PENNSYLVANIA, USA — Five members of the Jehovah's Witnesses organization have been charged with sexual assault and exploitation of children, Attorney General Michelle Henry announced on Friday.
In each case, the defendants and victims were members of Jehovah's Witnesses congregations.
"All five men had the trust of the victims and their families, and all five men were members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation and many of them gained access to their victims through this organization," Henry said.
As FOX43 first reported in May, the arrests came out of a larger investigation that will result in a grand jury special report on the alleged coverup of widespread child sexual abuse within the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization.
Though the Attorney General’s office still won’t confirm that report, the charges announced Friday were the furthest step yet seen to link individual arrests with culpability of the religious organization itself. At a press conference, Henry suggested the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization created an environment in which the abuse could occur.
“One of the key pieces to child abuse is that the offenders have to have access to their victims. They have to have a way to get to them and groom them,” she said.
Child advocates like Martin Haugh, a former Jehovah’s Witness, applauded the announcement of more arrests.
“I’m extremely happy that the government is taking this so seriously and actually listening to advocates and actually protecting children,” Haugh said.
However, a measure that would help victims hold their abusers accountable is still out of reach. The state House passed a bill to create a two-year retroactive window for victims to sue their abusers, but it remains stalled in the Senate.
Observers said with the General Assembly at an impasse, it was up to Gov. Josh Shapiro to find a way to pass the bill.
“Statute of limitations should be the highest on his list. The governor campaigned on this issue and he made a promise: he said the window would be the first bill he signs. So it’s in his court and we’re just making sure everybody understands that we’re not going away until this happens,” said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of think tank Child USA.
The following men are facing charges:
- David Balosa, 62, of Philadelphia
- Errol William Hall, 50, of Delaware County
- Shaun Sheffer, 45, of Butler County
- Terry Booth, 57, of Panama City, FL
- Luis Manuel Ayala-Velasquez, 55, of Reading
Balosa is alleged to have sexually assaulted a girl as young as 4-years-old after becoming close to a family in his congregation after moving to the United States. Authorities say that Balosa was welcomed by the family into their home where he had access to the victim and sexually assaulted her. He is facing aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, and corruption of minors charges
Hall allegedly inappropriately touched a teenage girl he knew through his Jehovah's Witness congregation, and as an elder, he was able to gain the trust of parents that allowed him access to children. Hall is charged with indecent assault and corruption of minors.
Sheffer is charged with sexually assaulting a young family member, beginning when the victim was as young as 7-years-old. Authorities say that due to Sheffer's family relationship with the victim, he was often left alone with the victim for long periods of times where he raped and assaulted her. Sheffer is charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated indecent assault, among other related charges.
Booth was a mentor to a teenage boy he began to touch inappropriately, authorities say. He is charged with indecent assault and corruption of minors.
Ayala-Velasquez is charged with abusing a young family member for several years. The victim testified that he would sneak into her bedroom while she was sleeping and sexually assault her, and then years later, when the victim was an adult, he allegedly raped her in his home. Ayala-Velasquez is charged with rape, aggravated indecent assault, and corruption of minors, among other related charges.
The charges in these cases have been filed in the corresponding counties of Philadelphia, Delaware, Butler, Allegheny, and Northampton.
“The details of these crimes are sad and disturbing, facts which are made even more abhorrent because the defendants used their faith communities or their own families to gain access to victims,” said Attorney General Michelle Henry via a press release. “Our office will never stop working to seek justice for those who have been victimized, and we will continue to investigate and prosecute anyone who harms the most vulnerable in our society.”
Anyone with information regarding child sexual abuse can make a report to ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313, and anyone with additional information regarding these cases should make a report to the Office of Attorney General’s hotline at 888-538-8541.