In 1995, Candace Conti was 9 years old and a member of the North Fremont Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. There over a period of 2 years she was repeatedly molested by a fellow member of the church, Jonathan Kendrick.
At first glance, this appears as yet another instance of the sexual abuse of minors in a religious environment, but this has much bigger implications. An opinion piece in the New Statesman news magazine and website is highlighting an important stance that was recently made in the political and law world. Are organizations that silence and hide sexual abuse culpable in the crime?
The jury in the case found Jehovah’s Witness at least partly at fault. They are to pay 40% of the $7 Million in compensatory damages and another $ 21 Million in punitive damages. Kendrick is to pay the remaining 60%.
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.