Motive behind church blazes studied

Was it a joke, as a witness told authorities? Or the act of someone with deep-seated issues, as psychologists theorize?

The question of motive in a string of rural Alabama church burnings came to the forefront last week with the arrest of three college students. They’re seemingly unlikely suspects, all in college, all from upper- or middle-class families.

Ben Moseley, Russell DeBusk and Matthew Cloyd face conspiracy and arson charges in connection with nine church fires. Moseley and DeBusk are both 19; Cloyd is 20.

A witness told authorities she overheard Cloyd explain how the three began their spree last month as a joke, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Birmingham.

Psychologists, though, say whoever is responsible for the fires could have been looking for a thrill or acting out against organized religion.

Judith Tellerman, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, said people don’t burn down churches unless they have some deep-seated problems. Because the suspects are young, she theorized they might be rebelling against what they see as hypocrisy in organized religion.

“Young people have no tolerance for what they perceive as inconsistencies or hypocrisy,” said Tellerman, an expert on impulse control and destructive behaviors among youth. “Their minds aren’t fully developed. They’re more apt to act impulsively and rebel against it.”

Moseley’s statement to authorities that he and Cloyd burned four churches Feb. 7 in west Alabama to divert authorities is even more perplexing to Tellerman.

“That’s just too convoluted,” she said. “If they did that, then they’re pretty cold-blooded.”

Moseley and DeBusk were drama students at Birmingham-Southern College, and friends described them as outgoing, goofy, self-confident and energetic — all traits of the thrill-seeking personality, said Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Farley, who coined the term “T-type personality” in the late 1980s, said between 10 percent and 30 percent of Americans have a T-type personality. T-types are risk takers, and thrive on breaking rules and engaging in unknown and uncertain experiences. They like intensity and variety.

T-types sometimes engage in destructive and risky behavior, he said.

Farley said DeBusk’s involvement in what his college roommate, Jeremy Burgess, described as satanic Christianity and demon hunting is also an example of a T-type trait. Burgess told USA Today that DeBusk was merely pursuing knowledge in his new religion, and a demon-hunting trip was more about beer and music than off-the-wall rituals.

Despite the support of friends, it’s hard to believe the burnings started as a joke that got out of hand, said Randall Houston, district attorney in Elmore, Autauga and Chilton counties.

“I can’t wrap my hands around that one,” he said. “When I read that, as a prosecutor and a citizen, I laughed. I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

Houston said sometimes youngsters make mistakes, and his office will take that into account and work with them. That’s not the case here, he said.

“‘Stupid’ was the first church,” he said. “‘Malicious’ was the seventh, eighth and ninth church.”

If convicted of burning all nine churches, Moseley and Cloyd would face a minimum of 45 years in federal prison — five years for each church. DeBusk told authorities he was involved in only the first five church burnings.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Montgomery Advertiser, USA
Mar. 13, 2006
Mike Linn

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 13, 2006.
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