Five members of Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations were charged with child sexual abuse by the Pennsylvania’s attorney general on Friday, following a yearslong investigation into allegations of sexual abuse in the religious community.
The children were all also members of Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations, and the alleged abusers gained access to – and the trust of the victims – through the organization, authorities said.
The cases include alleged sexual abuse of 4-year-old child and a developmentally disabled victim.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Michelle Henry announced charges Friday against David Balosa, 62, Errol William Hall, 50, Shaun Sheffer, 45, Terry Booth, 57, and Luis Manuel Ayala-Velasquez, 55, for sexually abusing minors across the state.
A news release from the attorney general’s office describes Balosa as 61, but the attorney general said he was 62 in a news conference and court documents show a birth date that would have him turning 62 this year.
“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,” Henry said in the news 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,” Henry said.
Sheffer “adamantly denies the allegations and looks forward to the opportunity to set the record straight,” Sheffer’s attorney Benjamin Steinberg told CNN in a written statement Sunday.
CNN is attempting to identify defense attorneys for the other four defendants.
CNN has reached out to the attorney general’s office and public defender’s offices in Philadelphia, Delaware, Butler, Allegheny, and Northampton counties, where each defendant has been charged, respectively.
The five defendants have each been charged and bail has been set, according to the attorney general’s office and criminal court dockets for three of the defendants reviewed by CNN.
5 men used religious community to find victims, attorney general says
The charges are part of an investigation into child abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses community launched by the attorney general’s office in 2019, according to a report from the AG’s office listing findings of fact and recommendations of charges against the defendants.
While the five cases are distinct from one another, they share a common thread, according to the attorney general. The defendants and victims were all part of Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations at the time of the alleged abuse.
Balosa, from Philadelphia, has been charged with indecent assault, aggravated indecent assault, and corruption of minors, according to a criminal docket filed in Philadelphia County.
He allegedly sexually assaulted a 4-year-old girl whom he had met through the Jehovah’s Witnesses community when he was in his 30s, according to the attorney general’s report. Balosa allegedly assaulted the girl in her family’s basement and told her not to tell anyone what he had done, the document states.
Hall was charged with indecent assault without consent, indecent assault forcible compulsion, and corruption of minors for inappropriately touching a 16-year-old girl whom he met through the community, according to a criminal docket filed in Delaware County.
Sheffer has been charged with rape, aggravated indecent assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, indecent assault, and corruption of minors, according to a criminal docket filed in Butler County.
He allegedly repeatedly raped his developmentally disabled younger sister, starting when she was 7 years old and he was 18, according to the report. The grand jury heard testimony that the rapes occurred approximately 50 to 75 times and lasted until the girl was 12 years old, according to the attorney general’s report.
Booth was charged with indecent assault and corruption of minors, according to the attorney general. He allegedly engaged in inappropriate sexual conversations with a 16-year-old boy he was mentoring within the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation.
On at least one occasion, the conduct escalated into inappropriate touching without the victim’s consent, according to the attorney general’s findings of fact and recommendations of charges.
Ayala-Velasquez was charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, indecent assault, aggravated indecent assault, endangering the welfare of children, and corruption of minors, the attorney general said. He allegedly sexually assaulted his daughter multiple times, according to the attorney general’s report.
“I have to say that I am thankful to the courageous survivors involved in these cases who were willing to share the horrific abuse that they went through. I am inspired by their strength,” Henry said at a news conference on Friday.
In October, the Pennsylvania’s attorney general charged four other members of Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations with child sexual abuse, according to a news release. In those cases, the alleged abusers also found their victims through the church, says the release.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses faith is a non-mainstream Christian denomination. The church was founded in Pennsylvania in the late 19th century and claimed over 110,000 congregations worldwide as of 2022, according to its website.
CNN’s Samantha Beech and Zoe Sottile contributed to this report.