Dramatic news is emerging that the Watch Tower Society has lost its first lawsuit since the Olin Moyle libel case of 1940. For more than 70 years, the Watch Tower Society has prided itself on its clean legal record, although this has now collapsed in dramatic fashion after a jury at the Alameda County Superior Court found Jehovah’s Witnesses legally responsible for the sexual abuse of Candace Conti, who suffered repeated molestation at the hands of a member of her congregation when only nine years old.
Candace Conti, now 26 and living in Stockton, took the brave decision to pursue legal action against the Society over her abuse as a child after repeated attempts to persuade her congregation to change its policies fell on deaf ears. During the 1990s, when she was a child, her local elders at North Fremont congregation knew that her molester, Jonathan Kendrick, had sexually abused other young girls in the congregation, but concealed this information from her parents.
In showing such shocking negligence, a jury has found that the Fremont elders were acting under the Watch Tower Society’s instructions. The resulting lack of intervention allowed Kendrick to use his position of trust in the congregation to gain control of his young victim during such activities as door-to-door work. According to Candace, her abuser “was a member of our congregation, and he became a friend of our family. It was a really troubling time for my parents, and I think he took advantage of that.”
Though the abuse happened many years ago, Candace has been left emotionally scarred by the “physical, mental and emotional injuries” inflicted over a two-year period between 1994 and 1996.
The current policies of Jehovah’s Witnesses prevent elders from acknowledging cases of child abuse if the perpetrator denies the allegations, and if no witnesses were involved. Elders are also instructed to contact their branch office for guidance as soon as they learn of any accusation of abuse, rather than contacting the authorities. In this case, it appears Kendrick had molested at least two young girls in his congregation prior to abusing Candace. In both cases, the elders failed to report these incidents to the authorities, or warn parents in the congregation.
After these two previous cases were brought to their attention, the Fremont elders, evidently acting under instructions from their branch office, stripped Kendrick of his position as a ministerial servant, but (astonishingly) allowed him to remain in “good standing” within the congregation, telling nobody of his actions. Thanks to the “two witness” policy and/or instructions from the branch office, this brother’s abusive tendencies were concealed from young Candace’s parents, with devastating results.
The Watch Tower Society has therefore been held to account for the abuse suffered by Candace, and has been ordered to pay millions of dollars both in compensation and punitive damages. Compensatory damages of $7 million have been awarded, of which the Society must pay 40%. A further $21 million is due to be paid by the Society in punitive damages. On its official website, the Society has announced it will appeal this decision. It is feared that such an appeal will potentially drag the case out over a considerable period.
In a remarkable twist, on June 20th Judge Robert D. McGuinnes ruled that the real estate assets of the Watch Tower Society were to be effectively frozen pending the outcome of the Society’s appeal against the judgment. This would mean that, for a considerable period, the Watch Tower Society would be powerless to buy, sell or exchange property without first seeking the permission of the court in Alameda. It is estimated that the total value of the Watch Tower Society’s remaining Brooklyn property portfolio alone is a staggering 1 Billion dollars. However, at the time of writing, it appears the Society may well purchase a bond to guarantee the monies required for payment of damages as a means of circumventing the need for a freeze on assets.
I will write more on this particular development (i.e. the freezing of assets) once I have more information.
To review the media coverage of the Candace Conti verdict, please click on the following links:
- San Francisco Chronicle
- USA Today
- Huffington Post
- CBS News
- The Washington Post
- Daily Mail (UK)
- The New York Times
- The Guardian (UK)
- The Toronto Star (Canada) – recommended!
Candace Conti has been understandably elated by her victory in this case. She has described the jury’s verdict as “a validation I never thought I would get in my life,” adding “this won’t take away what happened, but I think this will bring to light a very serious issue.” Candace has also acknowledged that by turning the legal spotlight on this burning issue, she may be helping Jehovah’s Witnesses more than she ever did in her ministry, saying “I once wanted to be the best Jehovah’s Witness I could be, now I feel I’m doing more to help other children in Jehovah’s Witnesses than I ever did walking door to door to spread the ‘good news’.”
Her lawyer, Rick Simons, hailed the bravery of his client in pursuing her legal battle, saying: “This young woman, who experienced brutal abuse as a child, could not tell anyone for several years, and has walked for many years in a nightmare of depression and isolation”. He praised her for showing “incredible courage in facing the powerful and secrecy laden organization that betrayed her into the hands of a monster.” Simons also described the judgment as “one of the largest in the country for a child sex abuse single victim in a religious institution molestation case.”*
There has also been a flood of online reaction to the ruling, especially from those actively campaigning to raise awareness of the threat posed to children by the Society’s policies. Few will be more thrilled at the verdict than Barbara Anderson, who once worked at the Brooklyn headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and is a long-time campaigner for the Society to drop its negligent approach towards child protection. She remarked: “This is a first! A victim that was determined to go to trial. She cared little about the settlement. It was not about the money! But in the long run, she might be the one who is awarded the most for the years of agony she spent because [the Watch Tower Society] just didn’t care about the children.”
James Penton, who is a retired University of Lethbridge professor and the author of three books on Jehovah’s Witnesses had this to say about the Watch Tower Society: “They’re sure getting a bloody nose over this one. 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, who authored the book Apocalypse Delayed, and is a former Jehovah’s Witness himself, told The Toronto Star that he believes many elders do obey laws on reporting instances of child abuse to the authorities. However, he admitted that there is substance to allegations that the Watchtower also encourages secrecy when dealing with cases such as that of Candace.
On July 14th 2012, Candace met personally with a group of her supporters. She expressed her motivations for pursuing the case and elaborated on what led her to pursue legal action. I have written a separate article detailing what was said, which you can read by clicking here. The article includes a YouTube playlist of videos showing Candace and her lawyer Rick Simons speaking and answering questions.
The Watch Tower Society’s Belated Response
News of the Candace Conti verdict initially broke online on 14th June 2012, with the newspapers and media websites covering the story within the first 24 hours. Despite the dramatic ramifications of the verdict, the swiftness with which the story spread, and the reproach that has been brought on Jehovah’s name by this case, the story was initially met with silence on the Society’s official websites.
Finally, six days later on 20th June the Society released the following brief statement:
Jehovah’s Witnesses to appeal jury verdict in California case
NEW YORK—Jehovah’s Witnesses will appeal the decision of a California jury in a court case involving alleged acts of child abuse.
The jury rendered a multimillion-dollar damage award to a woman who claimed that she was molested as a child by a member of a local congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. At trial, the plaintiff claimed that the policies of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society contributed to the alleged abuse. “We respectfully disagree with the jury’s decision. This is the first time that an organization was found responsible for the alleged misdeeds of a member who held no position of leadership or authority,” states James McCabe, an attorney representing Watchtower in the case. “We are very sorry for whatever harm this young lady may have suffered. However, the organization is not responsible. We now look to the Court of Appeals for a thorough review of this case.”
J. R. Brown, a spokesman at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, commented: “The fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts is well-known. The individual members of any organization must ultimately bear the responsibility for their own actions, particularly when the acts are so flagrantly against the morals and principles of the organization and society.”
A number of things are noteworthy regarding the above statement…
- The Society refuses to acknowledge that Candace definitely suffered the abuse, only that it was “claimed” to have happened.
- The statement is made: “This is the first time that an organization was found responsible for the alleged misdeeds of a member who held no position of leadership or authority”. In saying this, the Society ignores the estimated thousands of similar cases that never made it before a jury because the plaintiff was silenced through a settlement and/or gag order. Candace’s case was unique precisely because she refused to accept such a settlement.
- It is entirely irrelevant that the perpetrator “held no position of leadership or authority”. In making this statement, the Society betrays shocking ignorance concerning the details of the case. Irrespective of what position Kendrick did or did not hold when he abused Candace, he was allowed to abuse her because her parents were not warned by the elders that Kendrick had abused other children within the congregation even though they knew of this, and had even stripped him of his position as a ministerial servant for this precise reason. In failing to warn Candace’s parents, the elders were acting under instructions from the branch office, which is why a jury has found the Watch Tower Society legally responsible.
The further comments made by J.R. Brown are equally evasive and misleading.
“The fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts is well-known.”
No, it is not “well-known”! However damning Watchtower publications may be about child abuse itself, over many years now the Society has developed a reputation for failing to protect children from pedophiles due to an obsession with implementing the “two witness rule” in all cases. In this sense, they do not “strive to protect children from such acts” if the acts are denied and have not been confirmed by someone other than the victim.
“The individual members of any organization must ultimately bear the responsibility for their own actions, particularly when the acts are so flagrantly against the morals and principles of the organization and society.”
In other words, the Society does not want to accept responsibility for the consequences of the terrible guidance and direction it gives to elders, and the Governing Body refuses to dignify itself with an apology to Candace despite almost certainly being aware of all the details of the case. The organization feels that the perpetrator alone should be held responsible for the abuse, even though (in this case) the elders knew of Kendrick’s tendencies and failed to take reasonable steps to warn parents in the congregation. Again, the statement shows shocking disregard for the details of the case, and how the events unfolded. It would appear the Society is in denial over both the verdict and their own culpability.
A 2009 video featuring J.R. Brown can be viewed by clicking here. You are invited to watch it before considering the rest of this article, which will now discuss why so many object to the Society’s approach to child abuse.
Why does the Society get it so wrong on child abuse?
Many active Jehovah’s Witnesses will likely wonder what all the fuss is about, and why the Society comes under so much criticism for its child abuse policies. Put simply, this criticism is fully justified. There are two main reasons why ordinary children in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are currently placed in harm’s way:
The “two witness rule” – The Society believes that this rule, which is based on Deuteronomy 19:15, should be applied rigidly whenever a case of child abuse is reported. This means that if somebody molests a child without any witnesses and subsequently denies any wrongdoing, the elders will be forced to take no further action against him, and continue as though nothing has happened. Victims of child molesters and their parents are coerced into not revealing the identity of the abuser to others in the congregation, and can even be threatened with being disfellowshipped on grounds of slander if they breach this person’s confidentiality by trying to warn others. This scenario is what is normally referred to when people talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses “protecting pedophiles”, because pedophiles can (and do) easily take advantage of the Society’s leniency in order to repeatedly abuse children over many years whilst escaping punishment or exposure.
Authorities NOT contacted first – In its guidance to elders, the Society insists that the local branch office should always be contacted first whenever an allegation of child abuse is brought to light. This itself is damaging (and in some countries unlawful) because law enforcement authorities should ALWAYS be contacted first if child molestation is alleged to have taken place. It is the responsibility of trained professionals to investigate any allegations of child abuse in order to establish what has taken place, and NOT untrained local elders. However, this is something the Society insists upon, because it seeks to control such cases from the outset in order to exercise “damage limitation” and ensure that the “two witness” rule is applied in each and every possible scenario.
You may find the above assertions hard to believe, so I have replicated page 72 of the 2010 elders’ guidebook “Shepherd the Flock of God” below:
Note that elders are specifically told by the Society to “leave the matter in Jehovah’s hands” if a child abuser continues to deny wrongdoing. This is negligence on the organization’s behalf. As this case has now highlighted, it is unlawful for the Society to knowingly encourage elders not to report pedophiles or to otherwise refuse to acknowledge their abuse in cases where wrongdoing is denied, but this is precisely the approach taken by elders in congregations all over the world.
A Landmark Ruling
The shockwaves from this case will surely continue to reverberate over many years to come. In reality, it has long been believed by many both inside and outside of the organization that the Watch Tower Society’s child abuse policies are unlawful. For example, in February of this year I contacted a prominent UK child abuse charity regarding the Watch Tower Society’s UK “Child Safeguarding Policy” (dated 2012). I sought a professional opinion from this charity and received a very interesting response which read, in part, as follows:
“While there is some demonstration of good intentions in the Child Safeguarding Policy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I did not find it to be comprehensive and robust enough, moreover, there are certain practices of the organisation and gaps in the policy that are worrying and can lead to increasing the risk of harm to children.”
“The policy should make clear that the role of the designated safeguarding person, which in this case is the Coordinator of the Body of Elders, or the Safeguarding Elder, is to take advice from the statutory authorities. Informing the family could potentially alert the alleged abuser who may then attempt to destroy evidence or pressurise the child into withdrawing the allegation(s) before being interviewed by the investigating authorities.”
“If an allegation of abuse is made about a person in position of trust or responsibility, the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) and/or the police should be contacted immediately.”
“Elders conducting investigations may be seen to be in breach of UK statutory guidance on the investigation of child abuse. It is not the place of the church elders (or the congregation coordinator or safeguarding elder) to investigate if abuse has taken place. That is the job of those in statutory agencies who have been trained in doing these types of investigations.”
Unfortunately, the writer of this letter (who is a Development Consultant for the charity I contacted) declined the opportunity to have her comments made public, so I am sadly unable to name the person who wrote the letter, or the charity that she represents. However, what this does show is that, in the view of a professional, the Society’s policy of empowering elders to investigate allegations of child abuse rather than reminding them of their statutory duty to contact the authorities is in clear breach of UK law. I have no doubt that this is also the case in other countries, including the United States.
Though the Society’s policies are essentially unlawful, the authorities in many countries are powerless to intervene on behalf of vulnerable children in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses because the law cannot be enforced pre-emptively. In other words, for anything to be done about the problem, a victim needs to step forward. It has been alleged that many such victims are often silenced by the Society before they can take their cases to court because they are offered lucrative settlements in exchange for their silence. However, in this case, Candace Conti was more interested in justice than money, which is why the Society has finally been prosecuted in a court of law over this issue.
Aside from the legal ramifications, it goes without saying that many Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world will be dismayed to learn that millions of dollars’ worth of their donations for the “worldwide work” will be spent on paying for legal penalties, simply because the Society steadfastly refuses to observe “Caesar’s law” by reporting all alleged cases of pedophilia to the authorities. The following scripture certainly takes on added poignancy following these events:
“Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God; the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God. Therefore he who opposes the authority has taken a stand against the arrangement of God; those who have taken a stand against it will receive judgment to themselves.” – Romans 13:1,2 (New World Translation)
It remains to be seen how many other abuse victims will be emboldened by Candace’s story into coming forward, but this case has certainly set a legal precedent that makes it much easier for them to do so. It is sad that the Society would rather risk breaking the law than humbly accept that its policies are negligent and damaging towards children. However, those who have been following this issue will be aware that the Society has ignored repeated warnings that reforms must be urgently introduced, so it was only a matter of time before the Governing Body paid the price for their arrogance in this regard with a legal defeat.
This story is still relatively recent, and I will attempt to keep this article updated with any new developments of significance. In the meantime, if you would like to review the available court documents related to this case, please click on this link to the Court’s official website, and access the records using reference number “HG11558324″. The documents have also been made available on this link to Barbara Anderson’s website, WatchtowerDocuments.com.
Let us hope that these remarkable events will finally lead to the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses all over the world no longer being in potential danger when they share in worship with fellow believers away from the watchful eye of their parents.
*To read the official news release from Candace’s attorney, please click here.
Other related non-media links (for media links, see main article):