Church sued for ’empowering’ child abuser

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Joshua Mitchell Markelwitz is serving 12-24 years in state prison for sexually abusing an underage girl while serving as a youth leader at Charlton United Methodist Church in Lower Paxton Township.

The abuse started when the girl was 12 years old and continued for several years.

According to a civil lawsuit filed Monday in Dauphin County court, Markelwitz is not the only guilty party.

“We think there’s been a lack of institutional control,” Harrisburg attorney Benjamin Andreozzi said. “The church had several opportunities to prevent this abuse from happening.”

Andreozzi represents the victim. The lawsuit contends that Markelwitz has a prior felony conviction and served time while in the military and therefore should not have been hired by Charlton in the first place.

The lawsuit also names the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church, the church’s governing body.

Conference spokesman Gerald Wolgemuth would not comment specifically on the lawsuit, but did defend the organization’s child abuse education.

“We have trained 4,500 people across 900 churches,” Wolgemuth said. “We have a team of 25 persons who train. We think we’ve been diligent in the training issue, but as to whether it was tightly adhered to in this case, someone’s going to have to sort that out.”

The church does have what’s called “safe sanctuary” policies requiring two, unrelated adults to be supervising children and for all activities to be out in the public. The lawsuit contends that Markelwitz, on several occasions, violated those rules.

The suit also alleges that other adults complained to church officials about the inappropriateness of Markelwitz’s relationship with the girl and the church did nothing.

“But for the church not properly screening him, but for the church listening to the complaints of the congregation members, this would’ve never happened,” Andreozzi said.

The victim just turned 18 and Andreozzi says she is not doing well.

“My client’s been having an extremely difficult time trying to get her life back on track,” he said. “She’s struggling with relationships she’s having with men. She’s also had severe anxiety and depression and other symptoms common for sexual assault survivors.”

Andreozzi is seeking money from the church to pay for counseling for his client, and to send a message.

“Oftentimes, the only way that institutions change their policies and procedures and become more proactive in protecting children is when they’re hit in their pocketbooks,” he said.

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