Stephanie Fessler is a former Jehovah’s Witness and a victim of child sexual abuse. On Tuesday, February 7 2017 starting at 11am, she will have a trial by jury in Pennsylvania against defendants Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Inc., Spring Grove Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and her abuser, Terry Monheim.
As plaintiff, Stephanie asserts claims against the defendants for negligence, violations of the CPSL and negligent failure to rescue against the defendants who failed to report known abuse to legal authorities which resulted in continued sexual assault and both physical and psychological injuries. Plaintiff also alleges claims for assault and battery against Terry Jeanne Monheim.
The Trial is expected to last 5 or 6 days and Mark O’Donnell will be reporting on the developments each day.
Background to Stephanie Fessler’s Abuse
Stephanie Fessler was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness by her parents, Jodee and Kevin. Her father is an elder in the Spring Grove Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in York County, Pennsylvania.
At the age of 14, she became friendly with Terry Seipp’s (now known as Terry Monheim) children and would visit them at their home in Hampstead, Maryland. In the summer of 2003, her relationship with Terry turned sexual.
Terry at first hugged, kissed (intimately), “made out” with, “humped” and consoled Stephanie when Stephanie became upset over her mother’s mental breakdown due to depression. However, this later escalated to oral sex and digital penetration.
Over the next two years, Stephanie was abused at Terry’s home, at Terry’s daughter’s homes, Terry’s place of work and in her vehicle, as well as at Stephanie’s parents’ home.
In the summer of 2004, Terry’s daughter, Amber, became suspicious that there was an improper relationship going on between Terry and Stephanie. She raised her suspicions to Stephanie’s mother, Jodee Fessler.
When Jodee saw Terry and Stephanie together at the Spring Grove Congregation, she too became suspicious. She searched Stephanie’s room and and found a “love letter” in the form of a card. It was written by Stephanie and mentioned intimate kissing and how much she loved Terry. After showing the card to her husband, Kevin Fessler, both parents confronted Stephanie.
Stephanie could not deny the intimate nature of the relationship.
Jodee and Kevin shared this information with Eric Hoffman who was a long-time family friend and fellow elder within the Spring Grove Congregation. In turn, this information was shared with Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and with elders from Terry’s Kingdom Hall, the Freeland Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Maryland.
Investigations into Stephanie Fessler’s Abuse
In keeping with Watch Tower policy, Eric Hoffman started an investigation to specifically find out information concerning the allegations. In their investigation, they questioned Stephanie only, who was now 15 years old. She disclosed to Eric Hoffman, Neal Cluck and John Ness – the investigating elders within the Spring Grove Congregation – that there was intimate kissing and hugging with Terry.
According to Eric Hoffman, Stephanie’s parents were concerned because they believed there was more to the relationship than just hugging and “intimate”, “mouth-to-mouth” kissing. Yet, Hoffman also learned of “an instance or two of momentary touching of the breast”.
None of the elders from the Spring Grove Congregation talked with Terry Seipp or anyone in her family.
Notably, none of the elders reported any of this information to any legal authorities in Pennsylvania or Maryland.
Eric Hoffman admitted that he had information of suspected child abuse involving Stephanie Fessler and never reported it to any legal authorities although there was nothing preventing him from doing so.
The elders in Spring Grove Congregation did share what they learned with Terry’s elders in the Freeland Congregation in Maryland.
When the elders in the Freeland Congregation investigated Terry, she admitted to intimately kissing Stephanie was was underage. She was told to “stay away” from Stephanie. No report to law enforcement was made, even though the elders in the Freeland Congregation had considered that Terry’s actions were unlawful.
Hoffman and Cluck consulted with Watch Tower’s legal department in Patterson, New York. Upon that consultation, they decided against making any report to law enforcement. This decision was in derogation of every published policy and procedure within the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ procedures require:
- Reporting if required by law (as is the case in Pennsylvania).
- Protecting the child from further abuse
- Encouraging reporting by the victim and in some cases even accompanying the victim.
Because the elders never contacted the police or child welfare authorities, the physical and sexual abuse of Stephanie continued for more than a year later.
In 2005, Terry’s then husband, Dana Seipp, hired a private investigator to follow Terry (50) and Stephanie (15). Dana obtained photographic evidence of the two together. Dana brought this evidence to the elder’s attention. In September 2005, Stephanie disclosed the abuse again.
And again, no report was made to the authorities.
It wasn’t until 2011, when Stephanie Fessler was 22 years old, that she ultimately disclosed the abused directly to the police. The police investigated and charged Terry Seipp with multiple criminal violations. Terry ultimately plead guilty to indecent assault and corruption of a minor and was sentenced to prison and probation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Liability to Stephanie Fessler
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ liability stems from their awareness of Stephanie Fessler’s abuse but reluctance to do anything to protect her. Multiple elders, including Stephanie’s own father, became aware of suspected child abuse and failed to report it to authorities as was their legal obligation to do so as mandatory reporters under Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law (CPSL).
As a result, the abuse was permitted to continue, escalate and become even more frequent. In all, acts of abuse occurred on approximately 30-50 occasions over two years.
The church of Jehovah’s Witnesses failed to report known abuse in violation of Pennsylvania’s CPSL and their own policies. This constitutes negligence and recklessness. Additionally, they were also negligent and reckless for failing to properly train elders who were totally unaware of their obligations for reporting suspected abuse in Pennsylvania. Rather, Pennsylvania’s CPSL law requires that suspected abuse be reported to legal authorities which the church never did. Further, the church took no steps to protect Stephanie from further abuse.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses violated their own procedures in multiple ways including failing to follow these (and other) policies published in their literature:
- First, the child and other children too must be protected from any further abuse. This must be done, whatever the cost. In many cases the accused molester will have to be confronted.
- “If a current case of child abuse comes to light in your congregation, elders should do what they can to protect children from further abuse.
- “Though it is not the responsibility of the Christian congregation to enforce Caesar’s laws, yet the very nature of some crimes demands that they be reported to secular authorities. It may be necessary to encourage the wrongdoer to turn himself in to secular authorities. Before any steps are taken in this regard, contact the branch office. of course, review the latest Society directives on such matters before proceeding.”
- “Victims of sexual abuse need to be treated with extreme thoughtfulness and kindness. Elders should always do what they reasonably can to protect children from further abuse; follow the Society’s directives on such matters.”
- “When a member of the congregation is accused of child molestation, the elders should contact the Society’s Legal Department immediately. Many states make it mandatory that elders report an accusation to the proper authorities but other states do not. . . . Still, whether or not the accusation is reported to the authorities, when it is established that a member of the congregation is guilty of child abuse, appropriate steps should be taken in keeping with initial direction from the Society’s Legal Department.”
- “Of course, children should also be warned about and urged to report to authorities any person making improper advances toward them, including people they know”
- “The elder should explain to the complainant that he himself might have a duty to report the matter to the proper authorities. If the complainant is a child the elder might offer to accompany him or her to discuss the situation with a parent (but not the alleged abuser) or to one of the above authorities.”
Witnesses Expected at Trial
- Stephanie Fessler (Lancaster, PA)
- Don Hollingworth (Toms River, NJ)
- Richard Moake (Patterson, NY)
- Thomas Jefferson, Jr. (Patterson, NY)
- Eric Sandoval (Patterson, NY)
- Detective Sergeant Lisa Layden – fact and expert witness (Spring Grove, PA)
- Eric Hoffman (Spring Grove, PA)
- Jodee Fessler (Spring Grove, PA)
- Kevin Fessler (Spring Grove, PA)
- Terry Monheim (Hanover, PA)
- Neal Cluck (Spring Grove,PA)
- Gary Neal (Freeland, MD)
- Troy Ruhlman (Glenville, PA)
- Deborah L. Bauer, LCSW – expert witness (Harrisburg, PA)
- Corporate Designee regarding the net worth/assets of Watchtower Bible and Tract Society
- Corporate Designee regarding net worth/assets of Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses
- Records Custodians for the documents identified in Plaintiff’s Pretrial Memorandum and produced in discovery by your clients.
Plaintiff may also call any witnesses identified by Defendants or persons who are rebuttal witnesses.
Profile of Jeffrey Fritz, Esq.
Jeffrey P. Fritz is an Advocate for Crime Victims. He is experienced in representing crime victims on behalf of survivors of murder, assault, sexual assault and molestation.
He has obtained multiple settlements and verdicts of more than $1,000,000.00 and was a member of the Tropicana Casino & Hotel garage collapse trial team, which obtained the largest construction accident settlement in U.S. history, totaling $101 million. He successfully represented multiple victims of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky in claims against Penn State University for child sexual abuse.
Mr. Fritz is a 1996 Cum Laude graduate of Widener University School of Law. He is a member of the bar in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He is also a charter member, advisory board member and past president (2010 & 2011) of the National Crime Victim Bar Association, a national organization of attorneys and professionals devoted to obtaining civil justice for the victims of crime. Mr. Fritz is also a member of the American Association for Justice and both the Pennsylvania and Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Associations. He has also been named a 2005 & 2006 “Rising Star” by Philadelphia Magazine and Super Lawyers and “Best of the Best” (Reader’s Choice) by South Jersey Magazine for crime victim representation.
Jeffrey P. Fritz has authored several articles regarding civil justice for crime victims in national publications such as Trial Magazine, The Victim Advocate and Victim Voice. He has served as a lecturer on civil justice for attorneys, victims, and victim service providers throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as nationally. He has provided commentary on crime victims’ rights to the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press and has appeared on NBC, MSNBC, CNN, HLN, Fox-29 & truTV. He has trained crime victim service providers in obtaining civil justice on behalf of the National Center for Victims of Crime/National Crime Victim Bar Association. He has also lectured on behalf of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency at their state-wide conference entitled “Pathways for Crime Victims” and has served on behalf of the New Jersey Victims of Crime Compensation Board training other attorneys in civil remedies for crime victims across the State of New Jersey. He has been an invited lecturer on behalf of the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC), American Association for Justice (AAJ), New Jersey’s Institute for Continuing Legal Education (ICLE) and the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association regarding crime victim representation.