OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — A Northern California jury has awarded $28 million in damages to a woman who said the Jehovah's Witnesses allowed an adult member of a Fremont church to molest her when she was a child in the mid-1990s.
Alameda County jurors awarded $7 million in compensatory damages on Wednesday and another $21 million in punitive damages on Thursday to Candace Conti, her attorney, Rick Simons said.
"This is the largest jury verdict for a single victim in a religious child abuse case in the country," Simons told The Associated Press.
In her lawsuit, Conti, now 26, said from 1995-1996, when she was 9 and 10 years old and a member of the North Fremont Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, she was repeatedly molested by a fellow congregant, Jonathan Kendrick.
The Associated Press does not normally name victims of child sexual abuse but Conti has identified herself publicly to encourage other victims of sexual abuse to come forward, Simons said.
"Nothing can bring back my childhood," Conti told the Oakland Tribune. "But through this (verdict) and through, hopefully, a change in their policy, we can make something good come out of it."
Conti also claimed in her suit that the religion's national leaders formed a policy in 1989 that instructed the religion's elders to keep child sex abuse accusations secret. Congregation elders followed that policy when Kendrick was convicted in 1994 of misdemeanor child molestation in Alameda County, according to Simons.
Kendrick was never criminally charged in the case involving Conti, but besides the 1994 conviction, he was later convicted in 2004 of lewd or lascivious acts with a child, records show.
Kendrick, 58, now lives in Oakley, Calif., according to California's sex offender registry. A message left with a person answering the phone at his home was not immediately returned.
Kendrick was ordered to pay 60 percent of the judgment, but Simons said there would be no attempt to collect any money from Kendrick, in part, because he would not be able to pay the judgment. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York — the organization overseeing the Jehovah's Witnesses —would be responsible for 40 percent, Simons said.
Jim McCabe, an attorney for the congregation, said he planned to appeal the jury's decision.
"The Jehovah's Witnesses hate child abuse and believe it's a plague on humanity," McCabe told the Tribune. "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."