San Diego — An appeals court throw out a $13.5 million judgment against the governing body of the Jehovah’s Witness church Thursday in a lawsuit that accuses the organization of covering up years of sexual abuse by a local church leader.
The ruling by the state Fourth District Court of Appeal hits the reset button on the case, potentially leading to another trial but with one major caveat — that documents concerning past sexual abuse cases in the church should be turned over.
The church’s hierarchical body, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, has remained defiant in refusing a court order to produce such documentation, and the ruling gives the organization another chance to comply. If the organization doesn’t acquiesce, the case could potentially end the same way it did the first time, with a multi-million dollar judgment against it.
The lawsuit was filed in 2012 in San Diego Superior Court by Jose Lopez, who claimed he was molested at the age of 7 by a leader in the church’s Linda Vista congregation in 1986.
His lawsuit says church elders recommended the leader, Gonzalo Campos, to Lopez’s mom as someone who would be a good mentor to teach the boy Bible lessons.
But the elders knew Campos had molested a boy as early as 1982, according to evidence revealed in the case, and did nothing about it, continuing to put children at risk, the lawsuit claims.
Lopez said Campos spent months grooming him and then assaulted him at Campos’ La Jolla home one day. The boy told his mother, who reported it immediately to the church leadership. The elders told her they’d handle the situation and discouraged her from calling law enforcement, the lawsuit says.
She and her son left the church.
Evidence presented in the trial showed the church monitored Campos for nine months, and in the following years he rose through the ranks in the church, continuing to teach children.
He moved to a Spanish-language Kingdom Hall in La Jolla at one point but was kicked out in 1995 after another victim reported being abused. He was reinstated in the church in 2000.
In a previous statement to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Watchtower denied that Campos was in a leadership position in the church when he was teaching Lopez and that “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts.”
Campos later confessed to abusing at least eight children between 1982 and 1995. He fled to Mexico around 2010 after San Diego police were notified and is believed to still be there, said Lopez’s lawyer, Irwin Zalkin.
Six other men and one woman who sued Watchtower claiming they were victims of Campos’ settled their cases out of court.
The road to trial in Lopez’s case was long.
In putting together his case, Zalkin asked for any reports of Campos’ abuse, as well as abuse by other church leaders dating back to 1979 and records of how the church dealt with those incidents. Watchtower fought back, claiming the documents would be “impossible” to retrieve, would violate rights, and that the request was over-burdensome, with the church’s 1.2 million members in more than 13,000 congregations nationwide.
After much consideration, Superior Court Judge Joan Lewis ordered the documents produced. They weren’t.
Lopez’s lawyers also traveled to New York to depose Gerrit Losch, a longstanding member of the governing body, on the court’s orders, but he didn’t show up.
The judge, citing the refusal to comply with releasing the documents and Losch’s no-show, decided to issue the ultimate sanction against Watchtower: terminate its right to be heard in the case going forward.
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