Trial Summary – Part One
“The matter with the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been resolved”
stated Jeffrey Fritz, attorney for abuse victim Stephanie Fessler.
Using language echoing the public announcements which Stephanie Fessler, now 28, was subjected to as a teenager, Fessler and her legal team have effectively turned the tables on Watchtower and issued a “public reproof” to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Witnesses notoriously reprove and disfellowship members of their faith, even if that member is a child, and has experienced a sexual encounter. Following four days of intense testimony at City Hall in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Watchtower’s defense strategies collapsed. Despite spending tens of thousands of dollars and nearly 3 years in preparation for this case, by noon on Monday February 13th, Watchtower yielded to the plaintiff, packed up their briefcases, and agreed to an undisclosed settlement.
A strong message has been sent to the Watchtower organization: You can’t break the law when you learn of an accusation of inappropriate behavior with a minor. It must be reported to the police and child protection authorities.
Jehovah’s Witness leadership dismiss nearly every opportunity to report suspected abuse. Witness clergy mandate that when “wrongdoing” is discovered, they must immediately convene an internal tribunal of several elders, who are briefed on what happened. If the “sin” is serious, they form a Judicial Committee of three elders, then bring the victim before this committee to answer for her involvement. In this case, trial evidence showed that Jehovah’s Witness elders in the Spring Grove PA congregation were aware of a “consensual” relationship between 49-51 year old Terry Seipp, who attended the Freeland Maryland Congregation, and the victim, Stephanie Fessler. For 3 years Seipp played the role of surrogate mother to Fessler, all the while taking sexual advantage of Stephanie, a matter brazenly overlooked by both congregations.
Or did they overlook it? In 2004, elders were informed that there was inappropriate kissing and touching between Seipp and Fessler, yet they failed to report this under the Pennsylvania mandatory reporting laws which apply to all clergy, or elders who learn of suspected abuse. By 2005, elders had significant evidence of extensive sexual encounters between the victim and her abuser, yet continued to apply their own internal measures – a decision which forever damaged Stephanie Fessler, preventing her abuser from facing justice and ending the relationship.
Detective Lisa Layden of the Southwestern Regional Police department in York County PA testified that any physical contact which might rise to the level of sexual abuse must be reported to the authorities, including Pennsylvania’s Childline, a well-organized resource for victims and potential victims. But that is not how Jehovah’s Witnesses operate. All matters of “sin” are referred to the congregation elders, who then contact the legal department at Watchtower’s Patterson New York complex if a case of sexual abuse comes to light.
Watchtower claims to inform congregation elders of individual state child abuse reporting laws, but seldom if ever do elders contact the police and file a report. To say that elders rarely reports such matters is a significant understatement.
Thomas Jefferson Beffudles Jury
On the afternoon of February 7th, 2017, plaintiff co-counsel Gregg Zeff called the first witness, Mr. Thomas Jefferson Jr. This was a significant moment in the first day of trial, only the second time in Watchtower’s history that its organization has faced a jury in a child abuse trial.
And it did not go well.
From the moment Thomas Jefferson took the stand on behalf of Watchtower and the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses (CCJW), there was an air of bedlam, confusion, and frustration. The jury of seven women and three men sat facing Jefferson in disbelief, as he struggled to answer questions – and the ones he did answer left the entire courtroom scratching their heads. Jefferson replied to questions from plaintiff’s attorneys with a defensively arrogant stance, speaking in a slow and deliberate manner, repetitively ending his answers with the word “counselor.” Attorney Gregg Zeff pounded Jefferson with question after question in an attempt to clarify the tangled web of corporations and committees which manage the affairs of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jefferson admitted that he was a member of the CCJW, the US Branch Committee, and the Worldwide Order of Special Full-Time Servants of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but denied any involvement in the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. When asked for the name of the president of Watchtower New York, he told the court “I don’t recall” despite admitting he was sent to represent CCJW and Watchtower. Jefferson spoke in circles and riddles when asked about leadership of the JW organization, refusing to answer the simple question “Who is in charge?” The day one exchange with Jefferson was so outrageous, Judge Mary C. Collins was seen restraining both anger and laughter at the same time. Mr. Zeff, in a moment of exasperation raised his voice to Jefferson and asked whether there were “human beings” in charge of this organization.
Jefferson replied:- “Are you serious?”
The questioning intensified when Mr. Zeff pressed Jefferson on the source of all of the letters sent to bodies of elders, asking him again whether any “human beings” actually wrote these letters, and if so-who are these persons. Jefferson once again dodged the question and stated that anonymous persons compose these letters, and that the persons involved may or may not be a part of the Watchtower or CCJW corporations.
Attorney Zeff, visibly irritated by the intentional obfuscation, asked Jefferson whether the CCJW was responsible for ANYTHING; Jefferson responded by asking what he meant by “responsible.” Judge Collins was unable to restrain herself any longer and turned to the witness and demanded that he answer the question. Shaken and nervous, Jefferson told the court that he must take time to pause…and think. Following a lengthy silence, Zeff posed the question once again, to which Jefferson said “I imagine they have to.”
Before changing his line of questioning, Zeff displayed the signature on an elder’s letter which read “Watchtower Bible and Tract Society,” forcing Jefferson to acknowledge the corporation responsible for the policies enforced by Jehovah’s Witnesses prior to the 2001 creation of the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Zeff linked multiple Watchtower documents with policies which have restricted Witness elders from reporting child abuse to the proper authorities, making it clear which organization is responsible.
Moments later, Thomas Jefferson unbelievably denied that Watchtower writes anything, stating that they only “publish” and distribute these letters, but have nothing to do with their production. (referring to all letters before 2001)
Zeff questioned Jefferson on whether elders are sanctioned if they disobey the contents of these letters, which was followed by a song and dance from Jefferson and the indecisive and false statement that elders “may or may not” be censured for disobedience. When Jefferson mentioned that a Governing Body appointed Circuit Overseer may be involved in disqualifying an elder, Zeff did not miss the opportunity to ask whether the Jehovah’s Witness Governing Body are associated with Watchtower or the Christian Congregation. Jefferson’s response: NO.
As if to say “I’m not done scrambling your brains just yet, jury” – Jefferson responds to the next seemingly simple question posed by Zeff, which was ‘should clergy report child abuse?’ After an objection from the Watchtower defense team, Jefferson states that he cannot answer the question because Jehovah’s Witness elders are not clergymen. This question set off a debate which lasted for two days. (more on that later)
Attorney Zeff then followed a line of questioning forcing Jefferson to admit that elders investigate accusations of child abuse using their own judicial process. Jefferson further had to confess that Witness elders have no professional training in counseling, psychology or other relevant levels of expertise; yet amazingly he insisted that they did receive “training.” Zeff followed up by telling Jefferson that elders are in no way qualified to judge the genuineness or seriousness of an allegation of child abuse.
Jefferson arrogantly replied: “incorrect”
Zeff asked Jefferson whether he had any evidence from Watchtower publications to back that statement up. After a non-answer from junk-testimony Jefferson, Judge Collins stepped in and scolded Jefferson, telling him the question is “perfectly clear”. Zeff pressed the witness hard, asking him for his beliefs on this subject, to which Jefferson replied: “Are my beliefs on trial?”
Again, Judge Collins rebuked Jefferson adamantly and warned him to refrain from making any such comments, advising him to just answer the question. Unbelievably, Jefferson responds by saying that Watchtower is a corporate entity and does not “believe” anything.
Continuing his salvo of questions, Zeff asks Jefferson if he is aware that professionals exist in the field of child abuse detection and counseling, to which Jefferson reluctantly agrees. He then asks Jefferson if he is aware that the state of Pennsylvania wants those professionals involved whenever an accusation of child abuse occurs. Jefferson states that he was not aware of this, aside from when Judge Collins stated this to the jury at the outset of this trial. I remember thinking that Jefferson testified that he was in court on behalf of the legal department of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and to defend Watchtower and the CCJW – yet somehow after years of preparation for this trial, having been prepped by Watchtower’s extensive legal team, he is suddenly unaware that Pennsylvania has a mandatory law requiring the reporting of accusations of child abuse. Clearly the jury was not buying this.
Attorney Zeff then puts Jefferson on the spot regarding the matter of elders reading all letters from Watchtower; Jefferson stated that reading all letters is not required, but that elders would be expected to read all direction on child abuse from Watchtower prior to beginning an investigation. He was then asked whether elders could be sanctioned or stripped of their positions if they failed to follow Watchtower’s counsel. Reluctantly, Jefferson admitted that this is “possible.” Zeff followed by asking “has this ever happened?” Jefferson’s reply: “I don’t know.” As anyone with any experience in the Jehovah’s Witness organization knows very well, if an elder fails to follow direction from headquarters, his position as elder will vanish instantly. Jefferson knows this very well.
Nearing the end of the first day of trial, Zeff calls Jefferson’s attention to one of the most damaging pieces of evidence in this case, the July 1, 1989 letter to elders. This six page letter was stamped CONFIDENTIAL – and Watchtower meant it. This letter was so damaging to the defense, that when it was subpoenaed, Watchtower redacted nearly the entire document, with few exceptions. The plaintiff’s legal team only learned of the full contents of this letter by searching sources outside of Watchtower, and when the contents were revealed, this case was sealed.
Zeff calls Jefferson’s attention to the purpose of this letter, as stated on page 2:
“Hence, a growing number of vindictive or disgruntled ones, as well as opposers, have initiated lawsuits to inflict financial penalties on the individual, the congregation, or the Society. Many of these lawsuits are the result of the misuse of the tongue.”
He rephrased this paragraph by emphatically telling Jefferson that the real meaning is “Keep you mouth shut or you might get sued.” Jefferson disagreed, but the damage was done. The jury begins to understand the cloak of secrecy surrounding Watchtower. Protection of the organization and its assets has increasingly become the motivation behind the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal strategy, placing corporations ahead of the welfare of its own children. Day one ends in disaster for Watchtower, with final testimony from Jefferson looming on the horizon.
Day 2 – The Return of Thomas Jefferson
Wednesday morning brought Thomas Jefferson Jr. right back to the witness stand, but not before Spring Grove defense attorney Jud Aaron strongly objected to the presence of Detective Lisa Layden, who was scheduled to testify the next day. Aaron cried “Unfair,” claiming that the presence of the detective on day 2 would affect her day 3 testimony. Judge Collins rejected the sequestration order and stated “I’m done with this issue, I’ve ruled on it. It’s a clear issue.”
Trial resumes with Plaintiff’s attorney Gregg Zeff calling attention again to Exhibit 18B, the July 1, 1989 elder’s letter on confidentiality. Watchtower attorney John Miller immediately objects on “First Amendment” grounds, but is overruled by the judge. Zeff looks at Miller, then the judge, and says “First Amendment your honor?” – Judge Collins tells Zeff to move on. Zeff grills Jefferson on the meaning behind the letter, the intended secrecy and confidentiality, the prevention of lawsuits due to “misuse of the tongue.” Zeff makes his point, and Jefferson is left offering no concise explanation.
The subject now changed to the persons in charge of Jehovah’s Witnesses:
Zeff: Do you remember when I asked you for the names
of the humans?
Jefferson: I do
Zeff: You didn’t give me the name of any, did you, sir?
Jefferson: I did not
Zeff: Is the reason you didn’t give me the names of any humans is because they’re secret?
Jefferson: No. The answer to that question —
Zeff: That’s all I asked you, sir. Is the reason you didn’t give me the
names of any humans is because you wanted to protect them from lawsuits?
Zeff then re-introduces Jefferson’s prior testimony on the matter of whether Witness elders are clergymen:
Zeff: Do you remember earlier in the questioning I asked you about this statement: Clergy must report sexual abuse of children to protect the victim from
Jefferson: I do, counselor.
Zeff: And your answer was you could not agree with that?
Jefferson: That’s correct, counselor.
Zeff: And you said you couldn’t agree with that because elders are not clergy. Is that a fair statement?
Jefferson: That’s a correct statement.
Zeff: Okay. What is your definition of clergy?
Jefferson: Clergy meant, as I understand it, are those who are recognized, if you will, as the leader of a church or an organization and that is something that elders are not.
Zeff follows up by displaying Websters dictionary on screen, then says:
Zeff: Can I show you Webster’s Dictionary’s definition of elder and see if you agree with that? The first definition is a group of ordained to perform pastoral or sacerdotal functions in a Christian church. Is that a reasonable definition of a clergy?
Jefferson: I don’t know the answer to that.
Zeff now proceeds to connect Jehovah’s Witness elders to the clergy using Jefferson’s own words:
Zeff: Can you define for me what an elder is?
Jefferson: Sure. An elder is a man who is appointed by means of the Holy Spirit to care for the interests of the sheep entrusted to him. Those responsibilities are described
in various places in the Bible. For example, first Peter 5, one and two, where elders are urged to care for the interests of the flock entrusted to them.
Zeff: Elders act as shepherds in the local congregations?
Jefferson: They do.
Zeff: And provide spiritual education and assistance from the Bible to congregants?
Jefferson: They do
Zeff: And they oversee the congregational meetings?
Jefferson: They do
Zeff: And they lead?
Jefferson: They take the lead also.
Zeff then brings up confession, and forces Jefferson to admit that elders are responsible for listening to confession from members of the congregation.
Zeff: And elders then receive confession of sort?
Jefferson: Elders listen to the confessions of those who may have been involved and wronged, yes.
Zeff now calls up on screen the definition of clergy once again:
Zeff: Looking at that the rule one more time, I would just like to know if you have changed your answer at all or if you think elders are clergy?
Zeff digs deeper into the Jehovah’s Witness judicial process, hammering Jefferson with questions about the function of a judicial committee of elders.
Zeff: So wouldn’t your judicial committee, your rules, and by you, I’m not even sure who I’m talking about. Who is it that tells the elders, this is how a judicial committee should operate? Is it a governing body?
Jefferson: A group of spiritually qualified men, who remain anonymous, are selected to prepare material that’s reviewed and approved by the governing body. And then after that, it is published.
Zeff: So these anonymous men have told the elders that when there’s a matter that needs a judicial committee, here is how the committee should be set up, here is who should be on the committee, and here are the types of things you should look for. And
once you’ve done that, here is what you do if wrong has been committed. Is that a fair summary?
Jefferson: Not totally.
Zeff: Okay. Didn’t think so.
Zeff presses the uncooperative Jefferson further, asking him to define what the S-77 form is, to which Jefferson replied:
“S-77 form is a document that’s used to report concisely the events of that judicial hearing.”
It is of interest that his answer was misleading, as the S-77 is the “notice of disfellowshipping or disassociation” – filled out when the outcome of a judicial hearing is disfellowshipping, or if a person formally disassociates themselves. The form itself states:
“It is not necessary to provide a summary of the case. If anything of significance regarding the case needs to be shared with the branch office, please do so in a separate letter.”
Jefferson’s testimony was utterly confusing, filled with misleading and inaccurate data; he was placed on the witness stand by Watchtower’s own legal department, yet was self-destructing with every word. The jury appeared confused by his remarks, his demeanor, and his inability to answer simple questions without offering long-winded verbal detours.
Attorney Zeff now turned his attention back to the July 1989 confidential letter to elders:
Zeff: We talked briefly about section D, which was the child abuse, many states have child abuse reporting laws. When elders receive reports of physical or sexual abuse of a child, they should contact the society’s legal department immediately. Victims of such abuse need to be protected from further danger. That’s what it says?
Jefferson: That’s correct, counselor.
Zeff: In this document anywhere does it discuss how to protect children?
Jefferson: I’m not aware of any place in the document.
Zeff: But it does tell you to keep as many things secret as possible, doesn’t it?
Jefferson: It does urge confidentiality, counselor, correct.
You Can’t Have it Both Ways, Watchtower
It is of great interest that the Watchtower organization urges elders to maintain confidentiality, when they legally impale themselves by breaking confidentiality the moment they share a confession with other elders. In the Fessler case, there were at least ten elders and others who were informed of the allegations of sexual abuse, not to mention those in Watchtower’s legal and service department who learned of the case from local elders. Watchtower attempted to claim clergy privilege to protect themselves, but this was denied multiple times by the court. Evidence was presented that no confidentiality was maintained whatsoever.
Explained legally, Watchtower is subject to the legal principle of estoppel. This axiom bars a person from claiming one position, then intentionally taking the opposite position when it suits their legal case. Using Fessler versus Watchtower as an example, the defense adamantly attempted to use clergy privilege from the outset, yet denied in court for two straight days that elders are clergymen.
In lay terms, this means you can’t have it both ways.
During further intense questioning of Jefferson, Zeff pointed right back to the July 1989 letter to elders and asked:
Zeff: Let me break the question up for you. Wouldn’t you agree with me that an elder who has limited knowledge of child abuse laws, limited knowledge of criminal law, would have a difficult time understanding the difference between keeping it secret and going to the police based on this document?
Jefferson: If I answer about an elder’s limited knowledge, I’d only have to speculate. So I don’t know the answer to that question
Zeff: Sir, you’re here on behalf of Watchtower and the Christian Congregation to talk about the documents and the instructions that you’ve given to them. Would you agree that that’s confusing?
Jefferson: No, sir.
Zeff: Crystal clear to you?
Zeff: And would you agree with me that the legal department, when called, should know the law in every state?
Jefferson: Again, I can’t speak for the legal department, counselor. I don’t work there.
[Now bear in mind that Jefferson has testified that he is here on behalf of a request from the Watchtower and CCJW legal department, leaving one to wonder how it is possible that Jefferson has no clue that the legal department is aware of state laws regarding mandatory reporting]
Zeff: Well, in writing this document, isn’t there an assumption by the Watchtower that the legal department is going to do the right thing by state law?
Jefferson: As for assumption, again, I can’t speculate, but what I can say with a fair degree of certainty is that when elders follow the instruction in this letter or other letters and call the legal department, they will receive appropriate legal advice.
Zeff continues his line of questioning regarding the Fessler case, and states that he has no knowledge whatsoever of the two Spring Grove PA elders, Eric Hoffman and Donald Hollingworth, except that they may have called Watchtower’s legal department. Referring once again to the July 1989 letter to elders, Zeff asks:
Zeff: There’s nothing in that document that says do what’s in the best interest of the child, is there?
Jefferson: I don’t believe that statement appears in the document, counselor.
Zeff: There’s nothing in the document that says when in doubt, protect the child?
Jefferson: That statement doesn’t appear in the document, counselor, no.
Zeff: Is there any document that you’re aware of that’s given to elders in the United States that says elders shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that victims urgently need to be protected from further abuse and that abusers need to be prevented from finding other victims?
Jefferson: Counselor, several documents which you’ve shown here have been printed. I can’t point to any specific one in response to your question. My memory doesn’t bring up one right now.
Zeff: Will you agree there’s no instruction in any Watchtower or Christian Congregation document that says if there’s an allegation of sexual abuse, contact an overseer?
Jefferson: If there’s an allegation of sexual abuse, contact the overseer. I’m not aware of that specific statement, counselor.
Zeff then draws Jefferson’s attention to the February 15th, 2002 letter to elders, where child abuse is mentioned, and which also references the July 1, 1989 letter]
Zeff: I want to take you to number four on this document. It says: “Child abuse is a crime. Never suggest to anyone that they should not report an allegation of child abuse to the police or other authorities.” So that says, correct me if I’m wrong, that elders should never say don’t report it. That would be wrong.
Jefferson: That’s correct, counselor.
Zeff: Then it says: If you’re asked, make it clear that whether to report the matter to the authorities or not is a personal decision for each individual to make and that there are no congregational sanctions for either decision. So it says, if you’re asked there, and I presume that these authors chose their words carefully… Do you know why they said if you’re asked instead of tell them?
Jefferson: I don’t know why it was exactly worded this way, counselor. I was not a part of the group that composed the letter, so I would only speculate to say why they might have worded it that way.
Zeff: So on behalf of Watchtower and Christian Congregation, your answer is why they ordered it that way is you don’t know because it would be speculation?
Jefferson: I don’t know exactly why the author worded it that way.
Zeff continued his questioning, with Jefferson only able to state that Watchtower’s position is “Never tell anyone that they can’t report it.” and “If they ask you, by all means, please do what you feel is right and report it, if you feel you should. ” Zeff continued:
Zeff: Would you agree with me that this instruction does not inform elders that they must, in Pennsylvania and Maryland, report suspected child abuse?
Jefferson: That’s a correct statement, counselor.
The Anonymous Men
Concluding his examination of Watchtower representative Jefferson, attorney Zeff probes Jefferson as to the very source of the judicial rules governing Jehovah’s Witness elders:
Zeff: And the rules that are followed by the elders relating to the judicial committee come from whom?
Jefferson: As stated, a group of men, spiritually mature men are appointed to prepare this material under the direction of the governing body. And after it is approved, it is published.
Zeff: And they’re anonymous?
Jefferson: The are.
Zeff: And do you know whether any of these anonymous people have any qualifications of any kind to deal with issues of child abuse?
Jefferson: If they’re anonymous and I don’t know them, then I don’t answer that question
Zeff: I have nothing further, thank you, Your Honor.
Following two days of examination by the plaintiff’s counsel, it was time for the defense to cross-examine Mr. Jefferson.
First up was Jud Aaron, a non-Jehovah’s Witness attorney representing the Spring Grove Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Mr. Aaron began his questioning by referring to the state mandate for clergy to report suspected child abuse:
Aaron: “Clergy must report sexual abuse of children to protect the victim from additional harm. And yet there was some questions about it.” If I were to substitute the word clergy, remove the word clergy and put Jehovah’s Witnesses elders, let me read it. “Jehovah’s Witnesses elders must report sexual abuse of children to protect the victim from additional harm.” Would you agree with that?
Jefferson: I do in certain areas of municipalities and so forth, yes.
This brief and bizarre exchange echoed the earlier line of questioning in which Jefferson refused to acknowledge that Jehovah’s Witness elders are clergy, which in his mind exempted him entirely from answering these questions. Incredibly, when Aaron substituted “Jehovah’s Witness elders” for “clergy,” Jefferson still suggested that elders only have the obligation to report “in certain municipalities.”
By now, most readers will have thrown a brick through their computer monitor, or discarded their smart phone in the nearest lake when reading the lengths to which the Jehovah’s Witness organization will go to protect their own interests, instead of those of the victims of abuse. Their destructive doctrines are stuck like barnacles on a sinking ship, and Watchtower has no desire to scrape free the decades-old requirements which have ruined the lives of thousands.
As Aaron continued his examination of Jefferson, he restated the policy whereby elders were required to contact Watchtower’s legal department in cases involving suspected abuse. However this line of reasoning was ineffective, since it was clear that Jefferson was defending an organization which fails to report abuse as a practice, unless they would receive sanctions and penalty for not reporting the matter in certain “municipalities.”
Mr. Aaron further attempted to minimize the child abuse issue when he questioned Jefferson on his experience in handling child abuse cases:
Aaron: And in the 35 years that you’ve sat on judicial committees, about seven
congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, have you sat on one that involved allegations of child sexual abuse?
As an added “strategy”, defense attorney Aaron went so far as to imply that since there were only five lines (dealing with child abuse) out of six pages in the July 1 1989 Letter to elders, the relevance of this letter was minimal, and that it was not intended to protect child abusers. Aaron then asked Jefferson to testify about the nature of the multitude of Watchtower and Awake! articles on a variety of subjects, including child abuse.
Aaron: Let me ask you something, Mr. Jefferson, why do these publications, the Jehovah’s Witness publication, Watchtower magazine, Awake magazine, why do they address repeatedly the issue of child abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, that type of
thing you just referred to?
Jefferson: Because in society in general, many, many people are adversely affected by the crime of child abuse and it’s the desire of the organization that I’m a part of to do everything possible to make people aware of this horrible, heinous crime and to
do everything possible to help victims first of child abuse and to assist them and assist their parents to shoulder their responsibility to protect their children. And that’s why the articles are published.
As any victim of child abuse in the Jehovah’s Witness organization will tell you, the organization and the elders obstruct justice in every possible way. The failure to report abuse to police and other civil authorities is fast becoming one of the most insidious crimes in the past 50 years. It was clear that the jury was not buying into Watchtower’s statement that they “abhor” child abuse. It is a weak and meaningless defense, when the facts show that the very authorities who are qualified to help children are almost never contacted.
Enter John Miller, for Watchtower
In his first appearance in this trial, Mr. John Miller, attorney for Watchtower New York, and a devout Jehovah’s Witness, stepped up to question Mr Jefferson on behalf of the defense. Miller opens by acknowledging that he and Mr. Jefferson are old friends, for at least 20 years.
One of the more interesting contradictions in testimony came when Mr. Jefferson, under examination from Miller, suddenly acknowledged that both he and Watchtower’s legal department are very familiar with differences in state laws on mandatory child abuse reporting. Note the exchange:
Miller: You testified that the laws of the states vary; is that true?
Jefferson: That’s true.
Miller: And have you worked with lawyers in the branch’s legal department to render advice to elders who call about the laws of their particular state?
Jefferson: I have.
Miller: And is it in your working with those lawyers that you have become familiar with differences of laws of different states?
Jefferson: I have.
Thomas Jefferson had just testified when questioned by the plaintiff’s attorney Gregg Zeff that he was unaware of Watchtower’s knowledge of state laws for reporting abuse. Note his earlier testimony:
Zeff: And would you agree with me that the legal department, when called, should know the law in every state?
Jefferson: Again, I can’t speak for the legal department, counselor. I don’t work there.
Incredibly, Jefferson changed his testimony, suddenly becoming aware of state mandatory reporting laws.
Jefferson was lying to the court
Further evidence of defensive backpedaling came when John Miller, for Watchtower, referred to questions posed by Mr. Zeff the day before, when Jefferson was embarrassed by not being able to recall even the name of the President of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York. In an attempt to salvage Jefferson’s reputation, Miller asked:
Miller: You were asked if you could name some of the people in Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Incorporated and you were unable to do so. Are you a member on the executive board of that corporation?
Jefferson: I am not.
Miller: Are you a member or on the executive board of the corporation Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses?
Jefferson: I am.
Miller: Can you name any of the people with that organization?
Jefferson: I can.
Miller: Go ahead. Name some.
Jefferson: The president, Allen Shuster; vice president, Anthony Griffin; secretary/treasurer, William Nonkes.
Miller: What is your role?
Jefferson: Assistant secretary/treasurer, I believe.
He believes? Jefferson seemed very unsure of his position within the CCJW organization – but his testimony continued to disintegrate as Watchtower attorney Miller then asked him to name Members of the United States Branch Committee.
Miller: Can you name a few of them for us?
Jefferson: Allen Shuster, Anthony Griffin, just to name two.
Miller: Was Leon Weaver a member of that branch committee?
Jefferson: He is.
Miller: So are the names of those persons who serve in the U.S. Branch kept secret anywhere?
Jefferson: Not at all.
Miller: Aren’t they published on the website?
Jefferson: That could very well be.
Miller: Have you seen them published in some of magazines that are sent to the public?
Jefferson: Yes, they are. The president is published every month in the Watchtower and Awake.
Miller: So there’s no secret about who is there?
As a note to our readers, the questioning by Miller and responses of Jefferson reveal that they themselves are not fully aware of who manages and operates Watchtower, CCJW, and the United States Branch Committee. Not only was Jefferson unsure of his own position in CCJW, but his statement “The president is published every month in the Watchtower and Awake” was false, as he was discussing the US Branch Committee, and not the Watchtower Society. A simple check of the inside cover of current Watchtower and Awake magazines reveals that it is the Watchtower president who is listed inside this cover, and not any of the US Branch Committee members.
Jefferson Says: No Responsibility to Protect the Community
After testifying once again that elders are not clergymen, the defense yielded to Mr Gregg Zeff for a re-cross examination of Mr. Jefferson. Zeff asked Jefferson whether the elders have a responsibility to protect the community from predators:
Jefferson: Well, the elders have responsibility of protecting children, yes, and all the flock.
Zeff: And the entire community from predators, not just the flock?
Jefferson: What do you mean by entire community?
Zeff: Well, doesn’t an elder have a responsibility if they know there’s a sexual predator in their midst to let the entire community, the State of Pennsylvania, the people of Philadelphia, know that there’s a sexual predator in their midst?
[Watchtower attorney Miller objects to this question. Objection overruled]
In one of the most insidious and outrageous statements of the trial, Thomas Jefferson admitted what so many victims of child abuse already know – that Jehovah’s Witnesses have no regard for the community at large, and their failure to report suspected child abuse places the entire community at risk by failing to report a predator.
While Witnesses are an insular community, the harboring or non-reporting of a sexual predator permits such an individual to roam free, unobstructed and undetected by unsuspecting parents and children. Most “worldly” or non-Jehovah’s Witness persons are unaware that a religious organization resides in their midst, completely insensitive to the protection of their family. Not only have tens of thousands of Jehovah’s Witness children suffered, but evidence shows that scores of sexual assaults have occurred throughout the global community because the offender was not reported to the authorities. This affects everyone, regardless of religious affiliation.
Thomas Jefferson single-handedly embarrassed the entire Watchtower organization, destroying his own credibility and that of the religion he represents. But this was a good thing. This was not a closed-door, behind the scenes, cloaked meeting, but an open, civil trial which will forever be a part of the public record. It is an insight into the inner workings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are largely ignorant of the issues related to child abuse, and the tactics employed by their elders, their Governing Body, and the legal team which defends the absurd.
Please stay tuned for further reports on the testimony in this case, including that of two elders, the abuser of Stephanie Fessler, and the detective who ended any chance of Watchtower winning this case.
JW Survey Articles
Journalist Trey Bundy with Reveal News has been following Fessler case for more than a year, and reported in 2016 that Watchtower’s legal team had engaged in “abusive tactics” by intentionally moving the trial to York County, instead of Philadelphia, where it was filed. A judge ruled that this was an intentional stall tactic and returned the venue to Philadelphia. Bundy reported the outcome of the Fessler case in his February 17th 2017 article.