Eastside `cult’ is likely hiding members accused of sex abuse, police say
The shadowy history of an Eastside church, recognized by many as a cult, has come into focus with new charges of child molestation and an admission by one former member that he molested an 8-year-old boy.
Steven A. Belzak told King County prosecutors that he began sexually abusing an 8-year-old boy at a home in Sammamish for male members of the Tridentine Latin Rite Church. In his confession, he said the abuse went on for three years, beginning in 2000.
Another church member, 20-year-old Justin Kirkland, is charged with first-degree child rape and first-degree child molestation. And last week prosecutors charged a third man, Michael W. Muratore, 21, with first-degree child molestation.
Kirkland and Muratore remain at large, and investigators believe the so-called cult that reared them is protecting them from prosecution.
“It’s most likely that the cult is shielding or hiding them,” said King County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart. “This breakaway group is not recognized by the (Roman Catholic) church. They’re a cult.”
Belzak, now 20, pleaded guilty earlier this month to two counts of child molestation. He is scheduled for sentencing Monday in juvenile court. Prosecutors say they’ll recommend a judge send Belzak to intensive sexual deviancy treatment before determining how much time he should serve.
According to charging papers, the victim’s mother went to Bellevue police in April 2004 after her son told her he had been molested while living at the Tridentine Latin Rite Church home in Sammamish.
Since her son was 2, the woman told detectives, he had been raised by the men and other boys who lived at the house. She said the church was a cult, and she was allowed to visit her son only twice a year.
She spent those years living with her daughters and other female members of the church at a home in Bellevue. It wasn’t until she left the church last year that she learned of her son’s abuse, prosecutors said.
The Journal could not reach the now-13-year-old victim or his mother, but she told KING 5 News this week how she learned her son was abused.
“They were raping him and they were telling him that it was OK, that that’s what everybody does,” she said. “It’s very hard to admit that these people that I gave my son to, that I trusted, are the very ones that destroyed his innocence.”
The woman’s son told detectives and prosecutors that Muratore was the first to touch him when he was 7 or 8. Three weeks later, he said, Belzak touched him and made him take his clothes off while other boys were sleeping in the room.
He said Kirkland later began molesting him, as well. The abuse went on until he was 11, he said.
On one occasion, he was shut inside a closet with Belzak, when Belzak began touching him. A man who lived with the boys caught them and spanked them both.
Urquhart said there are no allegations of organized or ritual abuse in the church, and the acts didn’t occur under the direction of any of the group’s leaders. Still, investigators are concerned that sexual abuse of children might be ongoing, and they suspect the church is covering it up.
The church, also is known as “Fatima Crusaders,” has refused to cooperate with detectives, Urquhart said, and leaders of the cult have even denied the existence of Muratore.
In fact, many of the children in the group have no birth certificate, Social Security number or any type of documentation. That’s why it has taken more than a year to charge Muratore.
“We had a name but it took us a long time to figure out who he was,” Urquhart said.
In a report about the group published Nov. 25, 2002, in the Seattle Times, Muratore’s father and aunt spoke about their decision to join the church.
A truck driver and father of nine, Michael E. Muratore, 48, said he and his wife left a mainstream Christian church when it began to feel more like social club.
“After three or four months, you learned everything,” Muratore said. “It left us with an empty feeling. There had to be more to it.”
The man said his faith in God “gives total purpose to life. When you have a faith — especially a purpose that says this is a means to an end, God provides opportunities.”
The men of Tridentine Latin Rite Church have since abandoned the house in Sammamish, and police don’t know where they’re living now.
Police say about 100 members of the Tridentine Latin Rite Church have lived in Renton, Bellevue and Issaquah for the last several years.
The church has no published address or telephone number, and the Journal was unable to reach any representative of Tridentine Latin Rite Church for comment.
The group should not be confused with other sects that broke away from the Catholic Church following global revisions in the way Catholics worship with The Second Vatican Council — or Vatican II — in 1965. The changes were intended to broaden the church’s reach and appeal.
Some groups formed new churches in opposition to Vatican II ruling to modernize the traditional Tridentine mass by replacing Latin with local vernacular and instructing priests to turn their backs on the holy altar during Mass.
A lay church volunteer who helps organize a weekly traditional Latin mass at St. Joseph Chapel in downtown Seattle, Jason King of Mercer Island, said he and his organization, Una Voce of Western Washington, already have been mistaken for the cult. The difference, he said, is that he is a Roman Catholic and the Mass he organizes is fully recognized by the archdiocese of Western Washington.
“This cult is separate and distinct from the Catholic Church,” King said. “It’s not recognized by the archdiocese. This cult doesn’t even believe that Pope Benedict (XVI) is the pope. They don’t believe there’s been a pope since Vatican II in 1965.”
At the heart of the mysterious group lies its founder, Francis Konrad Schuckardt, a charismatic leader who considers himself to be the true pope, according to members of the group.
The group’s history, as outlined in the book “The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism” by Michael Cuneo is marked by schism, controversy and police raids.
A graduate of O’Dea High School, Schuckardt was one of the original defectors of the church, following Vatican II. The vocal traditionalist was ousted from his congregation and spent decades cultivating a following throughout the Northwest.
Members of his church have described a harsh life with hours of prayer each day. Women and girls must cover their heads and wear long skirts. There have been reports of malnutrition and severe punishment such as shaving the heads of girls and forcing some to kneel during meals.
Former members say the church uses fear to discourage its young followers from running away.
In May 1987, a police SWAT team in California raided a house where the group was staying. They were searching for six children in two separate parental abduction cases. They didn’t find the children, but they did find a cache of prescription pain killers, several guns, $75,000 in cash and records of numerous international bank accounts.
The six children turned up elsewhere a few days later, after a new investigation into the cult had begun.
Urquhart said investigators have found no sign of Schuckardt in more than two years. Most likely, he said, Schuckardt is dead, although his church insists he is alive.