An Alameda County woman who was molested as a child by a fellow member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who took her with him on door-to-door preaching, is entitled to $2.8 million of the $15.6 million in damages she won at trial, a state appeals in San Francisco court ruled Monday.
However, the First District Court of Appeal overturned $8.6 million in punitive damages against the religion’s then-governing body, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, for failing to warn members of the North Fremont Congregation that Jonathan Kendrick had previously molested his stepdaughter.
The court said churches have no legal duty to warn members that one of their fellow congregants was a sex offender, and observed that such warnings “would discourage wrongdoers from seeking potentially beneficial intervention.” But the court said Watchtower and leaders of the congregation had failed to properly supervise Kendrick during his door-to-door recruitment activities for the church and were responsible for leaving him alone with Candace Conti during a two-year period that started in late 1994, when she was 9 years old.
Conti said Kendrick befriended her family, got permission to take her on his doorbell-ringing missions, then took her to his home and molested her several times a month. Psychiatric witnesses at the trial of her lawsuit in 2012 said she suffered from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and could require a lifetime of therapy.
Kendrick was at times a “ministerial assistant,” or administrative aide, for the congregation, but was not an “elder,” or spiritual leader. He was not criminally prosecuted in Conti’s case, but he has been convicted of other sex-crime charges.
“Conti’s case demonstrates the obvious threat that child molesters pose to children in a congregation when they perform field service,” the church’s term for door-to-door preaching, Justice Peter Siggins said in the 3-0 ruling upholding the jury’s $2.8 million damage award for emotional distress and future therapy costs. The jury assessed an additional $4.2 million in damages against Kendrick, who is unable to pay.
While the Watchtower Society said it had a policy of prohibiting known child molesters from doing such work alone or with children, Siggins said, there was no documentation of that policy, and no evidence it was enforced against Kendrick.
Richard Simons, Conti’s lawyer, said the court should have upheld the church’s duty to warn parents about known molesters. “Prevention is more important than responsibility after the event,” he said.
Lawyers for the church could not be reached for comment.
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