A civil jury Wednesday found one of San Jose's oldest churches financially liable for recommending a camp counselor it had let go three times for inappropriate behavior with children for a job at a day care center where he wound up molesting young girls.

The jury awarded the three girls who filed the lawsuit a total of $1,061,500.

The panel held that Church on the Hill, founded in 1850 and California's second-oldest Baptist church, was 17.5 percent responsible for the harm the 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds suffered and must pay them $185,762 of the total award. Jurors found imprisoned former counselor Keith Woodhouse 25 percent liable and ordered him to pay $265,375 in damages.

The jury also found the day care operator Child Development Inc. 57.5 percent liable. However, the company reached a confidential settlement with the girls shortly after the five-week trial began for what is believed to be a higher sum, so it will not have to pay the jury award.

But the panel stopped short of finding that the church acted with malice, oppression or fraud. Therefore, it is not liable for additional punitive damages.

Woodhouse, 27, was convicted in October after he confessed to abusing nine girls and is now serving 30 years to life in prison.

Three of the girls' families sued Woodhouse, day care operator Child Development Inc. and Church on the Hill last year, seeking a total of $25 million for alleged negligence and negligent misrepresentation. To hold any party liable, at least nine of the 12 jurors (seven men and five women) had to find by a "preponderance of evidence" that the allegations were true.

The girls' lawyer argued Church on the Hill failed to protect the children by not warning the day care center that he had lost his job multiple times after reports of inappropriate conduct with girls.

"The church was the only party who knew there was a pedophile in their midst and did nothing about it," the girls' attorney, Robert Allard, told the jury during the trial. "It's like sending a wolf to sheep."

But the jury did not agree on two key points that might have led to a larger award. The engineer they elected to be foreman said Wednesday that the panel felt there was conflicting evidence about whether the girls have post-traumatic stress disorder and even if they did, whether that would prevent them from getting master's degrees, as Allard's expert argued.

Also, it was possible the church employee who recommended Woodhouse did so because she genuinely believed he had changed, he said.

"There are people who are willing to give people second chances and want them to succeed," said the engineer. "She struck us as such a person."

Allard claimed the church fired Woodhouse three times -- in 2004, 2007 and 2009. But he said officials there never reported his most suspicious behavior to police, a swimming pool incident in 2007 in which a girl who had been sitting on his lap complained he was sexually aroused, and a lifeguard reported overhearing Woodhouse masturbating in a bathroom immediately afterward.

Both Allard and the church's attorneys argued that Child Development Inc. failed to check Woodhouse's education, references and previous employment -- and to adequately supervise him -- because it was in desperate need of day care workers. The company, which runs more than 150 day care centers in California, did not return repeated calls from the Mercury News about the settlement and whether it has changed the way it screens prospective workers and trains employees.

After the swimming pool incident, church officials conducted their own investigation and found no proof that the child had been inappropriately touched. They said Woodhouse was terminated that time for insubordination because he did not listen to orders from lifeguards to not have kids on his lap anymore when he returned to the pool.

Two years after the swimming pool incident, the church rehired Woodhouse, only to let him go a few weeks later for once again breaking the church's rule against letting children sit on employees' laps. The jury foreman said it appeared to the panel that he continued to work as a volunteer without further incident.

Woodhouse's parents were longtime members of the church, and Woodhouse attended the church's school from kindergarten through eighth grade.

"You can call (church officials) naive, but they were not negligent," the church's defense attorney, Irene Takahashi, told the jury, adding that church officials entrusted their own children to Woodhouse. "These are good people."

In 2010, the church's director of Children's Ministries recommended Woodhouse as someone who had "a heart for children" to the Child Development Inc. day care center supervisor who called the church for a reference. It is unclear whether the church director knew the full extent of Woodhouse's conduct, but Allard argued that she knew enough to realize such a recommendation was unwarranted.

However, Woodhouse's attorney, Robert Howie, implored jurors to view the case from the church's perspective at the time, rather than looking at it with the benefit of hindsight.

Holding up a photograph of a pink-cheeked, cherubic-looking Woodhouse in a light-blue graduation cap and gown, Howie said, "The pastor made a decision that this person didn't need to be labeled a pervert."

Allard contended that the girls deserved $25 million partly because their post-traumatic stress disorder will reduce their earning potential. Claiming that the "cover-up" by Church on the Hill was "worse than Penn State," the 2011 Pennsylvania State University child abuse scandal involving assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, Allard urged the jury to "send a message to the community" and make the church pay punitive damages.

"What this verdict tells me is the jury basically disbelieved three separate police officers, who clearly established in my mind there was a cover-up by the church,'' Allard said.

During the trial, Takahashi and Howie downplayed the impact of Woodhouse's conduct on the girls and argued the kids are thriving, not traumatized. Takahashi also suggested in great detail that the parents are to blame for any problems the children still suffer, prompting two of the mothers who attended the trial to sob and many of the jurors to wince.

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.