Jehovah’s Witnesses use 1st Amendment to hide child sex abuse claims
“I know it never left me, knowing that he had hurt somebody else,” she said. “Knowing that he went to a different kingdom hall and hurt somebody else, knowing that that person was the same age as me.”
Conti was born into the Jehovah’s Witnesses and attended the North Fremont congregation as far back as she can remember. Both of her parents and her grandparents on her mother’s side were Witnesses. She started preaching door to door when she was 5, handing out Watchtower pamphlets with colorful illustrations of paradise on earth.
“I just remember my whole opening spiel was, ‘Wouldn’t you love to live in a beautiful place like this?’ ” she said. “You’re bringing them to Jehovah’s organization, you’re saving these people’s lives.”
While in grade school, Conti spent 70 hours a month preaching. Kendrick had become close friends with Conti’s father. Although she wasn’t comfortable around Kendrick, Conti said she would end up alone with him during long afternoons of knocking on doors.
According to Conti, when she was 9 and 10 years old, Kendrick used the time they were alone to take her to his house and sexually assault her. She says she kept the abuse to herself for years.
While there is no dispute that Kendrick molested at least two girls, he emphatically denied to Reveal ever abusing or even being alone with Conti.
Kendrick would only say during a brief phone interview: “I did not molest Candace Conti. I have never been questioned by law enforcement involving Candace Conti. I’ve never been charged with a crime involving Candace Conti.” He would not comment on any other cases.
Conti’s discovery of Kendrick in the sex offender registry led her back to the Witnesses. She went to elders Michael Clarke and Larry Lamerdin, who had watched her grow up, and told them her story for the first time. Because she didn’t have any witnesses to her abuse, she said, they told her there was nothing they could do.
“They got the story from me and they both cried, she said. But they couldn’t come to bat for me. It was out of their hands. They are bound by those rules and regulations that are passed down by the organization.”
Clarke and Lamerdin wrote to the Oakley congregation in December 2009 to inform the elders that Kendrick had abused Conti. The letter arrived seven years after Josh Hood learned that Kendrick had abused his daughter.
“She claims that there (sic) relationship was inappropriate and her parents and congregation elders should have put a stop to it,” they wrote. “We totally agreed.”
“She asked us twice if we were going to report this to the authorities,” they continued. “We told her that if she wishes to make a report, it is her absolute right to do so.”
When Conti told them that she didn’t trust the congregation to protect children, the elders wrote, “We shared a number of scriptures with her regarding Jehovah’s love and concern for her.”
Frustrated with the response from the Witnesses, Conti sued the Watchtower in 2011.
“It was to attack the policies and procedures that were in place, that let a serial molester continue to molest children,” Conti said. “I had this sense of guilt. …What if I had done something to maybe protect this other child?”
During the trial, Conti’s attorney Rick Simons zeroed in on the Watchtower’s child abuse policy memos.
In his deposition during Conti’s lawsuit, Clarke said elders are required to adhere strictly to the Watchtower’s policies.
“Are congregations free to deviate from the practices through which instructions are given through ‘Body of Elder’ letters?” her lawyers asked.
“No,” Clarke responded.
In an attempt to discover who wrote the memos, Simons also deposed Allen Shuster, a supervisor in the Watchtower’s service department, where the memos were drafted.
Shuster testified that he might have contributed to writing some of the memos but that he couldn’t remember for sure.
“There would have been a group of elders within the service department that would have reviewed this letter,” he said. “It would have been approved by a committee of the Governing Body.”
Simons then asked about the two-witness rule.
“These are policies that come from the Governing Body?” Simons asked.
“That is an accurate statement, yes,” Shuster said.
Before the Conti case, all U.S. child abuse lawsuits against the Watchtower had been either dismissed or settled out of court. Hers was the first to go to trial. The jury found in 2012 that the North Fremont congregation and the Watchtower had been negligent, failing to protect Conti from a known child abuser. She was awarded more than $15 million.
In the wake of the Conti verdict, Josh Hood and his daughter filed their own lawsuit against the Watchtower in 2012.
Howard Magee, the Hoods’ lawyer, deposed Thomas Jefferson, another Watchtower supervisor in the New York service department. He corroborated Clarke’s testimony in Conti’s case that elders are instructed to report child abuse to the Watchtower’s legal department and expected to follow whatever advice they receive.
Jefferson said the Watchtower has files on Kendrick’s abuse history. He was not aware of any Watchtower policy that would prohibit Kendrick from preaching door to door, he said
“Child molestation is a confidential matter,” he said.
Kendrick, now 61, is still an active member of the Oakley congregation. He and Linda Hood remain together. Linda Hood’s granddaughter’s case was dismissed after the judge affirmed the Watchtower’s First Amendment protection.
This month, a California judge in another case ruled against the Watchtower for refusing to provide its database of abusers.
In a statement to Reveal punctuated with Bible citations, the Watchtower stated that congregation elders comply with child abuse reporting laws.
“The victim and his or her parents have the absolute right to report the matter to the governmental authorities. (Galatians 6:5),” the statement read. “Congregation elders do not shield abusers from the authorities or from the consequences of their actions. (Galatians 6:7).”
“We believe that loving and protective parents are the best deterrent to child abuse.”