Investigators: Eastside cult faces sex abuse claim

SEATTLE – Members of a reclusive religious sect claim to be dedicating their lives to God.

But the KING 5 Investigators have uncovered troubling evidence that some members aren’t following the law here on earth.

The Eastside group is known by many different names, but most commonly as the “Tridentine Latin Rites Church.” It is not associated with the Catholic Church or the archdiocese of Seattle.

We’ve learned that one child, maybe others, were sexually abused within the church’s own inner sanctum.

That news comes as one family decides to take drastic steps to get their loved one out.

Video shot by KING 5 News outside a Seattle hospital captures what appears to be a crime, an elderly woman surrounded and then snatched at the main door of a Seattle hospital.

The woman is Kathleen Raleigh, who just finished a doctor’s appointment and is then forced into a van.

Her captors are none other than her own children, who call this an intervention, a last ditch effort to save their mother from the grip of a mysterious religious sect.

“Her mind is in prison. She’s been told if she talks to her children and her husband she will be damned and lose her soul ,” said her daughter, Rosemarie Offenhauer, “and we saw that very vividly as we talked to her.”

Mrs. Raleigh is a long-time member of the Tridentine Church. After decades of running from the law and controversy in other cities, about 100 Tridentines have lived for several years in obscurity in the suburbs east of Seattle.

Now, the KING 5 Investigators have learned the Tridentines face their most troubling accusation yet, that they’re helping to cover up crimes against their most defenseless members, their own children.

“I trusted these people to take care of my son. They were supposed to be men of God,” lamented a woman who was, for decades, a Tridentine.

She lived in a Bellevue house with her daughters and the group’s other women. They were strictly separated from the males, who once lived in a home near Issaquah.

Only after she left the group did the woman learn that her now 13-year-old son was repeatedly raped in the men’s house by at least one, and possibly several, group members.

“They were raping him and they were telling him that it was O.K. 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.”

Life as a Tridentine involves hours of prayer, strict discipline and no contact with the world outside.

Former members say church leaders preached fear to keep them from running away.

“They had us convinced that if we left, we were automatically going to hell,” said former cult member Michelle Chestnut.

The indoctrination begins at the earliest age.

On Halloween, which the Tridentines celebrate as All Saints Day, the group performs an annual ritual: The smallest children are confronted by a person dressed as the devil, who threatens to drag naughty children from the safety of the church to the evils of the world outside.

“It was horrifying – none of the mothers liked it,” said one mother.

But former members say no one dares defy orders from the group’s leader, an elusive man named Frances Schuckardt, who they say considers himself to be the true pope.

At his peak in the 1980’s, Schuckardt headed a Spokane church, one of the nation’s largest congregations of so-called traditional Catholics — who split with the Vatican in the 1960’s.

Leaders of his own renegade church eventually ousted Schuckardt, accusing him of fondling young men, abusing prescription drugs and embezzlement, allegations he denied.

In the latest criminal case, one Tridentine does not deny he sexually assaulted the former member’s young son.

Steven Belzak, 19, confessed to child molestation and will be sentenced in King County Juvenile Court later this month.

You’d think church leaders would want to root out the problem.

Instead, detectives accuse them of blocking efforts to hunt down additional suspects.

“Everywhere they turn they’re hitting these walls were they don’t want to talk to us, don’t want to assist us at all. They want nothing to do with us,” said King County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Travis Defries.

An arrest warrant has been issued for another person wanted in the rape, 20-year-old Justin Kirkland.

But detectives say church members refuse to answer questions about his whereabouts and they deny that a third suspect identified by detectives even exists.

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Some of the group’s younger members have no birth records or Social Security numbers, making identification next to impossible.

“We do have one victim. There may be a lot more victims out there. Because of the walls that are put up around this organization it’s hard for people inside to get out and share their story and share what’s happened,” said Defries.

In the meantime, the woman whose son was raped hopes others within the Tridentines come around to her view of the group.

“God gave me that child to protect him and I didn’t do it. I just pray the other parents that are in that group will wake up,” she said.

The Raleigh family, in the meantime, hoped their desperate gamble would wake up their mother.

Her children drove her to Spokane to reunite with her ailing husband, who gave her flowers and recited their wedding vows.

The family was devastated when the reunion, the first in more than a dozen years, ended when Mrs. Raleigh demanded to return to the church.

“At that point I realized that my mother probably died 13 years ago. This is not the same woman I last saw 13 years ago. It’s a different person,” said Rosemarie Offenhauer.

The Tridentines declined repeated offers to appear on camera for this story.

In an e-mail, one church leader said “it appears to us that both the media and the government are stacked up against us.”

Regarding the rape case, he said, “it is my understanding that the accused herein claim that the accuser is lying and feel that the boy [the victim] is being handled and coached by those who pursue an agenda of hate against our church.”

He said church leaders are not trying to obstruct justice, but if there is a lack of cooperation, it’s because their members have no faith in the criminal justice system.

Detectives have been out recently hunting for Justin Kirkland, the charged suspect whose whereabouts are unknown, and they’re working on charging a third young man as well.

Anyone who thinks they know the whereabouts of Justin Kirkland is asked to call the King County Sheriff’s Department at 206-296-3311.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
KING 5 News, USA
Nov. 4, 2005
Chris Ingalls

Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday November 5, 2005.
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