Published February 28th, 2017
Trial Summary – Part Two
On a blistering summer morning in Reading Pennsylvania. I crossed the railroad tracks, then Penn Street – coffee, briefcase, and boxed lunch in hand.
Just a few steps away from the Sovereign Convention Center, something caught my eye. On the corner of Penn and 7th avenue, a solitary man stood quietly with a large poster that read: “A Jehovah’s Witness elder molested me.”
It was 8.30 a.m. Thousands of badge-wearing, convention-bound Jehovah’s Witnesses streamed into the main entrance, sliding past this man as though he were invisible.
His sign quietly proclaimed that he had suffered the ultimate injustice, but no one stopped. No one seemed to care; their minds were intently focused on entering the air-conditioned building, escaping the heat which was building outside.
I don’t remember what I wore that day. I don’t remember which restaurant I went to that evening. I don’t recall which hotel I stayed in. But I remember the man with the sign.
His presence haunted me. Why was he there? Why would no one speak to him? What had he done wrong? Why was he treated as a man with leprosy?
Meanwhile, just a short distance away, a young girl named Stephanie Fessler was being abused by a Jehovah’s Witness woman more than three times her age. When the relationship was discovered, congregation elders in two states were informed. These elders contacted their legal department in Patterson New York. The elders privately, then publicly reprimanded both Stephanie, and her assailant, Terry Monheim. The police were never notified. Child protective services was never informed. The parents of Fessler were caught between the rock of their religion and doing the right thing. Stephanie’s father, Kevin Fessler, was an elder. Unfortunately, no one did the right thing.
Seven years later, Stephanie Fessler, at the age of 22, summoned the courage to tell her story to the police. As a result, Monheim was arrested, pleaded guilty to multiple charges, and was sentenced to prison and probation. Monheim was placed on Megan’s list.
Unfortunately, the damage was done. The mental anguish, the destruction of a childhood, the lack of protection from her own parents and congregation elders left Stephanie Fessler traumatized and permanently injured. Unless you are a victim of childhood sexual abuse, you may never fully understand what she has been through.
Stephanie did not want to see this happen to anyone else. The elders for Jehovah’s Witnesses along with their managing corporations, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, and the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, were served notice in a civil trial which began February 7th, 2017.
On February 13th, the Witness corporations, together with the Spring Grove Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, reached a financial agreement with Fessler after just four days of testimony.
Using Watchtower’s own language, Fessler’s attorney Jeffrey Fritz stated “The matter with the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been resolved.”
Trial Day 2: Enter, Eric Hoffman
It is difficult to fathom which is worse – an elder molesting a young child, or an entire group of elders learning of an accusation, but ignoring their responsibility to inform the authorities and get help for a victim. As I sat on the rickety wooden chair at City Hall in Philadelphia, that question entered my mind. My pondering was interrupted at 1:15 PM, when Spring Grove PA elder Eric Hoffman entered the room, and was sworn in by the court officer.
Attorney for Ms. Fessler, Gregg Zeff, wasted no time in questioning Mr. Hoffman, beginning with his position as a Jehovah’s Witness elder. Hoffman has been an elder since 1994.
Zeff: An elder is a member of the clergy?
Hoffman: We are not labeled clergy. We are not paid.
Despite the denial that elders are clergymen, Zeff continues his questioning:
Zeff: Sir, would you agree that clergy must report sexual abuse of children to protect the victim from additional harm?
Zeff: Would you agree that clergy may never keep sexual assault of a child a secret to protect the congregation?
Zeff: You don’t have any training in interviewing children who are victims of sexual abuse, do you?
As our readers may recall from a prior article on this case, Watchtower representative Thomas Jefferson had testified for 2 consecutive days that Jehovah’s Witness elders are not clergymen, with the implication that the laws which apply to members of the clergy do not apply to Witness elders. Mr. Hoffman upheld that statement. Zeff began a new line of questions related to elders’ strict requirement to follow the direction of their corporate headquarters, or face consequences:
Zeff: You received the letters from the Watchtower, don’t you?
Hoffman: That’s on their letterhead, correct.
Zeff: And you rely on those letters of instruction from the Watchtower to perform your
duties as an elder, don’t you?
Hoffman: We do.
Zeff: Okay. If you don’t follow the letters of instruction the Watchtower may remove you as an elder; isn’t that true?
Hoffman: They could, yes.
Zeff: And the Watchtower directs the activity of elders, doesn’t it?
Hoffman: We receive direction from them, correct.
Zeff: You don’t receive direction from anyone else, do you?
Establishing that elder Hoffman took his marching orders directly from Watchtower headquarters, Zeff then asked a critical question which revealed that Hoffman was well aware of the allegation of child abuse:
Zeff: In the fall of 2005, you knew that there was suspected child abuse involving Stephanie Fessler, didn’t you?
Hoffman: In the fall of 2005?
Zeff: Okay. And you, along with Neal Cluck, who was another elder, learned of this and a committee was formed, wasn’t it?
Hoffman: I believe, yes, it was.
Zeff: Okay. And you don’t really remember anything specific that Stephanie’s father or mother told you, do you?
Hoffman: That’s correct.
Zeff: Okay. During the first meeting — you had two meetings, didn’t you?
Zeff: Okay. So, you don’t really remember when the first meeting was?
Hoffman: According to my notes, the first meeting was towards the end of September in 2005.
Zeff: Okay. Well, what note are you talking about, Sir?
Hoffman: We had a few notes written down.
Zeff: Let’s look at those notes.
At this point, attorney Zeff called for the notes of Eric Hoffman to be projected on screen for the jury. As stated by the defense in opening arguments, Watchtower had hoped their elders would testify that they had no real knowledge of any physical or sexual relationship between Fessler and Seipp [Monheim] in 2004, and did not learn of the relationship until 2005.
Zeff: And are you aware that Stephanie Fessler and Terry Seipp are anticipated to both testify that they were reproved and disciplined in 2004?
Hoffman: No, I did not.
Zeff: Okay. So, when you say you have two meetings, are you sure that your first meeting took place in 2004 — 2005 rather than 2004?
Zeff presses Hoffman harder:
Zeff: Are you aware that Jodee Fessler has testified or will testify in this case that the
first meeting occurred in 2004?
Hoffman: May have, but I have no notes and I have no recollection of any meeting in 2004.
Hoffman begins to weaken, his memory suddenly becomes fuzzy:
Zeff: So, it’s possible that happened, she might be right?
Hoffman: Could be, but I do not remember anything about it.
Zeff: Okay. And the second meeting, the meeting that took place in 2005, you have notes from that one?
Zeff: So, if Stephanie Fessler, Jodee Fessler and Terry Seipp all testified that they were
involved with judicial committees in 2004, you wouldn’t have any reason to doubt them, would you?
Hoffman: Yes, because there’s no notes from a judicial committee in 2004.
Zeff: Well, aren’t you told to destroy any unnecessary notes?
Hoffman: The only notes I have are what’s there.
Hoffman, clearly rattled by the barrage of questions, is unable to recall Watchtower’s policy related to what they can and can’t destroy – so Zeff focuses on the one thing that becomes crystal clear to the jury – Hoffman knew that Stephanie was being abused:
Zeff: So, in 2005, at least, you were told that a 16-year-old girl was making out with a 50-year-old woman?
Zeff: Okay. You were suspicious, at that point, that this might be child abuse, weren’t you?
Hoffman: We were suspicious that something was going on that shouldn’t be.
While Hoffman attempted to evade the admission that this was a sexual relationship, Zeff put it to him in a slightly different way:
Zeff: It was explained that they were kissing romantically?
Zeff: Like a boyfriend and girlfriend might, right?
Zeff: Like a husband and wife might?
Zeff: And you didn’t find that to be suspicious of child abuse?
Hoffman: Well, that’s why we formed the committee then.
Zeff: Okay. So, you formed the committee because you were suspicious?
Hoffman: Because we were suspicious.
The testimony of Hoffman flowed like a math problem where so many different equations all pointed to the same undisputed answer. But there were more parties involved, and attorney Zeff brought them into the equation:
Zeff: When you formed the committee, did you contact the Watchtower about it?
Hoffman: We contacted the legal department.
Zeff: Okay. Well, that’s after you learned whatever you learned. But in forming the committee, did you seek any guidance from anyone regarding what you should do and how you should ask questions?
Attorney Zeff next questions inconsistencies in Hoffman’s previous testimony when he was deposed prior to trial, but when Hoffman fails to provide a concise recollection of his deposition, Zeff finally tells the court: “I’ll move on, Your Honor.” Instead of quietly accepting this statement, the attorney for Spring Grove Congregation, Jud Arron makes the mistake of joking with the court:
Aaron: No objection.
Judge Mary C. Collins: No. Enough! I don’t want any snide, unnecessary irrelevant comments from any lawyers participating in this trial.
Jud Aaron, embarrassed and red-faced, apologizes to the judge and the court.
Zeff gets Hoffman to admit that he had consulted the elders’ letters and the elders’ manual when handling the Fessler case, then says:
Zeff: In addition to the kissing and making out, Stephanie Fessler told you that there was some improper hugging, didn’t she?
Zeff: And touching of the breasts?
Zeff follows these questions by asking Hoffman to read his notes from the 2005 Spring Grove judicial meeting, where among other details, Hoffman wrote:
“It was later learned during the meeting that there was touching of the breasts on more than one occasion..”
Zeff: Did you have a concern that there was a 50-year-old woman in another congregation that was making out and touching the breasts of a 16-year-old?
Hoffman: We did.
Zeff: Okay. Did you warn anybody about that?
Hoffman: Just talked to Stephanie.
Zeff: Okay. You didn’t tell the other congregation that Stephanie said that her breasts were touched and that she was making out with a 50-year-old woman?
Hoffman: I believe we had conversation with them just to make sure the stories were the same.
Zeff: Did you let the Watchtower know?
Hoffman: Yes. We called the legal department.
Tensions escalated as testimony from Hoffman had just clearly shown that elders in two congregations were aware of the abuse, that the relationship was undisputed, and that Watchtower was a party to this knowledge. It was further revealed that while all of this was going on, Terry Seipp [Monheim’s] husband Dana had hired a private investigator to follow Terry, suspecting what his wife was doing.
Suddenly, in a desperate move, Watchtower attorney John Miller cuts in and calls for a sidebar with the judge:
Miller: I’m sorry, Your Honor. You already ruled. I was too late to ask, but
unless this is breaching the attorney/client privilege, that’s the format you followed, the
instruction you got from the legal department. That’s asking for the legal advice given.
Zeff: Judge, it’s been waived. It was asked in deposition and answered. These
questions were asked. They were answered in deposition. You can’t turn around after not asserting the privilege and turn around and assert the privilege at trial, when it’s already been waived. There is plenty case law on that.
Miller: We didn’t raise it there?
Zeff: Nope. It wasn’t raised at all. I can show you the pages, 19, 20, 21, 23 of the
Miller: I’ll trust you if you’re —
Zeff: Here they are — where are the numbers on the pages?
Miller: So, we missed it on him great. Well, then, I’m wasting your time.
Judge Collins: All right. Let’s go back.
Fessler’s attorney Zeff left no stone unturned, as he pressed Hoffman even harder:
Zeff: The reason you contacted the legal department was regarding trying to find out what your obligations were regarding reporting sexual abuse. Isn’t that correct?
Zeff: And after you spoke to the legal department, you didn’t report sexual abuse to any
authority in Pennsylvania, did you?
Hoffman: We did not report to the police, no.
Zeff: You never received any instruction that there was any legal authority in Pennsylvania to report suspected child abuse, did you?
Zeff: And you didn’t tell Stephanie Fessler’s parents that they could go to the police either, did you?
Hoffman: We may not have, no.
Zeff: Okay. You didn’t. Thank you. I have nothing further.
Zeff, satisfied that he had extracted enough truth from Hoffman to make his case, yielded the floor to Spring Grove’s hired trial attorney Jud Aaron. Aaron proceeds to discuss Hoffman’s prior deposition in which Thomas Jefferson was mentioned – with little effect – then asks Hoffman about his position as elder, and gets Hoffman to describe the humble simplicity of a typical Kingdom Hall.
In Aaron’s examination of Hoffman, it was interesting that he mentioned that Stephanie’s parents came to him in 2005 seeking help in his position as an ordained elder of Jehovah’s Witnesses. At this point in the trial, this is of consequence since Hoffman and Watchtower were still claiming on the 2nd day of trial that elders were not members of the clergy. It seems he was reasoning that if Hoffman were not a clergyman, then he would have no obligation to report the relationship to the police.
Aaron: Were they [the Fesslers] coming to you as an elder?
Aaron: Okay. Did they tell you that Stephanie Fessler and Terry Seipp were having some sort of a relationship?
Hoffman: That’s the way I remember it, some sort of a relationship, correct.
Aaron: And what were you expected to do? What did you do as an elder?
Hoffman: First time we met with Stephanie just to determine what was going on, to give her some biblical help, some counsel to, hopefully, help her change her ways, to find out what was going on.
Aaron: What do you mean “biblical help,” generally?
Hoffman: I’m just showing her some scriptures, some verses on the type of conduct she was leading, that it was going against biblical principles and how to help to — how to go against that.
Jud Aaron next gets Hoffman to testify that in 2005, the Fesslers never told him that there was a sexual relationship between Stephanie and Terry. This was clearly a conflict given that it would be somewhat unusual for Witness parents to seek help from elders if the relationship was a routine mother-daughter type relationship. Aaron attempts to prove that Hoffman knew nothing until he personally confronted Stephanie in 2005.
Aaron: You said that you met with Stephanie in the fall of 2005?
Aaron: Okay. Did you try to determine what the nature of the relationship was?
Hoffman: Yes, we did.
Aaron: Did you try to determine whether or not it was sexual?
Hoffman: Yes, we did.
Aaron: And in the course of meeting with Miss Fessler in the fall of 2005, did you learn that there had been some sexual contact between them?
Hoffman: Yes, we did.
Of interest, Aaron questions Hoffman on whether he had asked the victim if she had been naked with Monheim, or had participated in oral sex. Incredibly, Hoffman states that he had no information from Fessler that there had been any touching of the genitals, or that the two had been naked together, despite having just testified that he knew there was an ongoing sexual relationship.
Aaron returns once again to his 2014 argument, this time asking a hypothetical question:
Aaron: If, a year earlier, 2004 — I’m asking about your practice now — a year earlier in 2004, a 15-year-old female congregant had told you that she and a 49 or 50-year-old woman were involved in a relationship that involved intimate kissing, open-mouth kissing, french kissing, romantic kissing, whatever you want to call it, would you
have called the legal department for advice?
Hoffman: Yes, we would have.
Aaron: Okay. Do you have any recollection of doing so a year earlier, in the fall of 2004?
Aaron: Well, let me ask you about yourself. Did you ever tell Mr. and Mrs. Fessler that they should not report this relationship to authorities?
Aaron decides to conclude his questioning of the witness, and yields the floor. John Miller from Watchtower has no questions for Mr. Hoffman, and redirect returns to the plaintiff, and Mr. Zeff.
Zeff: Did you have a specific memory, sitting here today — what is it, ten, eleven,
eleven-and-a-half years later of asking Stephanie Fessler whether or not she had oral sex?
Hoffman: Well, according to my notes, we asked her if there was anything else involved and she said no.
Zeff: Okay. So, you asked her if there was anything else involved?
Zeff: You didn’t ask her if she had oral sex. You didn’t ask her if she was naked?
Hoffman: We may not have, no.
Zeff: And do you consider making out and touching breasts to be a sexual act?
Zeff: And when you went to the legal department, you really weren’t sure what to do with this situation, were you?
Hoffman: That’s correct.
Zeff: And you relied on the legal department?
Hoffman: Yes, we did.
Zeff: And the legal department is part of the Watchtower?
Zeff: Okay. If the legal department told you to report the matter, would you have done so?
Hoffman: Yes, we would have.
Zeff completes his examination by asking Hoffman to explain Stephanie Fessler’s public reproof by the congregation elders, then turns the witness over one last time to the defense. This time, Watchtower attorney Miller decides to ask Mr. Hoffman a question:
Miller: Mr. Hoffman, just briefly. You said that the legal department was part of the Watchtower. Do you know whether it was part of the Watchtower or the U.S. Branch or some other entity? Do you know?
Hoffman: We just get the information on the letterhead. I am not sure what department it’s with, what branch it’s with. It’s with the United States Branch.
Miller: Okay. That’s all. Thank you.
By the end of Hoffman’s testimony, he had admitted on the witness stand that a member of the clergy should report allegations of child sexual abuse, but he denied being a member of the clergy. He further admitted that his instructions came directly from the Watchtower, but seemed confused as to the difference between Watchtower and the US Branch. Hoffman acknowledged that he was well aware of a sexual relationship between Fessler and Monheim no later than 2005, but lost all recollection of the 2004 meeting with Fessler, in which she was privately reproved. Finally, Hoffman admitted that he failed to contact any authorities, and did not advise Fessler’s parents to contact these authorities. He yielded his decision-making power to the Watchtower legal department, testifying that if they had told him to go to the police, he would have. This never happened.
Elder #2: Donald Hollingworth
On the other side of the Mason-Dixon line lies the Freeland, Maryland congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This small, tight-knit congregation in rural Baltimore County has little money, and a simple Kingdom Hall. I recall donating and installing sound equipment at this location after congregation member Terry Monheim had abused Stephanie Fessler, but three years before her arrest. I was unaware that a predator lurked nearby.
Little did I know that in a few short years, I would sit inside a Philadelphia courtroom, observing legal powerhouse Jud Aaron attempt to defend the outrageous actions of elders Gary Neal, Scott Wagner, and Donald Hollingworth. In a thousand years, they could not summon the money to pay for his services, but there he was.
Donald Hollingworth is now elderly, wears a hearing aid, and lives in Toms River, New Jersey. A loyal Jehovah’s Witness for over 50 years, Hollingworth has been an elder for 40 of those years. But for all his loyalty to the Jehovah’s Witness religion, Donald and his fellow elders made a critical error in 2004 and 2005 which cost their parent corporation, Watchtower, a significant amount of money. It also damaged the reputation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are under intense global scrutiny for their mishandling of child abuse cases, and for their practice of shunning, and denying members the right to certain life-saving medical treatments.
Attorney for Stephanie Fessler, Gregg Zeff, began the questioning of Hollingworth with the same query he put to Eric Hoffman:
Zeff: I’d like to know would you agree that clergy must report sexual abuse in children to protect the victim from additional harm?
Hollingworth: Do I agree with that?
Zeff: And do you agree that clergy may never keep sexual abuse of a child the secret to protect the congregation?
Hollingworth: Oh, yes, yes.
Zeff: Thank you.
After confirming that Hollingworth has no professional training in the investigation of sexual abuse matters, Zeff gets specific:
Zeff: Okay. Did you have any understanding in 2004 or 2005 of your obligations regarding reporting suspected child abuse in Pennsylvania or in Maryland?
Zeff: What was your understanding back then?
Hollingworth: For — that there was no duty to report it as far as from a procedural standpoint. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel a duty, but there was no legal duty to report it.
Zeff: Sir, you received that understanding from the legal department?
Hollingworth: That’s correct.
Zeff: Okay, and the legal department of what?
Hollingworth: Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At this point, it is noteworthy that Hollingworth had testified that members of clergy must report sexual abuse allegations to the authorities and not keep them secret, but moments later stated that according to Watchtower’s legal department, he had no legal duty to report, despite his own feeling of duty to report. Hollingworth hid beneath the double cloak of justification – the notion that he was not a member of clergy, and the counsel from his own organization that he had no obligation to report.
It seems unthinkable that any Witness elder could make the statement that church leaders from other religions have an obligation to report, but Jehovah’s Witnesses are somehow exempt. Witnesses teach that all religions are “false” religions, except theirs. It must have baffled members of the jury to reconcile how an organization that claims to abhor child abuse could be so delinquent in helping victims.
Zeff continued his questioning of Hollingworth, describing the letters from Watchtower to the elders. Hollingworth seemed confused when Zeff stated that prior to 2001, these letters came from the Watchtower corporation. Hollingworth said “I’m not sure of that…Right now I wasn’t prepared for that question, sir.”
When pressed about the relationship between Monheim and Fessler, Zeff asked:
Zeff: You never found out the age of the girl she was kissing, did you?
Hollingworth: I knew she was a teenager, and the approximate age of this other lady’s children, because she associated with them. I knew she wasn’t 19. I knew she wasn’t 13, but somewhere in between.
Zeff: And when you learned of this, a committee was formed, wasn’t it, a judicial committee?
Zeff: Okay. You were the chairman of that committee?
Hollingworth: It wasn’t me. It was either one of the other two brothers. I can’t tell you for a certainty today.
Hollingworth: I believe it was Gary Neal, but that’s not for a certainty.
Zeff: And one of the primary functions of your committee was to determine whether or not you had an obligation to legal authorities relating to this matter.
Hollingworth: An obligation to do what?
Zeff: To report to legal authorities in this matter.
Hollingworth: I don’t know if I had that — I don’t know if that — I went in to find out what was going on, and so I didn’t start thinking about a lot of other things I’d have to do until I could find out what was going on.
Zeff: But you did consult with the legal department?
Hollingworth: Yes, I did.
Zeff: And you were told you didn’t have any duty under Maryland law, correct?
Hollingworth: I didn’t have any duty to report; is that what you asked me?
Zeff: Yes. You had no duty to report?
Hollingworth: No legal duty.
Hollingworth: There was no law that said I had to report.
Zeff: And, in fact, you didn’t report anything, did you?
Hollingworth: No, I didn’t.
Zeff: And neither did any member of your committee, to your knowledge?
Hollingworth: To my knowledge.
Hollingworth Admits to Shredding Notes
The examination by Zeff then took an interesting turn. Zeff calls for the presentation of Hollingworth’s notes, taken in 2005 when meeting with the abuser, Terry Seipp:
Zeff: Why did you take these notes?
Hollingworth: Because I don’t have a very good memory over the years, business and meetings that I go to, and so I take notes in case there’s a reason to recall, in case there’s a discussion later, in case there’s another meeting. I always take notes. It’s my habit as a businessman, I always took notes.
Zeff: And with regard to being an elder, you had a practice of making notes and tearing them up and shredding them on occasion, didn’t you?
Hollingworth: Yeah, shredding is in a — yeah, I had a shredder, but I don’t know. I — yeah, I didn’t keep them. I didn’t keep them. I didn’t want them laying around or anything.
Zeff: That was something that the letters to elders suggest that you do or instructed you to do, in fact, don’t leave notes around, destroy them if they’re not necessary?
Hollingworth: Well, that’s possible. I always, even be — I, if a confidential nature, I would have enough sense not to leave them laying around.
Hollingworth revealed a critical detail that the Watchtower organization does not want the public to know – that elders often discard, shred, move, hide, and destroy notes, not only in cases where lesser offenses are concerned, but even when accusations of child abuse are on the record, contrary to their official policy.
Hollingworth Invokes Clergy Privilege – He Learned it on Television
Attorney Zeff continued to gain momentum as he called attention to his next exhibit: the notes taken by Donald Hollingworth during the Jehovah’s Witness judicial hearing for Terry Monheim. Zeff displayed the notes for the jury:
Hollingworth: (reading his notes) It says: “After assurance the committee members would not testify in a legal case, she was relieved and more forthcoming.”
Zeff: So, did you tell Terry Seipp that no member of the committee was going to testify against her?
Hollingworth: Well, I think you know — you’re thinking of something different than I’m thinking of. The legal case we’re talking about and she was worried about her husband divorcing her or thinking she would — and we were telling her that anything that she told us, we wouldn’t use in her divorce case against her husband, or vice versa. And we had thought we had a right to do that.
Zeff: Did you learn that from the legal department?
Zeff: Did you learn that from the legal department?
Hollingworth: No. I learned that from watching television, I guess…
Zeff: You learned from watching television that if she tells you something in your committee that you don’t have to testify in a divorce proceeding?
Hollingworth: Well, not as member of the clergy, I would think it would become — well, you know, maybe I’m wrong but I would think it would be confidential.
At this point, Hollingworth is trapped- painting himself into a very tiny corner with no way out, without making a mess. In 2005, he interviewed a sexual predator, but instead of contacting the authorities, he assured Terry Monheim that her admissions to the elders would not be used against her in any divorce proceedings. Somehow he invoked clergy privilege while denying that he is a member of clergy. Furthermore, he is completely unaware that clergy privilege does not exist when a sizable group of elders and additional individuals have been made aware of Monheim’s crimes.
To be blunt, Hollingworth appeared extraordinarily ignorant. What is more bizarre is that he claims Watchtower’s legal department advised him that he had no duty to report such allegations, or confessions of sexual abuse. Maryland law at the time mandated the reporting of child abuse, but the exemptions for members of clergy were somewhat vague, which likely prompted Watchtower’s legal department to suggest that he had no obligation to report the abuse. In most states, child abuse exemptions become null and void once clergymen broadcast the private confessions to other members of the elder body, along with the additional individuals, i.e. the legal and service departments of the Jehovah’s Witness organization.
The questioning continued as attorney Zeff called attention to Hollingworth’s notes from his phone call to Watchtower’s legal department
Zeff: What are they about?
Hollingworth: That was my notes about when I had — I called, contacted the legal department to discuss the matter with them and I wrote down some notes with regard to that call.
Zeff: Okay. Did you ever contact or did anybody on your committee ever contact the Spring Grove congregation where Stephanie Fessler was a member?
Zeff: Did anybody on your committee contact them to let —
Zeff: Okay. And they let them know there was an investigation into a possible sexual abuse?
Hollingworth: You’d have to ask them what they let them know.
Zeff: Okay. I want to go to the section toward the bottom where it says “want us to review society’s letters with all seven elders.” Do you see that?
Hollingworth: Yes, I do.
Zeff: What do you mean by that?
Hollingworth: What it says, review the letters –with the whole body of elders, all of
the elders in the congregation.
Zeff: It says “with all seven elders,” is that everybody?
Hollingworth: What does it say?
Zeff: It says “Want us to review society’s letters with all seven elders.”
Hollingworth: Yes, that would be our elder body at the time.
Zeff: Okay. And that has to do with your investigation into Terry Seipp?
Hollingworth: Well, it’s in — my telephone call was an investigation that had to deal with that, yes. And what exactly they told me to read those letters for, I don’t remember.
Zeff: Who told you to read those letters?
Hollingworth: Whoever I was talking to at the legal department. And I am assuming that because, that’s the notes of that. I don’t know for a fact today who told me to do it, but I’m assuming that’s what it would be. And I shouldn’t be making assumptions, should I?
Zeff states that he has copies of those letters, and tells Hollingworth that he will now review them, beginning with the July 1, 1989 letter to the body of elders. Hollingworth admits that he likely would have reviewed this letter at that time, acknowledging that it was a very important document to review.
Another revelation came when Zeff references the January 1, 1997 Watchtower article titled “Let us abhor what is wicked.” Under the topic “What of a Child Molester?” the Watchtower stated:
If, for example, an individual makes immoral advances to another adult, the adult should be able to resist his or her advances. Children are much easier to deceive, confuse, or terrorize. The Bible speaks of a child’s lack of wisdom. (Proverbs 22:15; 1 Corinthians 13:11) Jesus used children as an example of humble innocence. (Matthew 18:4; Luke 18:16, 17) The innocence of a child includes a complete lack of experience. Most children are open, eager to please, and thus vulnerable to abuse by a scheming adult whom they know and trust. Therefore, the congregation has a responsibility before Jehovah to protect its children.
Zeff questions Hollingworth:
Zeff: Okay. Do you remember reviewing this? And I’ll read it to you so you
understand it. Do you remember reviewing this at the time of the judicial committee? It says “Children are much easier to deceive, confuse or terrorize.”
Hollingworth: I don’t remember at the time of the committee but, sir, I mentioned before, I had a lot of children and I’m very conscious of this need.
Zeff: Okay. And had the legal department told you to, you would have called the police, called child services?
Hollingworth: I don’t need to be told.
Hollingworth: I — I don’t mean to be fresh or anything but, no, I told you, I — abhor is a word that’s worse than hatred and I don’t like this thing and I don’t like being involved in it even now, to come being asked about it.
Zeff: Right. You don’t really need to be told to call the police, do you? You could have done it anyway?
Hollingworth: Would I what?
Zeff: You could have called the police even if the legal department told you not to?
Hollingworth: Yes. In hindsight, yes.
Zeff: But you didn’t?
Zeff: You did not?
Hollingworth: It’s already been answered.
Zeff: Okay. You didn’t talk to Stephanie Fessler’s congregation about her version of the
story, did you?
Hollingworth: I said no, I didn’t talk to anybody.
Zeff questioned whether the Maryland congregation had any meaningful discussions with the Spring Grove Pennsylvania congregation regarding the welfare of Stephanie Fessler:
Zeff: One more time, Sir. You had concerns about the welfare of the teenaged girl that was involved with Terry Seipp? You were concerned about her?
Hollingworth: Yeah, I have concerns with all young people, absolute — yes. Would I say no? Of course, I would be an ogre to say no to that.
Zeff: And but you wanted to follow the legal department’s advise rather than doing anything else; isn’t that correct?
Hollingworth: You know, I wasn’t dealing with a teenage girl. We were dealing with Terry Seipp at our congregation. Please, there was — another congregation was dealing with the teenage girl. It doesn’t mean — my feelings in the matter and my thoughts in the matter don’t apply to what would have been — how it would have been handled. So, you’re confusing me and you’re confusing the issue.
It seems that the invisible boundary between Maryland and Pennsylvania, along with Hollingworth’s instructions from the Watchtower legal department overruled his better judgment, permitting him to ignore the fact that a crime had taken place, and that he was obligated to report this crime. Hollingworth admitted that he was also aware that Terry Seipp [Monheim’s] husband Dana had learned of the relationship, and hired a private investigator to confirm his suspicions. Mr. Seipp wasted no time in sharing this information with the Freeland elders:
Zeff: You had a suspicion that she might be abusing a child?
Hollingworth: I wanted to know the facts.
Zeff: Okay. Well —
Hollingworth: Her husband wouldn’t say, and he was not a member of our congregation. I only knew him once to say hello to him. He comes up and says “I’ve got pictures, but I won’t tell you what they’re about, but you’d better do something about it,” that kind of — what are we supposed to do?
Zeff: Call the police?
Despite a sustained objection from defense attorney Jud Aaron, Zeff had landed a knockout punch with this last question, which lingered in the courtroom while Mr. Aaron made his way to the lectern to cross-examine Mr. Hollingworth.
In what seemed to be a desperate move, Aaron rested his argument of the claim that elders are, in double-negative fashion, not told not to report:
Aaron: Are you aware of any Jehovah’s Witness policy not to report child sexual abuse to authorities? Are you aware of any such policy?
Aaron: In any of the letters to elders that you read or KS schools that you’ve attended — have you attended those schools?
Hollingworth: Yes, Sir.
Aaron: In any of those letters in those KS schools, have you ever been instructed or directed not to report sexual abuse to authorities?
Hollingworth: No way. No way.
Aaron: What have you been instructed to do if a report of sexual abuse comes to your attention?
Hollingworth: Contact the legal department.
Aaron never once asks Hollingworth if elders are instructed to report any allegations of suspected child abuse; instead he diverts attention from that critical question – first by allowing Hollingworth to testify that he is a family man, with many children and grandchildren. Aaron questions Hollingworth on what he recalls Terry Seipp admitting during the elder’s judicial hearing with Seipp, then goes back to the procedure these men followed after that hearing:
Aaron: After the judicial committee met with Terry Seipp, you reported to legal?
Aaron: Did you feel that you were following the correct procedure and doing that?
After referring to the March 23, 1992 Letter to Elders regarding child abuse, Aaron calls attention to page 3 of that letter where further abuse of children can be prevented by contacting the legal department of the Watchtower organization.
He then links “further protection” to Hollingworth’s earlier statement that elders are not told not to report abuse:
Aaron: Have you ever been advised as an elder or are you aware of any direction that, in order to protect the Jehovah’s Witness religion, child abuse should not be reported to authorities?
Hollingworth: To the contrary. The reason I’m a Jehovah’s Witness today — I wasn’t always one — was because of their concern for the truthfulness and taking care of people and taking — the whole thing, it just made so much sense. No, that would
Aaron: Thank you.
Aaron rests his line of questioning and yields the floor to his fellow defense team members. Watchtower’s Miller has no questions, and CCJW attorney Louis Lombardi continues his legal vow of silence by offering nothing. The plaintiff is offered redirect.
Victims Discouraged from Group Therapy
Attorney Zeff directs attention back to the March 23rd Letter to Elders, this time to the section where Jehovah’s Witnesses are cautioned against participation in group therapy as a means to help victims of child abuse.
Zeff: Sir, can I direct your attention to the very last paragraph of the page that we just put in front of you where it says “Some medical professionals,” and it goes onto the next page. I just wanted to ask you some questions about that, because you just said some
things that, I guess, were a little disturbing to me. “Some medical professionals and therapists offer group therapy to those suffering from the effects of child abuse. While participating in group therapy by a professional therapist is a personal decision, there could be problems of revealing confidential facts about other members of the Christian Congregation during such therapy if a Christian does not exercise discretion. Thus,
elders can give cautions to their brothers and sisters, just as outlined in October 15, 2008 issue of Watchtower, page 29, under the subheading Talking Therapy. “They can be helped to see that talking indiscriminately to others about child abuse may result in circulating damaging and harmful talk.” Sir, what do you understand that to mean?
Hollingworth: I may be missing some details here, but my — I’m focusing on the last sentence here. We don’t go talking about it and gossiping about it and –It’s not something to be broadcasting.
Zeff: Sir, my question is talking about child abuse may result in circulating damaging and harmful talk, so they don’t — isn’t this telling you — by the way, this is one of the documents you had that were referred to? What do you understand – they can be helped to see that talking indiscriminately to others about child abuse may result in circulating damaging and harmful talk? What do you understand that to mean?
Hollingworth: To be careful and think about it. Think before you speak. It makes sense to me.
Hollingworth dodges the question, reflecting his inability to comment on Watchtower’s position on group therapy, so Zeff moves on. Zeff next asks Hollingworth to explain “KS” schools, and Hollingworth describes the elder’s training program. Zeff then asks:
Zeff: On the occasions is the issue of child abuse brought up at those schools?
Hollingworth: I’m sure it has.
Zeff: And these schools are conducted by the Watchtower?
Hollingworth: They’re conducted by a Jehovah’s Witness. I’m not sure why — they’re conducted by a Jehovah’s Witness instructor.
Zeff: Okay. And where does that instructor come from?
Hollingworth: They come from a lot of different places. Sometimes it’s our circuit overseer who comes from — we have apartments for them in the local Kingdom Halls. Different instructors, different times over the years, there’s been — they come from a lot of different places.
Zeff: Do the documents that you review in these schools come from the Watchtower?
Hollingworth: I don’t know. I don’t know that the Watchtower sends out documents. They give us literature. They give us some literature. We get — they take care of our printing of our literature. I don’t know. I just can’t answer that question. You would have to ask somebody that comes from there. Would it be all right if I have some
Zeff: I have nothing else, Your Honor.
In response to Hollingworth’s testimony, Watchtower attorney Miller cross-examined the witness to clarify just one thing: while warned against the dangers of group therapy, Jehovah’s Witness abuse survivors are not excluded from individual therapy. It seemed somewhat inconsequential to mention this, but Miller appeared intent on making the jury aware that Witnesses do accept some types of professional therapy.
Of course, Miller overlooks the fact that much of Stephanie Fessler’s extreme trauma was, in the first place, caused by the elders and the organization which treated her as a sinner and not a victim.
The tired and thirsty Hollingworth seemed confused and unwilling to give concise and lucid answers to questions that were quite simple – particularly for a man who has spent the past 40 years of his life as an appointed elder. To be fair, Watchtower’s key witness Thomas Jefferson was even more evasive, as seen from his testimony during the first two days of this trial.
As anyone who has studied Jehovah’s Witnesses understands all too well, leaders in the organization are less than willing to divulge information to anyone they feel is “not entitled to know” such information. How ironic for a religion that describes all of its teachings and practices as “The Truth.”
For readers of this site, whether they are Jehovah’s Witnesses or not, I can’t underestimate the value of this term, truth. At the outset of this trial, Judge Mary C. Collins told the jury that they are the sole determiners of truth in this case, and it was up to them to decide on which information is factual, based on the evidence presented.
While this case was settled after four days of testimony, we have, as global citizens, been given the opportunity to judge the evidence for ourselves, and draw our own conclusions. Thus far, we have covered the statements of three Jehovah’s witnesses, including two elders and one high-ranking member of the organization. In our next article on the Fessler case, I will review the testimony of the abuser, Terry Monheim, and the detective who charged her for her crimes, Lisa Layden.
Having seen the evidence presented in this case, I think back to that hot summer morning in Reading Pennsylvania, when I saw the man with the sign which read “A Jehovah’s Witness elder molested me” – and if there was ever a doubt that he was telling the truth, that doubt no longer exists.