abroad, sold their sprawling Brooklyn headquarters in recent years for more than $1 billion to a real estate company run at the time by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law.