— -- 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 Christian family.”
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 alleged abuse.
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.