SAN DIEGO » The Jehovah’s Witnesses were ordered to pay $13.5 million to a Southern California man who said he was molested as a child by a church member.
A San Diego judge ruled Wednesday that the church’s governing body covered up years of sexual abuse by a member who later became an elder.
Superior Judge Joan Lewis said actions of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York were "reprehensible and reckless," U-T San Diego reported Friday.
Jose Lopez, who was awarded the money, sued the group, alleging that he was molested in 1986 at age 7 by a member of the Spanish congregation in the Linda Vista area of San Diego.
Lopez said the elders suggested Gonzalo Campos as his Bible teacher even though they knew he had molested at least one other boy, the suit contended. Lopez also said that after he told his mother about the molestation, church leaders told his mother not to report it to law enforcement.
Six other men and one woman who also claimed that Campos molested them have settled their lawsuits out of court.
In a statement Friday, the Watchtower denied there was a cover-up, disputed that Campos held any responsibility within the congregation at the time of the alleged molestation and said it planned to appeal the ruling.
"Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and strive to protect children from such acts. The trial judge’s decision is a drastic action for any judge to take given the circumstances of this case," said Mario Moreno, associate general counsel for Watchtower.
Trial evidence showed that Campos looked into molestation allegations against Campos, found that he was repentant, and did not expel him. He became an elder in 1993, was kicked out of the church after another alleged victim surfaced in 1995 but was reinstated in 2000, U-T San Diego said, citing court records.
Campos later confessed in a court deposition to abusing at least eight children between 1982 and 1995 but fled the country several years ago after a report was made to San Diego police and is believed to be living in Mexico, the paper said.
At a news conference on Friday, Lopez said he wants Campos "behind bars where he belongs."
His lawsuit is one of many involving sexual abuse claims against the church, which has about 8 million members nationwide.
Two years ago, an Alameda County jury awarded $21 million to a woman who claimed the church allowed an adult member of a Fremont church to molest her when she was 9 years old in the mid-1990s. The award was later reduced to $8 million.
Six adults sued Thursday in Texas, alleging they were molested in the 1990s and that the church’s governing leaders failed to report the abuse to authorities.
About 20 other lawsuits are pending in various states.