California Court of Appeal, First District, Division 3
235 Cal.App.4th 1214 (2015)
13 April 2015
The defendants, Watchtower and the North Fremont Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, appealed a finding of liability for damages relating to the sexual abuse of Candace Conti by a fellow member of the Congregation, Jonathan Kendrick, during church-sponsored door-to-door “field service”. Both the Congregation and Watchtower had been aware of a previous incident of abuse involving Kendrick and another child but, in keeping with the church’s policy of confidentiality, did not notify the authorities or the Congregation members. Conti sued Watchtower and the Congregation for failing to warn members of the Congregation or Conti’s parents that Kendrick had previously abused a child and for failing to limit and supervise his participation in church activities.
Issue and resolution:
Sexual abuse. Whether the organisation had a duty to warn Congregation members and parents about prior abuse, and a duty to supervise the church activities The Court held that the defendants had no duty to warn the Congregation members or Conti’s parents that Kendrick had abused a child, but that the defendants had breached their duty to limit and supervise Kendrick’s church-sponsored activities.
The Court based its analysis on the concept that there is no general duty to control or warn others of the conduct of a third party unless a special relationship exists with either the person whose conduct needs to be controlled or the victim of the conduct in question. No such relationship was found here, and the church was not required to take affirmative steps to safeguard members against harm from other church members. The Court added that as a matter of public policy even if such a special relationship was found to exist, the detrimental consequences and imprecise scope of a duty to warn outweighed any counterbalancing concerns.
The Court ruled, however, that a special relationship did exist with respect to church-sponsored activities and found that, to the extent that control was exercised over Kendrick’s field service, the defendants had a duty to limit and supervise his participation. Watchtower determined who was eligible for field service, while the Congregation controlled when, where and with whom field service was conducted. Nothing was done to implement the church’s policy prohibiting child molesters from conducting service alone or with children. Because Conti was harmed during a church-sponsored activity over which the defendants had control, the defendants had a duty to take steps to supervise and limit Kendrick’s participation in such activity and the failure to do so constituted a breach of this duty.
The decision led to widespread public outcry, as Watchtower and the Congregation apparently continue to have no duty to warn members of another member’s prior abuse. Conti withdrew her appeal to the California Supreme Court after reaching an out-of-court settlement with the defendants.
Link to full judgement:
This case summary is provided by the Child Rights International Network for educational and informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.Languag