Victim: Candace Conti, 26, sued Jehovah's Witnesses for failing to address her sexual abuse at the hands of one of the congregants
OAKLAND, Calif. -- In a landmark ruling, a California jury has awarded record $28million in damages to a woman who had accused the Jehovah’s Witnesses of allowing one of its adult members to molest her as a child.
Alameda County jurors awarded $7million in compensatory damages last Wednesday and another $21million in punitive damages the following day to 26-year-old Candace Conti, her attorney, Rick Simons, said.
'This is the largest jury verdict for a single victim in a religious child abuse case in the country,’ Simons added.
In her lawsuit, Conti said that between 1995 and 1996, when she was nine and ten years old, and a member of the North Fremont Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she was repeatedly molested by a fellow congregant, Jonathan Kendrick.
Both her parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses at the time of the abuse, Conti said.
‘I was trying to be the best Jehovah’s Witness I could be at that time,’ she told msnbc.com.
While it is unusual for victims of sexual abuse to be identified in the press, Conti has decided to go public with her allegations to encourage other victims of sexual abuse to come forward, Simons said.
A Facebook page dedicated to Conti has been created where nearly 500 supporters have expressed their gratitude to the 26-year-old for coming forward.
Nothing can bring back my childhood,’ Conti told the Oakland Tribune. ‘But through this (verdict) and through, hopefully, a change in their policy, we can make something good come out of it.’
Conti also claimed in her suit that the religion’s national leaders formed a policy in 1989 that instructed the religion’s elders to keep child sex abuse accusations within the group secret to avoid lawsuits.
Fremont elders followed that policy when they chose to conceal the fact that Kendrick had been convicted in 1994 of misdemeanor child molestation in Alameda County from the congregation, according to
Kendrick was never criminally charged in the case involving Conti, but besides the 1994 conviction, he was convicted in 2004 of lewd or lascivious acts with a child younger than 14 years and sexual battery involving a restrained person, records show.
Kendrick, aged 58, has been registered as a sex offender in California. He currently resides in Oakley.
Kendrick was ordered to pay 60 per cent of the judgment, but Simons said there would be no attempt to collect any money from him, in part, because he would not be able to pay the judgment.
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York — the organization overseeing the Jehovah’s Witnesses —would be responsible for 40 per cent, according to Conti’s lawyer.
‘The ultimate goal of the lawsuit was to have a change in policy, to be able to ID these people, child molesters, to the congregation to protect children,’ Conti told msnbc.com.
‘Secondarily, to have silent ones come forward and tell their stories and to bring to light that overall issue of violence and the hush-hush policy.’
Jim McCabe, an attorney for the congregation, said he was ‘stunned’ by the verdict and planned to appeal it. He denied Jehovah’s Witnesses has a secrecy policy concerning child sex abuse and accused Conti’s lawyer of twisting the facts of the case.
‘The Jehovah’s Witnesses hate child abuse and believe it’s a plague on humanity,’ McCabe told the Tribune. ‘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.’
Jehovah's Witnesses is a Christian denomination noted for its non-traditional interpretation of the Bible. Members are best known for preaching door-to-door, and distributing religious literature such as The Watchtower and Awake! magazines.
Simons said his client sued the church in 2011 after trying and failing to get Jehovah’s Witnesses in Southern California and in Fremont to change the secrecy policy.
‘The money is the only way left for her to force Jehovah’s Witnesses to stop keep hiding known sex offenders within their congregation,’ Simons said.