In February 2017, a Lancaster woman reached a settlement agreement in a sexual abuse lawsuit against a Jehovah’s Witness church in Spring Grove, PA. This is just one of many examples of lawsuits recently filed against this organization for allegedly mishandling and failing to report complaints of sexual abuse against church members.
On the fifth day of the civil trial, Stephanie Fessler settled the suit against the Spring Grove church. When she was a teenager and a member of the Jehovah’s Witness church in Spring Grove, she was sexually assaulted repeatedly for a two-year period beginning in 2002 or 2003. The perpetrator was Terry J. Monheim, who was in her late 40s and early 50s while the abuse occurred.
In 2012, Monheim pleaded guilty in York County Court to charges of indecent assault of a person less than 16 and corruption of minors. In May of that year, she was sentenced to 3-23 months in York County Prison, running concurrently with five years of probation.
Fessler’s suit named Monheim, as well as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Spring Grove Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to the lawsuit, Fessler’s family reported her abuse to church elders, but the elders did not notify authorities. The family argued that this resulted in additional sexual abuse by Monheim.
Attorney contributor Brian Kent represents survivors of child sexual abuse in civil court. We’ve asked him for some input into the legal options available to these survivors:
Although the church only has about 1 million members in the United States, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been involved with several allegations of sexual abuse and coverups by church elders. Certain church policies, such as a two-witness rule, discourage survivors and their families from contacting law enforcement. Instead, the church pressures these families to only report abuse directly to church elders, who too often fail to notify authorities. This means that sexual predators often have the opportunity to continue abusing their victims.
In Pennsylvania, survivors of child sexual abuse have the option to file a civil lawsuit until they turn 30 years old. The laws in this state are unfortunately more restrictive than most, but activists are working to change that.
If you or your child has been sexually abused by a fellow Jehovah’s Witness member or church elder, you can learn more about your legal options by speaking with an experienced Jehovah’s Witness sexual abuse lawyer.