Saturday, July 28, 2012

California jury awards $28 million to woman who claims to have been sexually abused as a child within Jehovah's Witnesses church

In case you missed this--as reported by Chris De Benedetti of the Oakland Tribune, June 15, 2012:

OAKLAND -- A jury has ordered the Jehovah's Witnesses to pay more than $20 million to a woman who accused the religion's national leaders of setting a policy of secrecy that led a Fremont congregation's elders to protect a convicted sex offender who she claims molested her in the 1990s.

An Alameda County Superior Court jury on Thursday awarded $21 million in punitive damages -- and another $7 million in compensatory damages the previous day -- to plaintiff Candace Conti, a San Joaquin County resident.

"It was the nation's largest verdict for a victim of sex abuse involving a religious institution," said Rick Simons, the plaintiff's Hayward-based attorney.

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York -- the organization overseeing the Jehovah's Witnesses -- must pay Conti nearly $24 million, covering all of the punitive damages and 40 percent of the compensatory damages.

Jonathan Kendrick, the congregation member whom Conti accused of molesting her, has been ordered to pay 60 percent of compensatory damages.

Jim McCabe, an attorney for the congregation, said he was very disappointed with the verdict and plans appeal it.

"The Jehovah's Witnesses hate child abuse and believe it's a plague on humanity," McCabe said. "Jonathan Kendrick was not a leader or a pastor, he was just a rank-and-file member. This is a tragic case where a member of a religious group has brought liability on the group for actions he alone may have taken."

Conti, now 26, was repeatedly molested by Kendrick from 1995-96, when she was 9 and 10 years old and a member of the North Fremont Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, Simons said.

The lawsuit claims Watchtower formed a policy in 1989 that instructed the religion's elders to keep child sex abuse accusations secret. The North Fremont congregation elders followed that policy when Kendrick was convicted in 1994 of misdemeanor child molestation in Alameda County, Simons said.

"That abuse case had been reported to the elders," he said. "But they kept it secret and didn't do anything to stop him from molesting more kids."

Kendrick, a registered sex offender, was convicted in 2004 of molesting another girl in Contra Costa County, Simons said.

"That policy is still in place and it was a secret until, through the power of the court, it was put into evidence," he said. "That policy was what this case was all about."

Criminal charges have not been filed against Kendrick in the Conti case, but Simons said authorities are investigating. Sources confirmed the investigation but declined to comment further.

McCabe said there is a lot of dispute regarding the plaintiff's accusations.

"But if she was, in fact, abused then we feel horrible, and hope she can make a full recovery and lead a normal life," he said.

Kendrick, now 58, lives in Contra Costa County, according to the state sex offender registry.
And according to The Associated Press, June 17, 2012:

...Mr. Kendrick was never criminally charged in the case involving Ms. Conti, but he was also convicted in 2004 of lewd or lascivious acts with a child, records show.

Mr. Kendrick, 58, now lives in Oakley, Calif., according to the state’s sex offender registry. He was ordered to pay 60 percent of the judgment, but Mr. Simons said there would be no attempt to collect any money from Mr. Kendrick, in part because he would not be able to pay. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York — the organization overseeing the Jehovah’s Witnesses — would be responsible for 40 percent, Mr. Simons said.

Jim McCabe, a lawyer for the congregation, said he planned to appeal the jury’s decision.

“The Jehovah’s Witnesses hate child abuse and believe it’s a plague on humanity,” Mr. McCabe said. “Jonathan Kendrick was not a leader or a pastor. He was just a rank-and-file member. This is a tragic case where a member of a religious group has brought liability on the group for actions he alone may have taken.”
Wendy Gillis reported in The Toronto Star on July 2, 2012 that this case may spark similar suits in Canada:

...“They’re sure getting a bloody nose over this one,” said retired University of Lethbridge professor James Penton, himself a former Jehovah’s Witness and the author of three books on the denomination. “This will cause many people to have nothing to do with them, and many people within the movement to question what’s going on.”

Penton, 80, doesn’t think child abuse is any more common in Jehovah’s Witness congregations than in any other religion or group.

He also said many elders obey laws on informing authorities of suspected child abuse. (The Watchtower’s policy on child protection explicitly states elders should take this step.) But he said there’s substance to allegations that the Watchtower simultaneously encourages secrecy when dealing with child abuse matters.

“They keep sending out various messages to the local elders, telling them to keep this sub rosa … the terrible, nasty aspect to this whole thing is the coverup,” Penton said.

According to Simons, documents presented as evidence in the Conti lawsuit proved that elders had been encouraged by the Watchtower not to raise Kendrick’s abusive past. The lawsuit alleged that this silence allowed Kendrick to abuse Conti.

The Watchtower did not return a request for comment from the Star. But Jim McCabe, a lawyer for the organization, said in a statement following the Conti verdict that Jehovah’s Witnesses “respectfully disagree with the jury’s decision.”

“We are very sorry for whatever harm this young lady may have suffered. However, the organization is not responsible,” said McCabe, noting the lawsuit was based on “the alleged misdeeds of a member who held no position of leadership or authority.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses “abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts,” he said. They also reject allegations that the church has a secrecy policy concerning child sex abuse.

Critics of the church believe there could be Canadian followers whose claims of sexual abuse were swept under the rug in the past who may now file their own suits, having seen Conti defeat the Watchtower and its lawyers in court.

Barbara Anderson, a former Jehovah’s Witness who worked at the Watchtower, runs a website called WatchtowerDocuments.com from her Tennessee home. She told the Star that since the Conti ruling, her 10,000-member discussion board, which includes many Canadians, has lit up with people telling their own stories of abuse and wanting to know how to pursue action.

William Bowen runs a similar website, and said he’s heard from people from around the world who say they were molested while attending a Jehovah’s Witness church.

Bowen was a practising Jehovah’s Witness and an elder within the church, but said he left after he was encouraged to keep a report of child sexual abuse within the congregation quiet.

“They told me to leave it in Jehovah’s hands, which meant to not do anything and allow (the accused congregation member) to (allegedly) continue to molest,” he said.

Conti’s lawyer Simons said he’s had calls from people around the world saying they went through a similar experience in their Jehovah’s Witness congregations.

All this publicity is precisely what Conti had hoped her suit would achieve. “Nothing was going to get accomplished if it was kept silent,” she said, defending her decision to go public with her story. “In my mind it’s a good start to obtaining a goal to protect children in the future.”

Here in Canada, Vicki Boer had hoped to shine a light on abuse within Jehovah’s Witness communities when she filed a civil suit against the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Canada and the elders of her congregation more than a decade ago over how her complaint of sexual abuse had been handled.

Boer told the court how in the 1980s, between the age of 12 and 16, she was abused by her father. They belonged to a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Shelburne, Ont. and when she told church elders, she was forced go over her allegations in detail in front of her father.

“It was the process that was damaging … them putting me in a room, making me sit in front of my father when I was explaining the abuse, when I went to them first because I was suffering,” she said from Fredericton, where she now lives.

The Jehovah Witnesses have a strict rule that the accused produce an independent witness of the alleged wrongdoing. As well, Watchtower policy states that when a Jehovah’s Witness is accused of abusing a child, elders must meet with both the accused and the accuser — individually and then together.

“If during that meeting the accused still denies the charges and there are no others who can substantiate them, the elders cannot take action within the congregation at that time,” says the Watchtower’s online child-protection statement. “Why not? As a Bible-based organization, we must adhere to what the Scriptures say, namely, ‘No single witness should rise up against a man respecting any error or any sin …’ ”

According to former members, elders have told children and their families that if there are no witnesses to the alleged abuse then they should not speak about it as that would be slanderous. To do so can be grounds for “shunning” — whereby the outcast follower is cut off from friends, family, his or her former way of life.

Boer eventually won the high-profile case, heard in Toronto, but was then ordered to pay the legal costs for all parties.

The church eventually relented on making her cover its costs, but the judge’s decision was not the victory she had been after.

News of Conti’s favourable verdict left her “extremely happy,” Boer said. “I applaud her that she did it, too, because it takes an extreme amount of belief in yourself and what you’re doing. These (acts of abuse) just have to stop.”

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