This is the second part of a three-part series. Copied with permission.
Two multi-million dollar verdicts deliver legal blow to Jehovah’s Witnesses; ‘everybody agreed they were guilty’
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WASHINGTON —Inside a courthouse in Thompson Falls, Montana, the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in September suffered its greatest court defeat in a U.S. child sex abuse case.
Dan Stinnett helped bring down Lady Justice’s hammer.
“Everybody agreed they were guilty,” Stinnett recalled recently from his home.
Stinnett, in his first interview about the case, explained how he and eight other Sanders County jurors found the Jehovah’s Witnesses governing organizations negligent and “guilty of malice” in the child sexual abuse of Alexis Nunez, awarding her $35 million.
Through her Texas-based attorney, Neil Smith, Nunez declined an interview request because the church has appealed to the state’s highest court.
“I believe they were trying to cover [abuse] up, yes. I have no doubt about that,” Stinnett said.
When asked if he was trying to send a message with his jury vote, Stinnett responded, “Why, absolutely. We as jurors and as society really don’t condone … any of this.”
Investigation finds new allegations
The Nunez case is one of dozens tallied by the Hearst Television National Investigative Unit as part of a yearlong investigation that uncovered new allegations of child sexual abuse and decades long cover-ups inside the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization in the United States.
As reported Monday by Hearst Television, the allegations span congregations, states and generations.
The findings are contained in a three-part Hearst Television series of reports called “Silent No More” and shed new light on the growing number of people accusing the religious organization of systemic shortcomings in the protection of children.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses organization, which goes by several names including Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and the Christian Congregation and is headquartered northwest of New York City, has fought and settled cases coast to coast.
‘I’m a Survivor’
One of the longest-running court battles involved Candace Conti.
“I’m a survivor,” Conti declared during a joint television interview with 12 other people who grew up in the religion and allege they were abused as children, many of whom were sharing their accusations publicly for the first time.
Conti refused to initially settle her case seeking damages against Watchtower, her congregation, and a fellow Jehovah’s Witness for sexual abuse and negligence.
The case went to trial. In a headline-making decision, a California jury awarded her $28 million, the largest verdict against the organization at the time.
“There’s a strange validation that came from that. Having the jury not only say that they believe you, that they know that this happened, but that the organization was in the wrong in the first place,” Conti said.
Growing emotional, Conti continued: “And I am so sorry to everyone behind me and to everybody who’s fighting right now… I wish – I wish above all else – that they could have that same validation that I did. I really do.”
Conti says she went to the elders – the typically six to eight men who compose each congregation’s leadership – a decade ago to urge them to set “Megan’s law” alerts for automatic notices when convicted child molesters move into a new congregation, which would give leadership in the new Kingdom Hall a photo of the person.
“What I wanted was to help fill this gap in their policies and their procedures to help ensure that this is not going to happen to somebody else,” Conti recalled.
“They wouldn’t even listen to my idea.”
‘Abhor Child Abuse’
The state’s appeals court later slashed Conti’s award amount dramatically after finding that, under state law, the Jehovah’s Witnesses had no “duty to warn” a congregation about confessed or convicted child molesters. Both sides reached a confidential agreement after the case reached the state’s Supreme Court.
Through its Office of Public Information, the organization’s governing body leaders and its spokesperson declined to do an on-camera interview about the Conti case or the organization’s policies in general and did not address any of a detailed list of 22 questions submitted to it.
Instead, in a statement, they said, “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse as a sin and crime. Our policies on child protection comply with the law, including any requirements for elders to report allegations of child abuse to authorities. Our organization will continue to promote child protection education for parents.”
Efforts to obtain comment by a television crew that visited three of the Jehovah’s Witnesses nationwide administrative sites in New York state were rebuffed.
In addition, letters sent to all of the individual congregations named by the group interview participants – a total of 20 – were either returned unopened or did not elicit a response.
The scrutiny on the organization is increasing.
The National Investigative Unit has learned Attorneys General offices in three states – California, Pennsylvania, and Delaware – have been looking into allegations of child sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witness organization.
Lawmakers are taking notice, moving bills forward in New York, Pennsylvania, California and other states that would require clergy of all faiths to report allegations of abuse, add training or extend the statute of limitations for victims to come forward.
For Dan Stinnett, the juror in Montana who helped find the Jehovah’s Witnesses negligent for failing to protect Alexis Nunez, justice may be blind – but he says his Creator is not.
“I believe [the Jehovah’s Witnesses] are going to be judged, and I believe it’s going to be harsh. Judgment’s coming, and it’s coming on people just like the people that violated these girls,” Stinnett warned.
Travis Sherwin, April Chunko, Patricia Nieberg, Noah Broder and Beccah Hendrickson contributed to this report.