Cults — and if they exist — remain church sex-case issue
HAMMOND — Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the nation was gripped by news stories about children allegedly being abused in satanic cult rites.
The idea of children being abused in such rites was so prevalent that the federal government commissioned a five-year study to analyze cases of ritualistic abuse, such as the one alleged at the now-defunct Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula in recent years.
In 1994, the five-year report to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, the federal commission, found that a quarter of the 1,079 prosecutors, law enforcement agencies and social workers who responded to a survey had handled a ritualistic or religious-based abuse case.
The report, conducted by professors at the University of California at Davis, also says the case information that came from these agencies shows little concrete evidence to support the ritualistic abuse claims in these cases.
Independent of that study, Debbie Nathan, an investigative journalist and co-author of “Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern Witch Hunt,” found something surprising: She examined more than 100 ritual abuse state cases prosecuted from 1982 to 1989.
By the late 1990s, most of these cases fell apart, and most of the people accused of such crimes had been acquitted at trial or had their convictions overturned on appeal, Nathan said. Asked about the Hosanna Church satanic cult case in Louisiana, Nathan said she is “shocked” that prosecutors are still taking satanic ritual abuse cases seriously.
Louis Lamonica, the 49-year-old former pastor of the Ponchatoula church, was convicted Sept. 5 in 21st Judicial District Court of aggravated rape of his two sons. Some of the abuse took place during alleged satanic rituals at the church, according to testimony.
Lamonica will be sentenced Oct. 21 and faces a mandatory life sentence without parole.
He is one of two men convicted in the case and one of seven people indicted in the case.
There was no physical evidence presented at trial that the boys had been sexually abused. And there was no physical evidence, such as the existence of pentagrams on the floor or buried remains of sacrificed animals.
The boys, now ages 18 and 22, recanted from the witness stand their earlier allegations of abuse against their father. But Lamonica had confessed — and he recanted his confession on the witness stand as well.
District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said the Hosanna cases have never been about cults, satanic or otherwise.
“This case, from our perspective, had nothing to do with a church or cult or any sort of high pressure situation,” he said. “This case is about child abuse and molestation.”
Perrilloux said the two cases brought to trial so far have corroborating evidence of the victims’ statements and the defendants’ written and oral confessions.
Is it a cult?
The defense theory in the Lamonica case was there was, indeed, a cult at Hosanna Church, but it was Christian-based rather than satanic one. And the theory says the Christian cult exerted so much control over its members they falsely confessed.
That theory was presented at Lamonica’s trial by his defense attorney, Michael Thiel, through testimony of other church members not charged with sex crimes and through Thiel’s remarks to the jury to explain why his client confessed to molesting children.
“There has to be a reason he said it,” Thiel said.
“That is what I had to give to the jury. The only way to explain it was: ‘Yeah. There was a cult.’ I don’t see any other explanation you can give.”
The defense theory also is supported by Richard Ofshe, a social psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who for 40 years has studied false confessions and high-control organizations.
State District Judge Zoey Waguespack ruled social psychology was too new a science to be allowed in a Louisiana courtroom, so Ofshe, hired as an expert witness for the defense, did not testify during the trial.
That decision will be among the reasons Lamonica will use in his appeal, Thiel said.
After the trial, Ofshe said he could have offered the jury insight into the nature of cults to help them understand what was happening at Hosanna. He said he could have told them there is no such thing as satanic cults that abuse children.
If the initial statements of the children and suspects indicate the abuse occurred as part of a satanic cult — something that has never happened — then the truth of everything alleged in that statement is questionable, Ofshe said.
Ofshe was not involved in the 1994 federal report.
Rather than a satanic cult, Ofshe and defense witnesses who testified at Lamonica’s trial say the handful of members left at Hosanna Church formed a cult based on their Christian beliefs.
The defense focused on Lois Mowbray, a woman who claimed to be a prophet of God, as the leader of this cultlike group, witnesses testified.
Mowbray allegedly began ridding the church of people who challenged her, including Lamonica’s mother and aunts, witnesses testified.
Former church members also testified Mowbray twisted Christian doctrine to control the church. For example, Mowbray allegedly taught that sinful thoughts are the equivalent to spiritual misdeeds, so lustful fantasies must be confessed, witnesses testified.
Efforts to locate and contact Mowbray for her comments were unsuccessful.