Congregation members testify in molestation trial of Murrieta man

The Press-Enterprise, California/April 10, 2008

Two men who served as leaders of a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation testified Thursday that a Murrieta man admitted he molested two girls during sleepovers at his home.

Despite the defense's contention that the elders' statements are confidential and protected by the penitent-clergy privilege, the two men testified that during a religious inquiry in 2006, defendant Gilbert Simental said he touched the two sisters in a sexual manner.

"I believe he stated that there were two separate occasions when he touched her on her body when she was sleeping," elder Andrew Sinay testified, referring to the younger girl. "He found her to have the covers pulled down and he went to cover her up. Apparently temptation struck at that moment and that's when he touched her."

Their testimony comes near the close of the prosecution's case against Simental, 49, who is charged with molesting two sisters when they were 9 and 10.

The Press-Enterprise does not publish the names of minors who are believed to have been victims of sexual abuse.

The prosecution alleges the girls were sexually abused while at the Simental home for sleepovers between July 2005 and July 2006.

Defense attorney Miles Clark has repeatedly objected to the elders' testimony. He has argued that the elders and Simental believed his statements were made in confidence and should be given the same protections as those given to Catholics participating in confession.

Defense's Request Rejected

A Superior Court judge and an appellate court disagreed.

Earlier this week, the 4th District Court of Appeal declined a defense petition requesting the trial be stopped so judges could examine a ruling by Riverside County Superior Court Judge F. Paul Dickerson.

Dickerson ruled Simental's statements to the elders were not covered by the penitent-clergy privilege because confidentiality was not a focal point of the judicial committee's duties.

Sinay and John Vaughn, a former elder, were given immunity by the district attorney's office, shielding them from any potential prosecution as a result of their testimony about Simental's statements, prosecutor Burke Strunsky said in court before either man testified.

In his testimony, Sinay said he did not remember there being many differences between the two incidents involving the younger girl. The incident with the older girl was different because she was awake and resisted, Sinay said.

"She basically told him not to do that and I believe he continued momentarily," Sinay testified.

Prosecutor Strunsky asked Sinay about Simental's demeanor at the time.

"It was extremely difficult for him," Sinay said.

"Did he appear to be crying?" Strunsky asked.

"Yes, initially, I believe," Sinay said.

Clark questioned Sinay about his memory of the meetings he had with Simental.

"Part of your job is to forget," Clark asked.

"Even God does that," Sinay replied.

"Is it fair to say you don't have a good recollection of what exactly Mr. Simental told you?" Clark asked.

"I have a general memory. So no, I don't," Sinay replied.

Unclear About Details

Vaughn recalled that Simental admitted touching each girl only on one occasion.

"Are you really able to recall the details?" Clark asked Vaughn.

"I'm a little bit nervous ... and I want to be honest about the circumstances," Vaughn said.

Vaughn said he remembered Simental telling him that he touched both girls once.

"But you're not sure?" Clark said.

"I just assured you it was one time," Vaughn said.

Vaughn agreed that he did not remember the exact details of what Simental told him.

During questioning by Strunsky, Vaughn said it was unclear why Simental touched the girls.

"I think I remember him saying he did not know why he did it," Vaughn said. "But that he did admit that he did do it."

Before the jury was brought into the courtroom, Sinay took the stand and made a statement to the court. He said it is not the practice of the Jehovah's Witnesses to cover up child maltreatment.

If convicted of all charges, Simental faces 45 years to life in prison. He remains free on $1 million bail.

The trial is scheduled to resume Monday afternoon at the Southwest Justice Center in French Valley.

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