A new investigation from the Center for Investigative Reporting shows that Jehovah's Witness leaders explicitly discourage church elders from reporting child sexual abuse allegations to the police, or even to their own congregations. Candace Conti, who was repeatedly abused as a child, is now suing the church leadership, saying they failed to protect her from her abuser.
Trey Bundy is a reporter with Reveal, the CIR's new magazine and website. His investigation found that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the Jehovah's Witness parent company, has sent out detailed memos for 25 years directing congregations to deal with child sexual abuse allegations internally. That means not calling the police unless required to by state law, and not warning parents in the congregation about people convicted of child sexual abuse. At the same time, the church gathers detailed records on child abusers in their congregations.
That was the case with Jonathan Kendrick, a Fremont, California man who confessed in 1993 to his church to molesting his 3-year-old stepdaughter as she slept. Instead of calling the police, Bundy writes:
The elders, Michael Clarke and Gary Abrahamson, wrote to the Watchtower for guidance.
Two weeks later, a letter from the Watchtower advised the elders that Kendrick's conduct constituted a "minor uncleanness" and that he could remain a member of the congregation. "However," the letter said, "it would be appropriate for two elders to meet with him and provide him with strong Scriptural counsel."
The Watchtower determined that Kendrick's crime didn't warrant police involvement, disfellowshipping or a warning to the congregation. Because the incident was known outside of the immediate family, it said Kendrick should lose his title of ministerial servant, which meant that he could no longer pass out Watchtower literature at the kingdom hall – the equivalent of a church for Jehovah's Witnesses – or turn on the microphone at the start of meetings.
The elders have testified that they watched Kendrick closely and told him not to be alone with children, but he was allowed to continue preaching the Bible door to door.
Kendrick was forced to plead guilty to misdemeanor sexual battery after his stepdaughter disclosed the abuse during a hospital visit. Bundy reports that he was sentenced to probation, but no jail time. After he separated from the girl's mother, he moved to the city of Oakley and joined the JW congregation there. Bundy reports that the Fremont elders not only didn't warn the Oakley congregation about his past, they wrote a letter that actually seemed to suggest he'd be a good fit to lead "young ones" in the congregation:
"You will find him to be a fine individual, kind, loving, and appreciates the peace and refreshment of the Christian Brotherhood," the letter read. "He is a very interesting individual who has taken the lead with some young ones in the congregation and helped them from vearying (sic) off course."
Kendrick married a woman in Oakley with adult children; one of them later testified that he found child pornography on Kendrick's computer, and learned that Kendrick had molested his eight-year-old daughter. Kendrick testified in a deposition that he "slit his wrists" after the molestation was discovered and spent three days in the hospital. He eventually pleaded guilty to "committing a lewd act" on a minor child and spent eight months in jail.
And then, years later, yet another victim came to light: Candace Conti, who grew up in the Fremont congregation, says that Kendrick abused her too, when she was nine and 10 years old. She was frequently left alone with him during witnessing trips to knock on doors; she says that during that time, he would take her to his house and abuse her.
Conti sued the Jehovah's Witnesses in 2012 for failing to protect her from Kendrick, alleging that the church leadership's policy of concealing child abuse allegations made it possible for him to abuse her. The jury agreed, awarding her $28 million in damages. Kendrick was ordered to pay 60 percent, but Conti's attorneys said they wouldn't attempt to collect it from him, knowing that he was broke. Jim McCabe, a Jehovah's Witness attorney, told the New York Times at the time that they would appeal the decision.
"The Jehovah's Witnesses hate child abuse and believe it's a plague on humanity," McCabe told the paper. "Jonathan Kendrick was not a leader or a pastor. He was just a rank-and-file member. 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."
Kendrick remains an active member of the Oakley congregation. The Watchtower Society has argued in several lawsuits that the way they choose to deal with child abuse is protected under the First Amendment.
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters in downtown Brooklyn. Image via Andy /Flickr