Church policy of secrecy or confidentiality?

You may have read last week about a California jury awarding $28 million in damages to a Candace Conti, a woman who said the Jehovah’s Witnesses allowed an adult member of her congregation to molest her when she was a child.

The media tend to highlight stories about random predators, even though almost everyone abused as a child was abused by someone in a position of trust. This usually means a family member or someone in a relationship with a family member. But it also happens in schools or other institutions of trust. We’ve seen most of the media interest in this topic focused on the Roman Catholic Church, although there’s no evidence that it had a greater incidence of abuse than the general population. What it does have, however, is bigger pockets than most. It’s much harder to get millions of dollars from your mom’s ex-boyfriend or your math teacher from the 7th grade than it is from large, centralized entities.

This story deals with another church. It’s a huge settlement and one of the keys to the large award was a church policy. Here’s how the Associated Press put it:

Ms. Conti also said in her lawsuit that the Christian denomination’s national leaders formed a policy in 1989 that instructed the church’s elders to keep child sex abuse accusations secret. Congregation elders followed that policy when Mr. Kendrick was convicted in 1994 of misdemeanor child molestation in Alameda County, according to Mr. Simons.

When the reader who sent in this story read that, he was outraged. He thought the policy couldn’t sound more nefarious. When he read the San Francisco Chronicle‘s version of the same issue, he said he had a different reaction:

One of the prime disagreements in the case was over a letter the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society sent to congregation elders around the country in July 1989, at a time when churches of many denominations were facing slander lawsuits from worshipers.

The letter stressed “the need for elders to maintain strict confidentiality” in personal matters involving congregants, including criminal investigations, and to follow the direction of the organization’s leaders.

“The legal consequences of a breach of confidentiality by the elders can be substantial,” the letter said.

An attorney for Conti, Rick Simons, said it represented a policy of keeping sexual allegations secret.

[Jim McCabe, an attorney for the Jehovah's Witnesses] said Simons “did a great job of spinning it into a policy of secrecy, and this jury bought it.”

In fact, McCabe said, the letter was a run-of-the mill reminder that some communications must be kept confidential. He noted that a section of the letter devoted to child abuse instructed elders to report all allegations to church lawyers so victims can be “protected from further damage.”

The former excerpt is from a short wire story where you have to write with economy. The latter is from the local paper.

It makes sense that it would be much more fleshed out in the local paper. But I thought it worth highlighting to show how the same issue can be presented in different ways. It reminds me a bit of a story the New York Times had late last month that suggested Cardinal Timothy Dolan had done something wrong in the way he handled oversight of certain priests accused of sexual abuse. One writer at the National Catholic Register argued that the story itself was what was wrong.

These are always difficult issues to write about, but because they’re so widespread it’s important to report them well. It’s worth noting that many religion beat reporters have had to deal with these beats for years, under very trying circumstances. In many cases, they’ve set a great example for education beat reporters and others who are dealing with the same topic.

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  • Dan

    Both news stories fail to capture the complexities of what was going on.

    Church elders were required to report these cases to headquarters rather than the police. If they had simply reported to the police, most of these problems could have been avoided.

    It’s also noteworthy that church members who told others about alleged pedophilia were subject to possible disfellowshipping. It may not be fair to say that there was a policy of secrecy. There were actually many policies and secret internal procedures that served to keep these cases hidden for the congregation, police and new media. There was also a culture that strongly discouraged doing anything that would bring reproach against the organisation and many victims were told to just “wait on Jehovah”.

    It should also be pointed out that Kendrick was viewed as an “ordained minister” by the religion and expected to engage in the public, door to door ministry, accompanied by other church members, including minors. They were fully aware of how dangerous this was and did nothing to protect the children in their congregation or the public. This negligence enabled Kendrick to gain the confidence of the victim and contributed to her abuse.

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been privately settling cases like this for years. Now that they lost this high profile case, the may finally be forced to make some much needed changes.

  • Jerry

    “Spinning” by lawyers is what they are supposed to do when prosecuting or defending. That’s how they serve their clients. Of course one side would characterize themselves as being good and the other side as lying and distorting the evidence.

    It’s been well known in business for quite some time that poorly written policies can and will be used against the company in any legal proceeding.

    But you’re missing the point when you talk about lawsuits. First, the primary way the law deals with pedophilia is or should be through criminal proceedings. When there is a policy of covering up and refusing to report crimes, one of the remedies is a lawsuit. And your assuming that lawsuits are filed primarily for financial reasons rather than to punish the organization guilty of covering up a crime.

    Lawyers want to be paid, of course, but to assert a financial motive on the part of the victims and their families should be accompanied by some form of proof that money was more important than punishing a crime.

  • Suzanne

    Ms. Conti wasn’t in this for the money. As the court documents show, she asked for $1,440.00 — a symbolic slap in the face to the leadership of this religion spawned by the hostile corporate takeover of a religious publishing house.

    Court web site for official public documents of the case, including filings and verdict:

  • Mike Hickerson

    FYI regarding the symbolic $1,440.00 – as Suzanne probably knows but other readers might not, the number 144,000 is taken from chapters 7 & 14 of Revelation and represents those “sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel” and “redeemed from the earth.” Jehovah’s Witnesses believe this is a group of literally 144,000 people who will enter heaven. (Others who are saved, but not part of the 144,000, will spend eternity on Earth in a restored paradise.) This is one of the (many) distinctive teachings that distinguish Jehovah’s Witnesses from other Christians.

  • David Clohessy

    “there’s no evidence that (the Catholic Church) had a greater incidence of abuse than the general population. What it does have, however, is bigger pockets than most.”

    The overwhelming majority of victims of pedophile priests can’t and don’t sue. Of those who do, the overwhelming majority do so NOT because church officials have “deep pockets,” but because church officials knowingly and repeatedly acted recklessly, callously and deceitfully (and many still do so now).

    It’s just inaccurate to imply that the greater attention to Catholic child sex crimes and cover ups is due to church officials’ assets. It’s due to church officials’ egregious misconduct.

  • John M.


    In addition to money, the RCC also has a documented pattern of higher-ups who covered up abuse. While it’s possible that a similar pattern exists among, for example, middle school principals, it’s hard to see the conspiracy among, for example, mother’s dirtbag boyfriends.


  • John Penta

    …Just what is the journalism critique of, uh…most of these comments…?

  • Mollie

    OK … so I just had to delete more than one dozen comments. Acquaint yourself with our commenting policy prior to commenting, please. Use real email addresses and stick to discussing journalism — not your feelings about various religious groups or doctrines or anything else that is not journalism.