“Jehovah’s Witnesses again find their First Amendment rights under attack and again seek protection.”
With these words, Watchtower attorney Paul Polidoro pleads the case of an embattled church struggling to re-define clergy-penitent privilege while spending millions of dollars protecting an ever-growing database of child abusers and their victims.
What began in California as a binge of molestation by a now-defrocked, incarcerated Jehovah’s Witness elder has landed before the United States Supreme Court, which must decide whether the constitutional rights of the controversial religion have been violated.
The underlying case is a 2013 civil lawsuit commonly referred to as “JW versus Watchtower.” JW represents the initials of one of the victims of former Jehovah’s Witness elder Gilbert Simental, who is now serving 45 years to life for his crimes.
This article will discuss the backdrop of the case, beginning with the abuse and subsequent criminal trial which set these events in motion.
The Background of this Case
It was a hot Southern Californa Summer day.
On July 15th, 2006, the mother of nine-year-old JW anxiously packed an overnight bag for her daughter. This was JW’s very first sleepover, and it was the first time she’d ever spent a night away from home, apart from family. She was very excited.
Like any other concerned parent, JW’s mother needed some assurance that she was sending her daughter to a safe place. Her friends often commented on how protective she was of her children. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she thought she could trust fellow member Gilbert Simental and his wife.
So she thought.
After all, he had been an elder since May 1996 and hosted a congregation meeting in his home for 13 years. On October 31, 2005, Simental had “stepped down” from his position as elder, but his reason seemed innocuous: he needed to spend more time with his son.
The congregation still treated Simental with respect. He would often conduct the weekly “bookstudy” meeting, and was almost always the person who read the paragraphs from the publication being studied. He took the lead in other congregation assignments, such as Kingdom Hall cleaning and maintenance.
Simental had a daughter close to the age of JW So it came as no surprise that JW was invited to the Simental home for a slumber party, along with two other Witness girls – sisters – also the same age.
There was no warning for what was about to happen on July 15th. The events of that day would forever change the lives of young JW and her family.
If only they had been informed.
The 1997 Watchtower Letter
On March 14th, 1997, Watchtower Headquarters in New York sent a letter to all Jehovah’s Witness congregations informing them that the organization was aware that some child molesters were serving in prominent, appointed positions within the church.
One week later, JW was born.
Gilbert Simental was already a known child molester. Local Elders and the Watchtower organization were well aware of the allegations against this man. But this knowledge was well-concealed from the parents of JW and her little friends. They never saw it coming.
“It may be possible that some who were guilty of child molestation were or are now serving as elders, ministerial servants, or regular or special pioneers. Others may have been guilty of child molestation before they were baptized. The bodies of elders should not query individuals. However, the body of elders should discuss this matter and give the Society a report on anyone who is currently serving or who formerly served in a Society-appointed position in your congregation who is known to have been guilty of child molestation in the past.”– March 14th 1997 Letter to Elders
Watchtower’s letter revealed that the organization was accumulating a detailed inventory of child molesters and their victims, but not with the intent of referring congregation elders to law enforcement or child protection agencies. All matters involving child molestation were to be handled internally.
According to Riverside Criminal prosecutor Burke Strunsky, “This case is about a daylong molestation spree on the part of the defendant, Gilbert Simental. He exploited the innocence and trust of his own daughter’s slumber party by fondling her childhood friends. Three little girls, nine-year-old Holly*, her ten-year-old sister Amy*, and nine-year-old Laura* were all left in the care of Simental, a member of the local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, not to mention a close friend of the family.”
*[names have been changed]
Simental initiated his crimes in broad daylight, in his own swimming pool with his wife nearby – seemingly unaware that her husband was using a pool of water to shield what he was doing with his hands. By nightfall, his crimes escalated to the premeditated sexual assault of three innocent girls who were already in a state of shock from earlier events.
Strunsky, now a California Superior Court judge, has written a book titled: The Humanity of Justice, in which he details some of the most egregious crimes he’s prosecuted on behalf of the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office.
Chapter 7 of this book is devoted entirely to the atrocities of Gilbert Simental, and the subsequent obstruction of justice by the Jehovah’s Witness elders involved.
The crimes committed by Simental on July 15, 2006, left the girls in a state of confusion and disbelief. Fortunately, two of the girls were sisters, and one month after the sleepover, they timidly approached their parents and revealed what had occurred at the Simental home.
They borrowed each other’s strength and decided to get help. Not only were the girls in fear of this man within their church environment, but Simental’s daughter attended their school, which meant they would see him in multiple places. They knew they had to do something.
The girls’ parents were active Jehovah’s Witnesses, so they did what every Witness is told to do when there’s a problem: they called the elders. They thought perhaps that the congregation clergy could protect their girls within the boundaries of the congregation. However, the elders had no authority at school. So their mother called the school principal, not recognizing that teachers and school officials are mandatory reporters.
The principal immediately contacted law enforcement. A criminal investigation was launched into the allegations against Simental.
Meanwhile, congregation elders conducted their own internal investigation of the crimes committed, seeking out both Simental and his accusers. During the course of their probe, Simental confessed to some of the accusations against him, but convinced congregation elders that he was repentant. As a result, he was “reproved” – the Jehovah’s Witness equivalent of a slap on the wrist.
When the police came calling, however, Simental suddenly realized that his confession might send him to prison for the rest of his life.
The Watchtower organization and local elders did not want to see that happen. Congregation elders John Vaughn and Andrew Sinay, under strict procedural orders from Watchtower of New York, were issued subpoenas to testify. They declined. On February 15th, 2008, Simental’s attorney filed a motion to quash Sinay’s subpoena. One week later, he filed another motion to quash, this time to prevent Vaughn from testifying.
Simental’s attorney argued that his confession to the two investigating elders was a confidential discussion, protected by clergy-penitent privilege.
The law, and Prosecutor Strunsky saw things differently:
The confessions of a pedophile should …never be treated as classified information inadmissable in a court of law…In my years as a prosecutor in child abuse cases, I’ve learned that there’s no faith community, whether it’s a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple that’s fully prepared to deal with these cases; someone who has the perverse urge to sexually abuse children needs professional intervention. Religious institutions’ refusal to bring the crime into the light leaves the innocent child to live in silent pain, confusion, and shame.The Humanity of Justice by Burke Strunsky
Long before a civil lawsuit was initiated against Watchtower and the Congregations involved in this crime, the elders associated with this case invoked clergy-penitent confessional privilege.
In effect, this amounted to an obstruction of justice, framed by U.S. First Amendment freedom of religion. The problem was, Gilbert Simental did not reach out to congregation elders to confess his crimes.
He was caught.
The two sisters who were friends of JW approached their parents, who summoned the elders instead of the police. The elders conducted their own investigation into the crimes, a fact that by definition disqualifies their discussions with Simental as clergy-penitent privilege.
However clear these facts appeared to the court, prosecutor Strunsky needed more. He wanted undisputed proof that the elders of a so-called confidential judicial committee would share information about Simental’s confession with other elders, either in the same congregation or elsewhere.
The answer was found in Watchtower’s own secret elders manual, Pay Attention to Yourselves and all the flock.
Prior to the global availability of highly confidential manuals and policy letters of the Jehovah’s Witness organization, attorneys representing victims had to rely upon other attorneys filing similar cases in separate jurisdictions. Strunsky obtained the “Flock” book from lawyers representing multiple additional victims of abuse across the United States.
He found the evidence he needed to compel testimony from the two non-cooperative elders.
“By knowing the judicial committees’s internal procedures and protocols, I could ask these resistant witnesses the kinds of detailed questions that would hopefully lead to the truth ..Without this book I could have never uncovered the protocols and mandates of the organization’s disciplinary hearing procedures”– The Humanity of Justice – Burke Strunsky
Under oath, Elder Andrew Sinay was questioned repeatedly about the Jehovah’s Witness policy of relaying the notes and content of one Judicial Committee to a second Judicial Committee, known as an Appeals Committee. The Appeals Committee is comprised of at least three different elders, usually from different congregations. These men would have access to all notes and files from a disfellowshipping case in which the accused could exercise his right to appeal the decision of the Elders.
Judge Dickerson ordered Sinay to answer Strunsky’s pointed questions, which revealed that the contents of Witness judicial proceedings did not qualify as clergy-pentitent communications. Not by a long shot.
Sinay also admitted that it was the elders’ practice to send copies of the elders’ notes, disfellowshipping forms and other documentation to Watchtower’s New York Headquarters, where their Service and Legal departments collect and process this data.
As a consequence of this ruling. the elders were compelled against their will to testify against Simental, leading to his conviction.
Gilbert Simental was found guilty of three counts of lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under the age of 14. In 2008 he was sentenced to 45 years to life for his crimes. At his sentencing hearing, a sizable group of Jehovah’s Witnesses demonstrated solidarity with Simental, appealing for a more lenient sentence. JW and her parents were treated as if they broke the congregation code of silence.
The Aftermath of the Criminal Trial
Prior to the criminal trial, on August 12, 2006, congregation elders announced that Simental was publicly reproved. A JW Survey source confirmed that the reproval was on the grounds of “loose conduct.”
Elders deemed that Simental was a reformed, repentant child molester who did not deserve to be disfellowshipped, despite the fact that he had confessed to multiple counts of child sexual abuse.
Additional evidence surfaced during the criminal trial which linked Simental to the abuse of several victims more than 30 years prior to his arrest.
Simental’s own niece told investigators that he had molested her when she was seven years old. The jury would not hear this evidence however, as the trial had already begun. In the end, the prosecution had sufficient evidence to convict even without the newly discovered victims.
The Civil Trial: JW versus Watchtower
Simental appealed, lost the case and was sent to prison. His wife was forced to separate or lose custody of her own children.
Meanwhile, the parents of JW wanted answers. Why was a known pedophile appointed to the position of Ministerial Servant in 1993, then elder in 1996? Why was he left unsupervised around so many children- not just his own? Why was he only “Reproved” after being convicted on multiple counts of lewd and lascivious acts upon a child?
The family wanted an explanation.
After multiple attempts to communicate with Watchtower headquarters in New York, the parents of JW were left in the dark, shut off, disconnected. They knew Watchtower was withholding mountains of evidence connected to Simental, but they weren’t about to release any of it to the family.
Elders met with Simental again in 2009, forming yet another internal judicial committee while the perpetrator was behind bars. He appealed. The family of JW sought legal representation. Ultimately, the civil case was turned over to the San Diego-based Zalkin Law Firm, which has litigated scores of Jehovah’s Witness sexual abuse lawsuits.
On May 19th, 2010, Gilbert Simental was finally disfellowshipped, nearly four years after he molested multiple girls.
By the time this action was taken, it was far too late. The damage was done, and questions remained unanswered.
There was only one way to flush out the facts: Take Watchtower to court.
In 2013, the family of JW filed a civil lawsuit against the Mountain View Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the French Valley Congregation, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, and the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It was the only way to get answers.
For five years, Watchtower fought vigorously against JW and her family, refusing to turn over scores of documents pertinent to the case, and which revealed the epidemic of child abuse within the Jehovah’s Witness organization.
The Riverside Superior Court of California ruled in favor of JW and awarded her a default judgment in excess of 4 million dollars. Watchtower filed multiple appeals, losing every time. Watchtower was forced to purchase a bond for $6,024,228.58 from Travelers Insurance Company to guarantee the judgment during the appeal.
In a final gasp of desperation, Watchtower has filed an appeal with the highest court in the United States: The Supreme Court. In part two of this article, we will review this appeal, and the opposition motion filed by JW’s attorneys.
On February 1st, 2012, convicted child molester Gilbert Simental was reinstated into the Mountain View Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He remains in prison.
“The only way we can make a difference is to put our fears aside and fight for what’s right.“-a message from survivors of abuse and their families