For the first time since the 2012 landmark ruling in the case of Candace Conti versus the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, a jury will decide the outcome of a sexual abuse case in which multiple Jehovah’s Witness elders in two states knowingly failed to report the abuse of a 14-year-old girl, even after reporting the matter to Watchtower’s legal department.
The plaintiff, Stephanie Fessler of Lancaster Pennsylvania, will testify that elders from the Freeland Maryland and Spring Grove Pennsylvania congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses failed to contact law enforcement officials when they became aware of a sexual relationship between Ms. Fessler, aged 14-16 and the co-defendant, Mrs. Terry Jeanne Monheim, 49-51.
The abuse began in 2003, was discovered by the summer of 2004, and when Stephanie’s parents became aware of the abuse they contacted congregation elders. Elder Eric Hoffman initiated an internal Jehovah’s Witness investigation, which included two additional elders, Neal Cluck and John Ness, and did not contact legal authorities. The elders also did not urge her parents to contact authorities. Instead of protecting Stephanie, they punished her by privately reproving her.
According to court documents, the Spring Grove elders interrogated the victim, Stephanie Fessler, but did not question the 49-year-old Terry Seipp (Monheim), and made no attempt to contact the police or child protection authorities. Instead of offering protection, Stephanie was slapped with a private “reproof” from her elders. Under deposition, Witness elder Eric Hoffman admitted that he knew of suspected abuse, but failed to contact the authorities.
Elders from the Freeland Maryland congregation were informed of the sexual abuse accusations against their member, Terry Seipp (Monheim), but as with the Spring Grove elders, they too failed to contact any legal authorities and rather also issued a private reproof. Elders from the Spring Grove congregation did, however contact Watchtower’s legal department in Patterson, New York, but court records indicate that despite their inquiry regarding possible police notification, the failure to make a report of suspected abuse violated Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Laws (CPSL).
As a direct result of the defendants’ collective unwillingness to comply with both Pennsylvania and Maryland law, the plaintiff suffered abuse for yet another year, until the defendant’s husband hired a private investigator, who provided photographic proof of the relationship between Fessler, aged 15, and Monheim, who was now 50 years old. Elders were again notified following this disclosure, but they still refused to contact police or Childline. They punished Stephanie again by now publicly reproving her; a formal announcement was made to the entire congregation.
Abuser Charged, Victims Suffers
It was not until 2011 that Stephanie Fessler, aged 22 was able to report her abuser directly to the police, who arrested and charged Terry Seipp (Monheim) with multiple criminal violations. Seipp pled guilty to corrupting the morals of a minor and indecent assault and was sentenced to prison and probation.
Meanwhile, Fessler suffered severe PTSD which presented in extreme anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, nightmares, and multiple additional symptoms which required professional therapy. It is clear that the Jehovah’s Witness organization not only obstructed justice, but by violating Pennsylvania and Maryland Law, they subsequently deprived Stephanie of the counseling services which would have been available to her at the right time. The added layer of stress caused by her private and public reproof caused additional damage, forcing her to deal with the stigma of being considered “bad association” by all of her Witness friends.
Stephanie was baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the age of 10, a decision which rendered her permanently accountable to the Witness organization and its elders. While non-Witness children have the benefit of practical support and encouragement if they are abused or taken advantage of, a baptized Witness child will often find themselves seated before a body of all male elders, forced to relive their trauma, then punished with no recourse.
“it’s robbed years of my childhood because I was a child at the time. I did not know about sex… to be abused by somebody and then to be blamed for it, the damage that’s caused me and done to me mentally and emotionally, it’s beyond words”
The primary defendant in this case is the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, and the CCJW (Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witness). Fessler’s attorney Jeffrey P. Fritz of Soloff & Zervanos, P.C. will demonstrate to the jury that Watchtower’s legal department failed to instruct the elders involved in this case to follow the mandatory child abuse reporting laws which govern Maryland and Pennsylvania.
This is in spite of Watchtower’s own written and published documentation which openly acknowledged that child abuse is a crime, and that “no elder will criticize anyone who reports such an allegation to authorities.” (February 15th 2002 Letter to Elders)
However, in line with Watchtower’s conflicting legal recommendations, elders are not specifically instructed to report matters of child abuse to legal authorities, but to only do so as the last resort in states where mandatory reporting is strictly enforced. Watchtower relies heavily upon the use of clergy privilege, despite exemptions in place which permit a member of the clergy (an elder) to report accusations of abuse to the proper authorities.
As we have reported in past articles, Watchtower attorneys frequently use the term “absolute right” when describing their desire for victims to handle abuse reports themselves – a practice designed to make them appear to favor victims rights while making no effort to actively involve congregation elders in the reporting process. This strategy results in grossly under-reported cases of abuse. Most victims and their families are so traumatized by the abuse, they usually decline to report. Another reason they fail to report is that elders encourage Jehovah’s Witnesses to do nothing which would “bring reproach upon Jehovah’s name” – a well-known Witness policy designed to protect the organization’s reputation rather than seek the highest level of care for victims.
The jury has been selected, and the trial is set to commence Tuesday February 7th at City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. JW Survey will provide continual updates following testimony and final verdict.
JW Survey would like to thank the editors of www.avoidjw.org for providing detailed research materials which have assisted counsel for Ms. Fessler.