2017: Fessler versus Watchtower – Opening Statements in Jehovah’s Witness Child Abuse Trial

Philadelphia City Hall

Published February 12th, 2017

It was a cold Philadelphia morning on the 7th of February, 2017. Stephanie Fessler walked into the Court of Common Pleas of Pennsylvania, First Judicial District, Civil Trial Division. The time was 9.45 a.m. according to the clock which sits atop the historic City Hall courthouse in the center of Philadelphia. But there was another clock running – it was the clock of justice, the timepiece which measures just how long it takes for a person or organization which has damaged another person’s life to be called to account for what they have done, or possibly what they have not done.

It has been 13 years since congregation elders in Spring Grove Pennsylvania first learned of the inappropriate relationship and abuse perpetrated by Terry Monheim, aged 49, and her victim, Stephanie Fessler, who was just 14 years of age when the abuse began. Stephanie was dragged before elders in 2004 and 2005 to answer for her relationship with her abuser, but with grotesque disregard for the law, elders knowingly failed to report the suspected abuse to the police, to Pennsylvania’s Childline, or any other authority. Instead, they forwarded what they knew to Watchtower’s legal department, who wantonly disregarded Pennsylvania State law, and also failed to report.

Instead of protecting the victim from further harm, local elders in Pennsylvania issued a private reproof in 2004, then another public reproof in 2005. The victim, Stephanie was crucified and devastated, having been denied protection from the authorities who are trained to protect minors and prevent further injury and mental distress. The local elders and the Watchtower organization victimized Stephanie, and more than once. Her participation in the abuse was viewed as a sin, and not a crime. Stephanie was a sinner, they said.

At 9:52 a.m. 25 Jurors entered the court of Mary C. Collins, and were instructed regarding the nature of this case, and were read the list of witnesses who would likely testify. By 10:25 a.m. all but 10 jurors were dismissed, and the final jury was complete. Eight jurors with two alternates will decide the fate of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, The Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Spring Grove Congregation of JWs –  and to a lesser extent, the abuser Terry Monheim.

Pre-Trial Motions

Just prior to opening arguments, without the jury present, the attorneys for the plaintiff, Stephanie Fessler, and the defense battled out more than a dozen motions before Judge Collins. These motions set the stage for which evidence can be introduced during trial, and that which can’t.

The battle did not take long to become heated when Spring Grove defense attorney Jud Aaron argued vocally against the introduction of a new witness, who was an elder in York County PA.  Mr. Arron argued that this was a “bombshell” witness introduced by the plaintiff, whose testimony is irrelevant, and who had not been deposed by defense. Judge Collins agreed with the defense that his evidence would not be permitted during the initial phase of the trial, but will be allowed during the punitive stage of the trial. The stage was already beginning to set for Watchtower’s inevitable defeat, even before the jurors heard a single witness testify.

In another motion, the defense attempted to preclude the testimony of detective Lisa  Layden, an expert witness, stating that her testimony is “just an opinion” and should not be permitted. After a concise rebuttal from counsel Jeffrey Fritz, Judge Collins agreed, and the defense motion was denied. Lisa Layden will testify.

It was no surprise that the defense attempted to argue that the statements made to elders by the plaintiff were privileged, and entering them into testimony would violate clergy privilege laws, which protect confessions made to clergymen. This claim erupted in a furious rebuttal by Stephanie’s attorney Jeffrey Fritz, in which he informed the judge that clergy privilege has no application in this case, as there was no expectation of confidentiality when the elders hauled Fessler into an elder’s meeting and questioned her about her relationship with Monheim. When elder Eric Hoffman was deposed over 2 years ago, he never once advised counsel that he would like to invoke clergy privilege, and in fact, he violated that anyway by spreading every aspect of Stephanie’s testimony to multiple elders as well as the Watchtower legal department in New York. As the steam settled from Mr. Fritz’ forehead, Judge Collins told counsel that Fritz was “right on point” about this issue, and that clergy privilege could not be invoked. As Watchtower has attempted to claim clergy privilege in the past, this was another defeat for the Jehovah’s Witness  organization.

In a somewhat surprising defense strategy, defense attorney Jud Aaron claimed that the plaintiff’s counsel is putting the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses on trial by introducing dozens of Watchtower and Awake articles into evidence. It was a desperate move, but Judge Collins did not fall for it.

The Trial Begins

From the private, backrooms of the courthouse, the jury entered the room. Three black men, two white women, and five black women entered and took their assigned seats. Judge Collins congratulated them for their service to the court, then reminded them that during the trial, she decides on all matters of law, and they must obey her decision. However, she reminded the jury that they are the sole determiners of the facts of this case. Collins explained the definition of “preponderance of the evidence,” then gave the jury an illustration of a scale, with the plaintiff and defense on either side of center. She stated that if the scale tips ever so slightly in favor of the plaintiff, then the plaintiff has met her burden of proof, and defense will be found guilty.

Following a lunch break, the court reconvened at 1.45 p.m., at which point Judge Collins read the statute for mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse to the jury of 10. The plaintiff was now given the floor, and attorney Gregg Zeff made his opening statement to the jury. Mr. Zeff explained that a member of clergy must report suspected abuse of a minor, and that elders should never keep suspected abuse secret to protect the Jehovah’s Witness organization. Zeff introduced a letter to the body of elders, dated July 1, 1989, which reminds elders that due to lawsuits, the strictest confidence must be maintained by elders. The letter advised elders against the “improper use of the tongue”

Zeff explains the timeline in which the elders first learned of the suspected abuse of Fessler in 2004, activity which included hugging and kissing. Elders from both the Spring Grove congregation (Stephanie’s congregation) a those from the Freeland Maryland congregation (Terry Seipp-Monheim’s congregation) were aware of the relationship but failed to contact the authorities. Instead, they formed their own committee and reproved both the victim and her abuser.

Attorney Zeff then played a video deposition taken a few years ago when this case was filed, in which the plaintiff’s mother Jodie Fessler stated that elder Eric Hoffman never once advised her that authorities must be contacted.

It was not until 2011 that Stephanie Fessler was finally able to contact the police, at which point Monheim was arrested and jailed. Testimony from detective Layden will advise the jury that elders should have immediately obeyed the law and contacted the police and Childline. Instead, Zeff stated that rules were broken to protect the congregation and keep it out of harm’s way.

Evidence will show that Stephanie, at 14 years of age attended public school, but was otherwise completely insulated from after-school activities and association with non-Witness youths. Instead, she was left to care for her Jehovah’s Witness mom, who had a history of mental illness. Stephanie looked to Terry Seipp (Monheim) for emotional support, but Seipp soon broke that trust by entering into a sexual relationship with Stephanie. Stephanie had no prior relationships. The plaintiff will examine professional therapist Debbie Bauer, who will discuss the damages to Stephanie, not only for the initial abuse but for the protracted relationship of over two years which caused Stephanie permanent psychological damage.  Co-Defendant Terry Monheim was remorseful, having served her time in jail, but the plaintiff will argue that the defendants, Watchtower, the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Spring Grove congregation are to be held responsible for their failure to report the suspected sexual abuse of a minor.

Defense Opening

Attorney for the defense of Spring Grove congregation opened with the statement “In life, there are consequences for not telling the truth.” Jud Aaron argued that therapist Lori Barton’s notes will prove that there was NOT a sexual relationship occurring at the time elders in Spring Grove first learned of the affair between Fessler and Terry Seipp (Monheim). As a result, Aaron said, “You can’t report what you don’t know.”

Aaron further stated that by 2005, the “relationship” between Fessler and Seipp was over. In a moment of great emotion, the plaintiff Stephanie Fessler sat just a few feet away from Jud Aaron as he then stated “Stephanie Fessler did not tell the truth…As a consequence, no report was made.

As if to hammer this point down to the jury, Mr. Aaron replicated his earlier comment in a final statement: One thing is crystal clear – Stephanie did not tell the truth, so the elders had nothing to report. The elders could not protect Stephanie Fessler because she did not tell the truth.”

Next up was Mr. John Miller, attorney for the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Miller, a Jehovah’s Witness elder himself and a member of the Patterson New York JW legal department, explained that Jehovah’s Witness are a Christian religion, and that the jury will here that Watchtower “owns some things up there” in New York. After offering his explanation for the various Witness-owned corporations, he then echoed the words of his co-counsel Jud Aaron and stated that Terry Monheim will not show up in court to defend herself here. He further stated that the Watchtower and CCJW did not have any duty to report what they had heard from congregation elders.

Miller also reiterated that the key to the defense is contained in the notes of therapist Lori Barton. Miller in his best courtroom dramatics stated emphatically “Records don’t lie.”

Attorney Miller intensified his plea to the jury, closing with the statement: “We (the Watchtower) have nothing to do with this case.” Miller quipped that elders are “just lay persons,” closing his remarks with “Watchtower and CCJW don’t even belong here.”

Attorney for CCJW (Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses) Louis Lombardi made no opening statements to the jury. He sat silently between Aaron and Miller at the defense counsel table, leaving one to wonder if he will ever make an appearance in the defense of the Jehovah’s Witness organization.

Stay tuned for more as we report on the ongoing defense strategy, and the courtroom antics of Watchtower’s first witness, Thomas Jefferson, Jr.


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