(RNS) — Five Jehovah’s Witnesses have been charged with sexually abusing nine children in congregations across Pennsylvania, the state’s acting attorney general, Michelle Henry, announced Tuesday (Feb. 7). The alleged crimes are separate, but the attorney general’s office described the actions of several of the defendants as having leveraged religion to get access to the reported abuse survivors.
“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 Henry in 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.”
Four of the five accused have been taken into custody; the fifth, Norman Aviles of Lancaster County, is still at large.
In October, four other Jehovah’s Witnesses were arrested and charged with sexually abusing a total of 19 children in Pennsylvania as part of a broad investigation into abuse known as the 49th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury.
“As Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses despise the mistreatment and abuse of anyone, especially precious children,” a spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ U.S. branch said in a statement to Religion News Service. “While it is not appropriate to comment on cases pending before the courts, we want to express our concern for all victims of abuse regardless of faith.”
The five charged Tuesday are Abimael Valentin-Matos, 42, of Lancaster County; Raymond Shultz, 74, of Beaver County; Kevin Isovitsch, 51, of Butler County; Marc Brown, 65, of Allegheny County; and Aviles, 44, of Lancaster County.
According to the filing, Matos was introduced to a 15-year-old girl at a Jehovah’s Witnesses circuit assembly, a regional gathering of congregations. The girl told the grand jury that Matos, 30 at the time, afterward began attending meetings at her home congregation. Eventually, she testified, the congregation’s elders gave approval for the two to be romantically involved, as long as they were accompanied by a chaperone and committed to marry.
But, the filing alleges, Matos sent photos of his genitalia to the 15-year-old and convinced her to touch him sexually in a public park. He is charged with indecent assault and endangering the welfare of children, among other crimes.
In November 2022, shortly after the arrest of the other Jehovah’s Witnesses, a relative of Shultz reported to the office of the attorney general that Shultz had sexually abused her when she was between 5 and 10 years old.
The relative “explained that she did not report the abuse to the police when she remained in her religious community because she did not fully comprehend what had happened to her, and, because speaking to a police officer in a way that may ‘bring reproach to Jehovah’ was discouraged,” the filing says.
Another of Shultz’s relatives later testified that she was abused by Shultz. He is charged with aggravated indecent assault, endangering the welfare of children, corruption of minors and indecent assault.
A young family member of Isovitsch testified that she was sexually assaulted by him while visiting his home around the year 2005, when she was 9. He has been charged with rape and aggravated indecent assault, among other charges.
The filing says Brown reportedly sexually abused two sisters between 2004 and 2006 when they were between the ages of 10 and 13.
The attorney general’s office also said information about the abuse “was provided to leaders in their religious community” shortly after the sisters learned Brown had been abusing them both, but did not detail how leaders responded. Brown is charged with aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children.
An elder in a Lancaster congregation, Aviles “used his position of trust within his religious community to prey on vulnerable children,” the filing claims, saying he “gained the trust of several parents” and sometimes babysat his alleged victims. In all, he is charged with assaulting three minors, one of whom testified that she saw Aviles as a “father figure and a religious guide.”
Lancaster police opened an investigation into Aviles in 2010, but it was closed due to lack of information. Aviles, who has not yet been arrested, has been charged with aggravated indecent assault, indecent assault, corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children.
A spokesperson for the SNAP Network, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, commended the survivors for coming forward in a statement shared with RNS.
“We know that pursuing justice against these perpetrators would not be possible if it were not for the strength and courage of the brave victims who stepped forward by calling the Office of Attorney General to report these crimes. We understand it’s hard for victims to speak up, but that’s what it takes to see justice, safeguard others, expose predators, and prevent crimes.”
These cases are being investigated by Chief Deputy Attorney General Christopher Jones. The attorney general’s office asked that anyone with additional information on these cases contact the office at 888-538-8541.