A legal landmark has been passed in the US, and not the good kind – the largest-ever jury verdict for a single victim in a religious child abuse case was handed down in California. Candace Conti, who was molested when she was nine and ten years old by a fellow member of the North Fremont Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, received $28 million in damages.
Recognition and reparation for such a horrible experience is surely a good thing, right? In part that is true – Conti has chosen to make her story public in the hope that “something good can come out of it”, she says. However, the case wasn’t just about Conti’s own experience, terrible as that undoubtedly was.
A substantial part of her allegations dealt with claims that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York (the organisation that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses) had adopted a policy in 1989 that instructed congregation leaders to keep child abuse allegations secret. This meant that when Conti's abuser from the 1990s, Jonathan Kendrick, was convicted in 2004 of molesting another girl, the elders at the North Fremont Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses did nothing to prevent him coming into contact with other kids at the church.
The sheer scale of the damages awarded to Conti reflect the gravity of this situation. While Kendrick has been ordered topay 60 per cent of the $7 million compensatory damages, the Watchtower Society must cover the remaining 40 per cent of the compensatory damages and all of the $21 million punitive damages.
Over and over again, we’ve had stories of Catholic bishops and other office-holders in the Roman Catholic church refraining from reporting allegations of abuse to civil authorities. Now, this unfortunate legal landmark demonstrates that this behaviour has occurred in at least one other religious institution, and that it won’t go unpunished when it is exposed.
Jim McCabe, a lawyer for the Jehovah’s Witness congregation, said that they plan to appeal the decision, contending that Kendrick was just a member of the North Fremont congregation, not a leader or pastor. He said: “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.”
Had the secrecy around Kendrick’s 2004 conviction not been put in place, that might have been a semi-valid point – demonising a whole faith and community because of individual incidents is absolutely not what this is about. That said, it’s the idea that a church-wide policy enforced the silence that is so disturbing. Traumatic as this case will certainly have been for many involved, part of me can’t help hoping that it sets a precedent and we see many more like it come to light, until every institution, religious or otherwise, understands that hiding things like this is much, much worse than exposing them – for everyone.