Criminal charges in child sex abuse cases while amendment stalls

(WHTM) — Pennsylvania’s attorney general announced charges Friday against five men in child sex abuse cases across the state. At the same time, advocacy groups are calling on the governor to give survivors another path to justice.

The five men charged are all members of the Jehovah’s Witness community, and the charges stem from an ongoing grand jury investigation. Advocates say many more survivors are waiting for their day in court, but that requires the governor — and state lawmakers — to act.

“Sadly, this is not the first time that I’ve stood here,” Attorney General Michelle Henry said at Friday’s announcement.

These men were charged as part of a grand jury investigation focused on child sexual abuse cases in the Jehovah’s Witness community. One of the victims in these cases was just four years old.

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“The details of these cases that I will be talking about are incredibly disturbing. The five defendants that we have charged today were all adults in positions of trust with these victims. And they violated that trust and they abused these children,” Henry said.

With these charges, the attorney general’s office has now charged 14 members of the Jehovah’s Witness community over the last year.

“I will say that this office will never stop working to bring justice,” Henry said.

However, as these cases move forward, another push for justice has stalled for months in the state legislature.

“Pennsylvania is so far behind,” said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of think tank and advocacy group CHILD USA.

At the beginning of 2023, Governor Josh Shapiro and state lawmakers made it a priority to pass an amendment giving child sex abuse survivors a window to sue their abusers.

“The one bill he promised would be the first bill he signed was the window,” Hamilton said.

Seven months later, with no amendment, CHILD USA is asking the governor to make this part of the budget.

“We’re at an impasse. It is absolutely necessary that the governor of Pennsylvania step in and make this happen, he’s the only one that can do it,” Hamilton said.

Both the House and Senate have passed the amendment, but the senate bundled it with unrelated amendments, which Democrats oppose, and said it was all or nothing. Senate leaders maintain they did their job.

“In January, the Senate immediately organized our chamber for the 2023-2024 legislative session and took action on Senate Bill 1 on January 11. We have been unwavering in our position and consistently urged the House to vote on Senate Bill 1 as presented. As passed by the Senate, SB 1 would have provided voters with a direct voice on voter identification, legislative review of regulations and opening the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors through constitutional amendments. 

The House chose not to act on Senate Bill 1 in time for the questions to appear on the May ballot. It was not until the end of May that the House passed Senate Bill 1, after removing two of the three constitutional amendments. While the House decided to remove two of the three measures from Senate Bill 1 as it was passed by the Senate, our Caucus remains open to conversations about how to accomplish all three of the important constitutional amendments initially included in SB 1.”

Kate Flessner, Senate Republican Caucus spokesperson

House Democrats blame Senate Republicans for the hold-up, saying it is up to Republicans to do the right thing.

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“As the majority, House Democrats have prioritized ensuring justice for survivors by moving all bills that address this injustice. The Senate now has multiple opportunities to provide justice to child sex abuse survivors: through statute (HB 2) and through constitutional amendment (HB 1, a clean bill, and SB 1, which was amended to strip out language that had nothing to do with providing justice to survivors) in regular session, as well as House Bills 1 and 2 in Special Session.”

Elizabeth Rementer, press secretary, office of PA House Majority Leader Matt Bradford

Advocates say enough is enough.

“A window by itself, unpoliticized, let’s just get it done,” Hamilton said.

abc27 reached out to Governor Shapiro’s office to ask if he has any plans to get this over the finish line and whether working it into the budget is on the table but did not hear back.