Journalists attending the 2013 Religion Newswriters Association conference in Austin, Texas were given a unique insight into the scourge of childhood sexual abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Candace Conti, a survivor of abuse by a fellow Witness when she was between 9 and 11 years old, was a panelist at the event and spoke bravely – despite breaking down at one point while relating her ordeal.
Candace’s fellow panelists included Bill Bowen of Silentlambs and Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, an Associate Professor of the Liberty University School of Law. Together the panel was able to field a number of questions from journalists curious about the widespread problem of childhood sex abuse in religion.
To listen to an audio recording of the panel discussion entitled “INVESTIGATING RELIGION: THE CONTINUING STORY OF CLERGY ABUSE BEYOND ROMAN CATHOLICS” – please click here. (Candace is introduced at 27:30)
After being invited to the podium by Laurie Goodstein, National Religion Correspondent for the New York Times, Candace gave reporters a brief summary of her Witness upbringing and the series of events that led to her pursuing Watchtower through the legal system. Candace explained that she had first attempted to appeal to her congregation elders to bring about changes – but when her pleas fell on deaf ears she was left with no other option than to file suit.
Candace told journalists that it was only after reviewing subpoenaed documents that she and Rick Simons understood just how much elders had known of Kendrick’s pedophilia before he began abusing her.
“Through the power of the court we obtained documents,” she explained. “In those documents was a report that was made by the elders of the very congregation I grew up in and sent to the Watchtower. This was a report of my sexual abuser molesting his stepdaughter shortly before turning his eyes to me. They kept this a secret.”
At this point Candace gave way to tears – the trauma of discovering Watchtower’s fingerprints on her abuse clearly still very raw. But not easily overcome, Candace found the inner strength to continue her speech, giving further details of the case and the events leading up to the landmark damages being awarded.
Watchtower’s October 1st 2012 letter to elders was then mentioned, which reinforces the so-called “two witness rule.” In describing Watchtower’s current policies, Candace coined the term “two-victim rule” to explain the Governing Body’s perverse notion that the abuse of multiple children is somehow tolerable if it leads to the two-witness rule being satisfied and more evidence of sin being gathered.
Candace summarized the October 1st letter with its revised policies by saying: “While my attorney says this is a step in the right direction, I say it’s still not good enough. The policy of secrecy is still in this letter, but our major victory is that it’s not so secret anymore.”
And in a candid moment, Candace revealed her motivations for pursuing the Watchtower so persistently. “For me personally my strength through this case was hoping that through all of this hurt and through all of this struggle we could make a difference that could save one child. And that is a struggle worth fighting for. If we could do that, I would win.”
In her concluding comments, Candace reminded the assembled journalists of their role in making the public more aware of the threat of secrecy surrounding child abuse in numerous organizations.
“The only thing I want to leave you with here today is that through your hard work and your determination reporting these cases, you need to know you empower victims and fellow survivors to come forward. You give them a voice, and through their voice and your hard work you are policy changers. Through your diligence in getting these bad and inadequate policies in the public eye, you force these organizations and institutions to make changes, so please go out and continue to make a difference.”
A number of journalists were clearly moved by Candace’s bravery in speaking out as evidenced by their expressions of appreciation during the questioning session. A few also took to Twitter with their reactions…
I’ve met more than a few sexual-abuse victims. Few as poised and articulate as Candace Conti. #RNA2013
— Grant Gallicho (@gallicho) September 26, 2013
Conti: Through reporting on abuse cases, journos empower victims to come forward. #RNA2013
— Kellie Kotraba (@kelliekotraba) September 26, 2013
Survivor Candice Conti says isolation makes Jehovah’s Witnesses unique & able to get away with hiding sex abuse. #RNA2013
— Manya Brachear (@TribSeeker) September 26, 2013
#RNA2013 Conti: Jehovah Witness view was we are better than the Catholics.
— Ann Rodgers (@annrodgerspgh) September 26, 2013
Conti told Jehovah Witness leaders she was sexually abused, was told she needed proof #RNA2013
— SpokaneFAVS (@SpokaneFAVS) September 26, 2013
Conti: Says isolation was dominant feature of JW environment. #RNA2013
— faithandworks (@faithandworks) September 26, 2013
— Caitlin Kerfin (@ckerfin) September 26, 2013
It is refreshing to note that there are journalists out there with an interest in helping raise awareness of the problem of child abuse among Jehovah’s Witnesses. It is also reassuring that when rare opportunities such as this conference arise, there are victims like Candace brave enough to step up to the microphone, fight through the tears, and tell their story.
Photographs by Sally Morrow, Religion News Service Photography/Multimedia Editor