10:00 PM PDT on Tuesday, March 25, 2008
By TAMMY McCOYThe Press-Enterprise
Leaders of a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation must reveal what a Murrieta man suspected of molesting two girls told them, despite their claims the conversation were protected by clergy confidentiality, a judge ruled Tuesday.
The congregation leaders must testify in the man's trial on child-molestation charges, said Riverside County Judge F. Paul Dickerson.
The defense attorney says he will appeal.
Experts say the ruling raises compelling legal questions.
"It is an interesting legal issue that does need to be clarified by the court," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
She said an appeals court could decide if the law should extend beyond a traditional confession into this type of hearing.
California law protects statements made to clergy members who are required by their faith's practices to keep them secret.
In his ruling, Dickerson said testimony from Elder Andrew Sinay showed the Jehovah's Witnesses' judicial committee system is not designed to keep information confidential.
Dickerson said this was not a case where Gilbert Simental went to the elders seeking forgiveness or guidance.
"This was the opposite," he said. "It was more like a third-party investigation into immoral conduct."
In this case, the judge said, the elders' duty was to determine guilt and to protect the congregation, not to keep the communications under wraps.
"It's an investigative, fact-finding body without regard for confidentiality," he said. "This was a tribunal designed to protect the congregation."
Dickerson's ruling came in response to prosecutor Burke Strunsky's request to force the elders to testify. Jury selection is already under way in Simental's trial at the Southwest Justice Center in French Valley.
"This case highlights the perils of interpreting this privilege in an overly broad fashion," Strunsky said.
Simental, 49, is charged with molesting two of his daughter's friends when they came to his home for sleepovers between July 2005 and July 2006, according to court papers. The girls are sisters who were 9 and 10 at the time, the records show.
The Press-Enterprise does not publish the names of minors who are believed to have been victims of sexual abuse.
After the ruling, defense attorney Miles Clark said he will appeal Dickerson's decision.
"My client relied on the elders to keep his statements confidential," Clark said.
Jehovah's Witnesses should not be treated differently from members of other faiths simply because their practices are different, he said.
Clark said Simental's statements to the judicial committee should be treated the way the statements a Roman Catholic makes to a priest in a confessional are.
During the hearing at the Southwest Justice Center, prosecutor Strunsky questioned Sinay about the congregation's practices and how information obtained during a judicial committee is handled.
Sinay said they share information obtained during judicial committee proceedings with the Jehovah's Witnesses office in New York and with committees that are called on in an appellate capacity.
Strunsky also questioned the parents of the two girls.
The girls' parents testified that after the children came to their mother with their allegations, she met with Sinay and Elder John Vaughn, who agreed they would inform the couple of the outcome of the inquiry.
The girls' mother testified that Sinay later told her that Simental had made a full confession.
While Sinay did not provide her with a verbatim confession, she said Sinay did tell her that Simental had confessed.
Clark asked whether Sinay ever said that Simental had confessed to molesting her daughters.
The woman said he did not use the word "molest" during their conversation.
The girls' father testified that during a meeting with Sinay, Vaughn and another elder, he was also told that Simental confessed during a judicial committee meeting.
The elders also told the father that Simental had never done this before and was no danger to the community, he said.
If convicted of all charges, Simental faces 45 years to life in prison.
Simental is charged with a similar allegation in another criminal case. That case is currently awaiting trial.
He is free on $1 million bail.
Staff writer Jessica Logan contributed to this report.
Reach Tammy McCoy at 951-375-3729 or tmccoy@PE.com