Candace Conti drew worldwide attention in her fight against the Jehovah’s Witnesses when a jury awarded her $28 million in damages – the largest verdict for a single victim of child abuse against a religious organization in U.S. history.
The amount was later reduced to $15.6 million, including $8.6 million in punitive damages.
Now, three years later, an appeals court has eroded her courtroom victory even further by ruling that the leadership of the Jehovah’s Witnesses had no duty to warn congregants that a confessed child molester was one of their own. As a result, judges eliminated the punitive damages in the case. Conti still stands to receive $2.8 million.
The decision by the California Court of Appeal is the latest ruling in a rash of lawsuits aimed at Jehovah’s Witnesses policies directing elders to keep child abuse secret from their congregations and secular authorities.
Conti, who is no longer a Jehovah’s Witness, had sued her abuser, her former congregation in Fremont and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York – the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ parent corporation – in 2011. She claimed that Watchtower policies allowed a Witness named Jonathan Kendrick to molest her repeatedly when she was 9 and 10 years old.
Kendrick had admitted to North Fremont congregation elders that he had sexually abused his stepdaughter. The elders informed the Watchtower of Kendrick’s confession in 1993, but in accordance with Watchtower policy did not notify police or warn the congregation. Soon after, Conti says, Kendrick began abusing her.
In their ruling Monday, the judges said forcing the leadership of Jehovah’s Witnesses to warn congregants about child abusers would be too burdensome.
“While it is readily foreseeable that someone who has molested a child may do so again, the burden the duty to warn would create and the adverse social consequences the duty would produce outweigh its imposition,” the judges wrote.
“The burden would be considerable because the precedent could require a church to intervene whenever it has reason to believe that a congregation member is capable of doing harm, and the scope of that duty could not be limited with any precision.
“Since that ‘secrecy policy’ was the only basis for the punitive damages assessed against Watchtower, the punitive damage award must be reversed,” the judges added.
Rick Simons, Conti’s attorney, disagreed with the new ruling in an interview.
“They think in public policy terms that there’s too much risk in broadening the church’s responsibility and liability so that it burdens what churches do,” he said. “We think there’s too much child abuse in these institutions.”
Conti could not immediately be reached for comment.