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Did leaders of Jehovah’s Witnesses cover up child sex abuse?

February 16, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
In San Francisco, a woman is suing the Jehovah's Witnesses for failing to protect her from a known child abuser when she was a child. The Center for Investigative Reporting has shed light on accusations that religious leaders led a cover-up of child sex abuse. Special correspondent Trey Bundy of the CIR’s Reveal reports on how the organization is using the first amendment to fight these charges.
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Editor’s Note: The graphic appearing in the introduction of this report mistakenly contains an image of a cross. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use the image of a cross as a symbol for Christianity. We regret the error.

GWEN IFILL: Next: an investigation into child sexual abuse among Jehovah’s Witness and accusations that religious leaders led a cover-up within inside some of the group’s 14,000 U.S. congregations.

Our colleagues from the Center for Investigative Reporting obtained confidential memos shedding new light on the revelations.

Special correspondent Trey Bundy has the story from Reveal, a new Web site, radio show, and podcast run by the center.

TREY BUNDY: At a convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses in California, new members are taking the plunge.

MAN: At your baptism, you said yes.

TREY BUNDY: They’re joining more than eight million members worldwide.

Believers are taught to renounce secular society because it’s controlled by Satan, and not to socialize too much with outsiders. But charges of sexual abuse have brought this insular community under greater scrutiny. And now, in this San Francisco courtroom, the first child abuse case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses to go to trial is under way.

Candace Conti is suing the organization for failing to protect her from a known child abuser when she was 9 years old.

CANDACE CONTI, Plaintiff: If I were to sum up our goals in this case, it was to attack the policies and procedures that where in place that let a serial molester continue to molest children.

TREY BUNDY: Conti’s lawyer says instructions from Jehovah’s Witness leaders have enabled child molesters.

MAN: The instructions were, you keep these pedophiles secret.

TREY BUNDY: The case hinges on letters from Jehovah’s Witness leaders to the heads of local congregations. For almost 20 years, they have ordered them to send reports like this one for every known child abuser, to hide these cases from their congregations, and not to cooperate with law enforcement or the courts, unless instructed to.

They have refused judges’ orders to turn over these abuse reports, so no one knows how many cases like Conti’s are out there.

JAMES MCCABE, Jehovah’s Witnesses lawyer: Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse of any form.

TREY BUNDY: The Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that they comply with the law. And their lawyers argue that the First Amendment gives them the right to set child abuse policies as they see fit.

JAMES MCCABE: Religious beliefs and standards of Jehovah’s Witnesses were at play in this case from start to finish.

TREY BUNDY: The religious beliefs come from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society in Brooklyn, which has often used the First Amendment to defend its policies of separation.

In 1943, it even won a Supreme Court case arguing that schoolchildren shouldn’t be forced to pledge allegiance to the flag.

TREY BUNDY: Watchtower lawyers, who refused to speak with us, are again claiming a First Amendment defense to keep child abuse in its congregations secret.

JAMES MCCABE: And the elders are counseled in that letter to give special heed to the counsel, do not reveal the confidential talk of another, quoting from the Bible, Book of Proverbs, Chapter 25, Verse 9.

TREY BUNDY: Candace Conti was part of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Fremont, California. She was often grouped with adults to go knocking on doors including this man, Jonathan Kendrick.

CANDACE CONTI: He was very dominating, very domineering, very — he commanded a presence.

TREY BUNDY: She says Kendrick would take advantage of their time door-knocking to find ways to be alone with her.

CANDACE CONTI: Jonathan Kendrick molested me as a child. I really kind of pushed everything down and tried not to think about it about much as I could.

TREY BUNDY: What no one in Conti’s family knew was that Jonathan Kendrick had admitted to molesting another child a year earlier.

Michael Clarke, an elder in the congregation, was asked about it in this deposition.

MAN: Do you recall becoming aware of a report of sexual abuse of a child by Jonathan Kendrick?

MICHAEL CLARKE, Elder, North Fremont Congregation: Yes.

MAN: When did you become aware of such a report?

MICHAEL CLARKE: He had called us to his home to discuss a — or to confess to an incident with his step-daughter.

TREY BUNDY: Clarke never called the police. He followed Watchtower protocol. He wrote to New York headquarters, asking how to deal with Kendrick’s confession. They told him not to investigate the matter further.

Instead they said, “Provide him with strong scriptural counsel to avoid a repetition of such a serious offense.”

MICHAEL CLARKE: We don’t make that public to the congregation. It’s confidential.

TREY BUNDY: The elders didn’t warn other members that one of their own was a child abuser.

MAN: And that’s the policy and the practice of Jehovah’s Witnesses that you learned as an elder, correct?

MICHAEL CLARKE: Yes.

TREY BUNDY: Clarke says the elders told Kendrick not to be alone with children. But he was still allowed to join in congregation activities that included minors. A year later, one of those minors was Candace Conti.

CANDACE CONTI: And I don’t think it ever left. I know it never left me. You know, it’s always there. And it was just probably one of those days that I just felt it.

TREY BUNDY: Conti kept quiet about the abuse, until years later, when she discovered on a sex offender registry that he had gone on to molest another young girl. She decided to sue the Watchtower.

CANDACE CONTI: I think, after I had found that out, I had this sense of guilt. What if I did something?  What if I hadn’t been such a coward?  What if I had done something to maybe protect this other child?  I knew what he was capable of, but I didn’t do anything. And then now look what happened.

TREY BUNDY: I drove to Oakley, California, where Kendrick had moved when he left Conti’s congregation. I met the girl Conti had found. She agreed to talk to us if we didn’t show her face.

WOMAN: When I was a little girl, probably about 6 or 7, Jonathan Kendrick abused me.

TREY BUNDY: She blames the Watchtower’s secrecy for enabling Kendrick to marry into her family and target her. The family sued the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

WOMAN: They knew that he had a past, and they kept it from us.

TREY BUNDY: When Kendrick moved to the Oakley congregation, no one was told he was a child molester, not even Roger Bentley, who served as an elder there for 30 years. He reviewed this letter of introduction from Kendrick’s old congregation.

ROGER BENTLEY, Former Elder, Oakley Congregation: There’s no indication at all that he’s guilty of child abuse.

TREY BUNDY: So no mention of child abuse, but any mention of children?

ROGER BENTLEY: Well, if you read it, it very specifically says he’s a very interesting individual who has taken the lead with some young ones in the congregation and helped them from veering off course.

That’s not a child abuser. That’s a recommendation. That’s a very specific recommendation: Oh, relax. He’s good with kids.

TREY BUNDY: I have spent months trying to interview Watchtower leaders, but they wouldn’t talk to me. Instead, they sent a statement, saying they comply with reporting laws, they do not shield abusers from law enforcement, and are committed to preventing child abuse.

And in one of the dozen lawsuits I have been following, Watchtower supervisor Richard Ashe was asked if the organization has a responsibility to protect children from abuse.

RICHARD ASHE, Watchtower Supervisor: Well, within the congregation, ours is a spiritual protection. When we’re talking about physical protection, that’s up to the secular authorities to provide.

TREY BUNDY: He was asked about the Watchtower’s Bible-based directives to keep child abuse cases confidential.

MAN: It states, in paragraph three, there is a time to keep quiet, when your words should prove to be few.

Do you see that?

RICHARD ASHE: Yes.

MAN: I’m going to object to that. It’s a violation of the First Amendment, freedom of religion, freedom of association.

TREY BUNDY: The courts continue to grapple with the question: Should freedom of religion outweigh the responsibility to protect children?

In Candace Conti’s case, the jury overrode the First Amendment claims and decided the Watchtower and the North Fremont congregation were negligent and didn’t adequately protect her from abuse.

Kendrick maintains he never molested her. Pending appeal, she was awarded more than $15 million in compensation and damages. It’s the first time a jury has ordered the Watchtower to pay for its child abuse policies.

But for Kendrick’s other victim, her case against the Watchtower was thrown out. Even though Kendrick confessed to the abuse in this deposition and served about eight months in jail, the judge affirmed that the Watchtower’s policies were protected by the First Amendment. It wasn’t liable because the abuse occurred at home and not in the course of religious activity. The Watchtower had no obligation to warn the family about Kendrick’s past.

Kendrick is now free and still an active member of the Oakley congregation.

CANDACE CONTI: The fact that Jonathan Kendrick is still a member in a good standing is absolutely ridiculous. It’s scary. The fact that he still has access to children — and, really, my parents didn’t have the power to know that Jonathan Kendrick was a child abuser.

Let’s give the parents the power to be able to protect their children. And that’s what these organizations are hiding.

TREY BUNDY: Despite the huge verdict against the Watchtower, the organization is sticking to its policies. In fact, it just released another confidential memo reminding elders to keep quiet about child abuse.

I’m Trey Bundy from Reveal for the NewsHour.


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