Jehovah’s Witnesses have been ordered to pay a woman more than $20 million by a California jury, believing she was sexually abused by a member of that church.
According to an MSNBC.com report via USA Today, The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York have been ordered to pay the fine because they had become aware in the 1990s of Jonathan Kendrick’s past crimes of sexual abuse against children but did nothing to protect the church’s Fremont, Calif., congregation. Tract Society of New York is the legal entity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses church. Jurors in Alameda County, Calif. awarded $7 million in compensatory damages in its decision last Wednesday. Another $21 million in punitive damages was awarded.
Candace Conti, a member of that church, accused Kendrick of sexually abusing her for at least two years when she was 9 years old. When he joined the church, he had recently been convicted on similar charges. In 2004, the report indicates, Kendrick was again convicted on child sexual abuse charges and ordered to register as a sex offender. The jury award settled upon last week represents the largest in U.S. history given to a victim of religious childhood sexual abuse.
Conti, who is now 26 years old, said she filed charges against the church’s elders to protect other childhood victims of sexual abuse and to raise awareness to the potential for more sexual predators existing among other members of the church. She hopes her lawsuit forces a change in Jehovah’s Witnesses policy regarding the identification and disclosure of known convicted sex offenders.
Officials with Jehovah’s Witnesses deny ever participating in a cover-up of the crimes against Kendrick and have vowed to appeal the jury decision handed down last week.
Conti’s case alleged, and the jury agreed, that Jehovah’s Witnesses decided in 1989 that it would not disclose the identity of congregation members who had been accused or convicted of sexual abuse charges. Kendrick had been convicted of misdemeanor abuse charges in 1994 but officials at the Fremont, Calif., church did not notify members of his crimes and essentially allowed him to freely associate among the congregation. Conti said she was abused as a 9- and 10-year-old in the mid 1990s. Kendrick has not been criminally charged in Conti’s case but had been convicted of lewd and lascivious acts against children in 2004, according to another report from The Oakland Tribune.
An attorney for Conti said Kendrick was ordered to pay 60 percent of the jury’s award but that will not be pursued because he is unable to pay that amount.
This is only the latest in a seemingly never-ending queue of cases in which a member of a church congregation has alleged sexual abuse they suffered while attending church as a child. Unlike cases involving the Roman Catholic or ultra-Orthodox Jewish religions, Kendrick was not considered a leader or official within Jehovah’s Witnesses, only a common member.