A California jury has ordered the Jehovah's Witnesses to pay $28 million in personal and punitive damages to a woman who said she was repeatedly molested by a fellow congregant when she was a child and blamed it on the religion's alleged policy of secrecy.
The Alameda County jury has awarded $7 million in compensatory damages and an additional $21 million in punitive damages to Candace Conti, according to The Associated Press.
In her lawsuit, 26-year-old Conti said a fellow congregant, Jonathan Kendrick, of the North Fremont Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Northern California molested her several times in 1995 and 1996.
She also alleged that according to a 1989 policy of the Jehovah's Witnesses national leadership, child sex abuse accusations were kept secret. Kendrick, now 58, was convicted in 1994 of misdemeanor child molestation, which the religion's leadership didn't disclose.
"That abuse case had been reported to the elders," Oakland Tribune quoted Conti's attorney Rick Simons as saying. "But they kept it secret and didn't do anything to stop him from molesting more kids." That policy, he added, "is still in place and it was a secret until, through the power of the court, it was put into evidence."
Kendrick has been asked to pay 60 percent of the amount, and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, which oversees the Jehovah's Witnesses, to pay the rest. However, Simons was quoted as saying that Kendrick wouldn't be in a position to pay the sum.
"Nothing can bring back my childhood," Conti was quoted as saying. "But through this and through, hopefully, a change in their policy, we can make something good come out of it."
North Fremont Congregation's attorney Jim McCabe said his client would appeal the jury's decision. But he also said the Jehovah's Witnesses considered child abuse as a "plague on humanity." "Jonathan Kendrick was not a leader or a pastor, he was just a rank-and-file member," he was quoted as saying. "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."