We are all familiar with the odious stories of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the trail of damaged lives as a result of sex crimes that were ignored or covered up. However, the Catholic faith is not alone in facing the legal consequences of their leaders’ actions.
This week in Oakland California a jury ruled that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the organization that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses, must pay more than $20 million to 26-year-old Candace Conti, who was sexually assaulted by a church member, not a leader or an elder, when she was nine years old and attending the North Fremont Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The core of the case against the church was church policy enacted in 1989 that instructed church leaders to keep child abuse accusations secret. The tragically flawed policy meant that while the church leaders were aware of Ms. Conti’s allegations, they took no steps to confront her offender or protect her or other children from his criminal behavior. As well, the jury heard that sex offender, Jonathan Kendrick, had a year earlier been convicted of misdemeanor child molestation and nothing was done to ensure that he did not victimize children in the North Fremont congregation.
The Church’s policy only came to light as a result of Ms. Conti’s lawsuit and the disclosure requirements of a civil lawsuit.
The attorney for the Church advised the media the verdict would be appealed and that the notion that a rank-and-file member of a church, not a leader or elder, could be the cause for an enormous compensatory award was inappropriate.
Ms. Conti’s lawyer said that the verdict is the largest ever ordered for a victim of sexual abuse involving a religious institution.
Sex offender Jonathan Kendrick was also convicted in 2004 of molesting another girl. He has not yet been charged criminally for his assaults of Ms. Conti.
It is outrageous that the church, a sanctuary of peace and hope, can be allowed to operate as a haven for the sexually depraved. This case sends a strong message to churches and other faith ministries that children must come first and that sexual deviants must be exposed for who they are, no matter the position they hold.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang