A former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is taking on the leadership
of this wealthy, secretive religion, who she says failed to protect her
from a predatory pedophile. She blames what she says is the church’s
policy of silence on child abusers.
Candace Conti, now 28, was just 9 years old when she says she was abused
by a well-liked member of her small congregation in Fremont, California,
named Jonathan Kendrick. While doing door-to-door evangelizing, which
Conti said she would often do without her parents, she said Kendrick
would take her to his house and molest her.
“He’s just a big person… I found him very scary,” Conti said.
As a child, Conti said she didn’t think she could tell anyone about the
abuse. But years later, she testified during a trial against the church
that Kendrick abused her several times a month for what she says felt
like two years.
“I never thought I could [talk about it],” she said. “Bringing that up
just would demolish my family– the only people that I knew… I think I
was scared to.”
Conti had nowhere else to turn, she said, because of her beliefs, and she grew up isolated from the outside world.
Like all Jehovah’s Witnesses, Conti says she was taught that Armageddon
was imminent, and that only the true believers would survive and live in
a heaven on Earth. She says she was taught that, “everybody outside of
the Jehovah’s Witnesses are pretty much walking dead … and could be
used as a tool by Satan to mislead you, to pull your away from your
It was only years later, after Conti had grown up and left the church,
that she found Jonathan Kendrick on a sex offender registry. He had
served seven months in jail for sexually abusing his wife’s 7-year-old
granddaughter. After seeing him on the registry, Conti decided to come
forward with her case.
She said she “felt really guilty for not doing anything that this wouldn’t have happened to somebody else.”
Conti said she went to local church leaders, known as elders, and told
them her story. But Conti said the elders refused to believe her unless
she could prove the abuse happened by providing two witnesses to the
According to the religion’s internal system of justice, it is believed
that the Bible requires there to be two witnesses in order for a crime to be punishable.
So Conti went to the police instead. They began an investigation, but
with Kendrick denying the abuse, the authorities have not brought
charges — although the investigation continues.
Conti’s next move was to sue the church itself. She hired attorney Rick
Simons, who had spent many years representing victims in cases of abuse
by pedophile Catholic priests.
“If ever there was a group that needs the sun to shine on them and their
practices, it’s this one [Jehovah’s Witnesses],” Simons said. “Because
when your doorbell rings on Saturday morning… and your kid answers the
door, you don’t want that guy to be a child molester.”
When Conti and her attorney began conducting depositions with local
church leaders in California, they learned something that astonished
them: Even before Conti was abused, the elders knew that Jonathan
Kendrick, who had then held a leadership position in the congregation,
had also molested his stepdaughter when she was a teenager.
And yet, the elders did not call the police and did not warn the rest of the congregation.
“I was disgusted. I was absolutely disgusted,” Conti said. “It was more
damage control at that point than ever trying to be proactive and saving
Under oath, the elders of the congregation said the reason they did not
tell the congregation about Kendrick’s abuse was that the information
was “confidential.” In fact, the elders said they were following the
strict guidelines at the time provided by church leadership at the
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters in New York, called “The Watchtower.”
In a series of letters to elders across the country regarding child
abuse, The Watchtower stated that although they acknowledge that some
states have child abuse reporting laws, allegations should otherwise be
kept secret to all but church elders, because the “peace, unity and
spiritual well-being of the congregation are at stake,” and because
“worldly people are quick to resort to lawsuits if they feel their
‘rights’ have been violated.”
The elders in Fremont did remove Kendrick from his leadership position, per Watchtower policy, on the grounds of “uncleanness.”
When Candace Conti’s lawsuit against the church went to court, attorneys
for Jehovah’s Witnesses argued that it is not the responsibility of a
religious organization to protect children from sexual abuse by other
congregation members. They said the church provides education to parents
on the risk of sexual abuse. They also pointed out that the alleged
abuse of Candace Conti never took place on church property.
Furthermore, church attorneys questioned whether Conti was specifically
assigned by the elders to go door-to-door preaching, known as “field
service,” with Kendrick.
Ultimately, the jury sided with Conti. In a landmark verdict in 2012,
she was eventually awarded over $15 million. The Watchtower is currently
appealing the case.
The Watchtower denied our request for an interview, but told “Nightline”
in a statement, peppered with Bible citations, that “it would be
inappropriate for us to comment on cases currently in litigation.” …
“Jehovah’s Witnesses have also consistently warned congregation members
and the public of the need to protect their children from the horrific
crime of child sexual abuse.”
See more of the church’s statement at the end of this story.
Whatever the outcome of her case, Candace Conti’s public fight appears
to have opened the floodgates. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are now facing a
series of lawsuits across the country. Attorney Irwin Zalkin is trying
15 of those cases.
“For some reason [church leaders] believe they’re above the law,” Zalkin said.
In October, a San Diego court awarded one of Zalkin’s clients $13.5
million dollars in damages for alleged sexual abuse suffered at the
hands of Congregation leader Gonzalo Campos, of the Linda Vista Spanish
Congregation. The Jehovah’s Witnesses plan to appeal the verdict.
Kendrick was absent from Conti’s trial and denied “Nightline’s” repeated
requests for an interview. In a brief interview with “Nightline”
outside of his home in California, Kendrick said, “My statement is this.
I’ve never been alone with Ms. Conti, never molested Candace Conti.”
He denied he ever did field service with Conti alone, and repeatedly denied molesting her or ever being alone with her.
“I’m sure that’s the smart thing for him to say,” Conti told
“Nightline.” “That hurts like hell. But … do you expect honesty from a
Conti is moving on with her life. She graduated from college and
recently got engaged. But she said she will continue fighting on behalf
of all victims of child abuse.
“I don’t have a monopoly on pain,” she said. “Instead of being victims
we can change it, and have our words speak for change. Then this pain
might be a little bit worth it.”
Since Conti’s verdict in 2012, the church appears to have made some
changes on its confidentiality policy when it comes to child abuse, but
critics, including Conti, say it’s not enough.
As for Jonathan Kendrick, he says he is still a member in good standing of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
More of Jehovah’s Witnesses Statement to ABC News Regarding This Report:
As you are aware, it would be inappropriate for us to comment on cases
currently in litigation. However, in addition to the statement we
previously provided, please allow us to make the following points.
We abhor the sexual abuse of children, and we do not protect any
perpetrator of such repugnant acts from the consequences of his gross
sin and crime. – Romans 12:9.
Our current and long-standing policy is clearly stated in the
publication “Shepherd the Flock of God”—1 Peter 5:2, in which elders are
provided the following direction:
“Child abuse is a crime. Never suggest to anyone that they should not
report an allegation of child abuse to the police or other authorities.
If you are asked, make it clear that whether to report the matter to the
authorities or not is a personal decision for each individual to make
and that there are no congregation sanctions for either decision. Elders
will not criticize anyone who reports such an allegation to the
authorities. If the victim wishes to make a report, it is his or her
absolute right to do so.”—“Shepherd the Flock of God”—1 Peter 5:2, chap.
12, pp. 131-132, par. 19.
Seeking legal advice is a vital element of handling sensitive matters
responsibly. Thus, for decades our elders have been instructed to
contact our Legal Department whenever they learn of an allegation of
child abuse. We do this, not to hide the crime and the sin, but rather
to ensure that our elders strictly comply with child-abuse reporting
By means of our Bible-based publications, our religious services, and
our website jw.org., Jehovah’s Witnesses have also consistently warned
congregation members and the public of the need to protect their
children from the horrific crime of child sexual abuse. We encourage
anyone who wishes to understand our position to visit our website
jw.org., and search the term “child abuse.”