I walked into City Hall, Philadelphia, on the morning of February 7, 2017. A trial was about to begin, one which had waited years to find its way to a courtroom. Stephanie Fessler was about to get her day in court.
In a civil trial that was expected to last more than a week, Fessler was suing the following defendants for the abuse and subsequent cover up her abuse which caused her years of extreme pain and suffering, the kind of pain only an abuse survivor can understand:
- Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York (WTNY)
- Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (CCJW)
- The Spring Grove Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses
- Her abuser, Terry Seipp-Monheim
The men seen in this picture are the attorneys for the defence. From left to right: Louis Lombardi, a Jehovah’s Witness attorney representing CCJW. He is speaking with John Miller, attorney for WTNY, and the primary defendant in this case. Miller is a Jehovah’s Witness elder. The individual with his back turned is Jud Aaron, representing the Spring Grove Congregation of Pennsylvania. Aaron – not a Witness – was the hired gun for the defence. Each day of this trial would cost Watchtower upwards of $5,000 to engage the services of Mr Aaron and his team.
The courtroom was small, with no more than 30 wooden chairs in three rows. I wanted to blend in and position myself with the best view of the proceedings without drawing any attention to my presence. I sat in the 2nd row, right next to the court media specialist – the man who would shortly be displaying letters, books, and evidence on a large screen located behind him, and in full view of the jury, who were about to enter the room.
Stephanie Fessler sat with attorneys Jeff Fritz and Greg Zeff at the table reserved for the plaintiffs. The room slowly filled with a few additional attorneys from both sides, along with a half dozen interested spectators who came to support Stephanie. She had support each and every day of the trial.
Aside from Watchtower’s own legal team, no one came to support Watchtower. There were empty seats.
There was an eerie quiet in the room, a solemn sense of dignity punctuated by the creak of those old, but comfortable wooden chairs. I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. Before long, the gregarious court bailiff announced the entrance of Judge Mary C Collins and it all began. The court reporter captured every word on her steno-graph, as attorneys for the plaintiff and the defence proceeded to hash out their final pre-trial motions. These are rulings made by the judge before the jury is brought in. Judge Collins asked that these be presented quickly, as there were quite a few.
Among these pre-trial motions was the objection to the testimony of a former Jehovah’s Witness elder, a man who had intimate knowledge of Witness procedures and policies, and whose testimony would be very damaging to Watchtower. Attorney Jud Aaron strongly objected to this last minute addition to the trial -calling him a “bombshell witness.” Judge Collins accepted this objection for the first stage of the trial, but permitted him to testify in the punitive damages portion of the trial.
This was the first time it occurred to me that everyone in the court, including the defence, seemed to accept the fact that it was a nearly foregone conclusion that this trial would run its course and terminate with a ruling against Watchtower, either by jury verdict, or by Watchtower raising the white flag of surrender. Not a single word had been uttered before a jury, and I simply knew that this trial was over. It was just a matter of when.
As the motions continued, Jeff Fritz for the plaintiff, heated up noticeably, especially when he explained to Judge Collins that any and all claims made invoking clergy privilege were null and void. In other words, Fritz made it clear that all of the communications and information regarding the relationship between Fessler and her abuser, Terry Monhein, was spread indiscriminately among multiple elders in two congregations, along with the legal and the service departments for Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York. At no point in any pre-trial depositions did any JW elder claim that their conversations with Fessler were privileged.
Once again, it was becoming stunningly clear that this case would be open and shut in favor of the plaintiff. She not only had no private clergy-penitent communication with her elders, but they offered her no protection from her abuser, and never once thought to call the police or child protective services.
As I sat there, taking in all of this information, watching the inner workings of a United States courtroom like a concert fan with a backstage pass, something ironically poignant occurred to me. One of the elders in the Freeland Maryland congregation, Scott Wagner, is married to a woman I grew up with. Freeland Maryland was the home congregation of Stephanie’s abuser, Terry. I thought for a moment about Scott, and about his wife, whose name I won’t mention.
Had Stephanie’s attorney issued subpoenas to every elder involved, they would have required a larger courtroom.
When I was a teenager, Scott’s wife, also a minor, was sexually abused by a much older Jehovah’s Witness man – a father and husband – from our congregation. Had it not been for the father of the victim, this abuser would have never been arrested and sent to prison.
The elders in my congregation attempted to sweep the case under the rug, as they did with all such cases. So I sat there thinking, ‘How could you, Scott? You know very well how your wife had a nearly identical sexual relationship with her abuser, and of all people, you should be the most sensitive to this kind of crime. Yet you did nothing. Your position as an elder in the congregation was worth far more to you than the safety of Stephanie Fessler, so you simply sat back and did nothing, with Watchtower supporting you all the way.’
Scott was one of many elders involved in the Fessler case, but did not receive a subpoena to testify. Had Stephanie’s attorney issued subpoenas to every elder involved, they would have required a larger courtroom.
This flashback from my own teen years lingered vividly for the rest of the day. I remembered how the victim in my congregation was disfellowshipped for having sex with her abuser, which meant she was ostracized even further, after having been victimized by this predator – this man who was the father of a very close friend of mine, and the husband of an unsuspecting sister in the congregation.
Before long, the pre-trial motions were completed, with Fessler’s attorneys gaining the upper hand in the rulings. Which brings us to the jury.
We were instructed to rise as 8 jurors and two alternates entered the room and took their assigned seats. They were each provided notepads and pens, and given specific and detailed instructions from Judge Collins. Collins explained how justice in civil trials required that if the scale tipped ever so slightly in favor of the plaintiff, they must rule for the plaintiff. Again, it almost seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Fessler would win her case.
Over the next four days we heard testimony from elders, from Watchtower representatives, from the perpetrator herself, and finally from the detective from Spring Grove PA who handled this case, Lisa Layden.
There were many others scheduled to testify, including Stephanie Fessler, and an expert witness from the Watchtower Organization who would be required to divulge the net worth of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The four days of trial took an entire week, including a snow day, and the weekend. By the time we returned on Monday the 13th, Watchtower’s attorneys were clearly spent. They were backed into a corner with nowhere to go, and any further testimony would have served no purpose except to give the mysterious guy sitting in the second row more to write about.
So they did what any guilty party with money does, they opened their checkbooks and wrote a check, but not before signing a non-disclosure agreement with all parties involved.
It was a lot of money. Hard earned cash, mostly from donated funds and the ice-cream money of young Jehovah’s Witnesses who are themselves unwittingly supporting the very organization which places them at risk.
Years ago when Watchtower first sat down with Fessler’s legal team, Fessler asked for 2 million dollars. Watchtower was shocked. But equally shocking was their counter-offer of $100,000, a tiny fraction of Fessler’s demand. The judge presiding at that time said to Stephanie’s legal team “Well, aren’t you going to make a counter-offer to Watchtower’s offer?”
Fessler’s team looked at Watchtower’s motley defence team after a lengthy pause and said: “Well, if you insist. We will come down from two million dollars by the amount you have come up from zero dollars, so our compromise will be $1,900,000.”
Watchtower was shocked. Either write the check for $1.9 million, or go to trial. So they went to trial, and they lost. Badly.
It was an opportunity for Watchtower to determine if they had done the right thing by settling after just 4 days of trial.
How badly? Well, I would argue that this case is not about dollars and cents. Stephanie Fessler took a chance that she would receive zero dollars for her years of abuse, her years of litigation and the pain of having to re-live what happened to her. Much like Candace Conti, Stephanie wanted justice and she wanted to send a message to Watchtower and all organisations who fail to protect the most vulnerable of their members: children.
When it was all over on Monday the 13th, Watchtower attorney John Miller asked judge Collins if they could interview the jury. The judge permitted the request. This was something I was not expecting. It was an opportunity for Watchtower to determine if they had done the right thing by settling after just 4 days of trial. I wondered what Watchtower’s legal team would ask the jury.
I stood in the hallway on the 4th floor of City Hall in the early afternoon, waiting for the jury to emerge from their chambers. The legal team from both sides was present – with the exception of Mr Jud Aaron, who was finished. He had done his job, and was on his way back to the office, presumably to complete an invoice to Watchtower for many tens of thousands of dollars for his services. Yes, Watchtower wrote more than one check that day.
I stood there with a Hollywood producer, the attorneys, a reporter from Penn Live, and Stephanie Fessler, who for the first time appeared happy, vindicated, relieved that all of this was finally over.
Then the doors opened, and the jury emerged. We assembled in a circle. I had a notepad and recorder in my left hand, and a pen in my right hand. I was ready. Watchtower attorney Miller seemed stressed, but somehow unfazed by what had just taken place. It was, after all, not his money that has just changed hands. Well, most of it. He spoke directly to the entire jury and said:
“How much money…would you have awarded Stephanie Fessler if you had rendered a decision?”
Someone in the jury responded incredulously, “What???”
Miller repeated the question. “The money, how much would you have given her?”
Miller was standing just a few feet away from me, on my left. The jury was on my right. They looked perplexed, confused, and a little bit offended. Several spoke at the same time, and said they had no idea. They were not at that point in the trial yet. There had been no discussion of the punitive phase against Watchtower, and they knew it. It felt like Miller was insulting their intelligence and slapping the justice system in the face – asking these citizens what the final number would have been, as if this were a game show.
How would they know? How could they? Punitive judgments by a jury are part of a complex process which has to be explained by the judge in great detail – and only after a guilty verdict was rendered. And only after Watchower had presented their net-worth expert.
It was a very revealing moment in the trial. I’m glad I stuck around in the hallway to hear what Miller and the jury said, and to ask the jury my own questions. More on that another day.
After the jury dispersed, on their way to sign a few forms and go home, I walked with my good friend Aaron down the long, dimly lit hallway towards the elevators, still in shock that it was all over. Well, almost over.
We arrived at the elevators at the exact moment as Watchtower’s legal team. It was just the four of us, and we were all going down. Aaron and I stepped on the elevator, followed by the Christian Congregation of JWs attorney Louis Lombardi. And for a brief moment, John Miller and I locked eyes. Until that moment, I was not sure if he knew I existed, or that I had been observing every second of the trial. He stood there in his long winter coat and his large rectangular wheeled briefcase, the kind every Jehovah’s Witness elder drags to every meeting, looking at me and Aaron. There was a long pause as he was forced to make a decision.
The doors closed, and Miller stayed on the 4th floor. He would not get on the elevator with John Redwood, or whoever he thought I was. But Louis Lombardi was brave. He got on. He wanted answers. As the elevator descended to the lobby, Lombardi stood beside me at barely 5 feet tall, wearing his signature bow tie and black glasses. He looked at me and said, “Who are you with?”
I told him, somewhat quickly and generally, that I was reporting for a few sites who cover cults and abuse. He did not look pleased. But then it was my turn, so I asked him, “So. Are you one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
Now, any JW will tell you that if given the opportunity to explain your faith or tell someone you are a Jehovah’s Witness, you ALWAYS take that opportunity. You don’t hide it. You don’t fear it. You shout it from the mountaintops. I expected a clear answer. Not too much to ask, right? After all, I answered his question. He looked at me and said, “Is that germane to your case?”
Really? He was going to stonewall me? Withhold his religious bias? At that point, I wasn’t 100 per cent sure whether he actually was a witness but, for the record, he is.
The elevator arrived at the lobby, and Lombardi and Miller, after descending in an alternative elevator, vanished very quickly. Aaron and I looked at each other, then had a very hard laugh. We strolled outside into the fresh, cool and thin February afternoon air.
After a week of attorneys, testimony, child abuse files, letters, evidence, trying to process what was going on and understand the implications of what just happened, it was good to laugh.
So that’s what was going on, a year ago this week.