All God’s children? Another tragedy

Reading about the child abuse in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Yearning for Zion community in Texas is painfully frustrating for cult specialists like me. Having worked with cultists and former cultists for more than 30 years, I am amazed and disheartened at the inability of authorities to learn from history.

The mass murder at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1977; the bombing of MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia that killed children in 1985; and the deaths at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993 are evidence of official denial and incompetence when it comes to understanding and dealing with extremist religions and cults.

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What is especially painful is the refusal to place the rights of children above those of parents who practice religious beliefs. Religious sects that deny medical care are a good example. Too often, sick children wind up dying, whereas adults somehow manage to be “cured.” I have suspected that many of these adults see doctors on the sly. If only their children could.

The situation in Texas was known to authorities for years, just as the neglect and abuse of MOVE children was known to Philadelphia’s health, police, and child welfare departments for years.

I and other colleagues were called to consult with authorities prior to the MOVE disaster. We accurately predicted a violent confrontation and begged authorities to simply remove the children, who were often seen playing in parks and playgrounds near the southwest Philadelphia compound.

There was more than enough evidence of harm. The reluctance of authorities to intervene was based on MOVE’s religious standing as well as its allies’ political clout.

If the MOVE scenario or Latter Day Saints situation had occurred outside the mantle of religion, it is likely authorities would have intervened long before they developed into tragedies.

European countries seem to know better. Europeans’ memories of abuses perpetrated by totalitarian movements on powerless victims is still fresh. Germany and France have governmental agencies devoted to monitoring the activities of cults and sects — and intervening when they break the law.

But in the United States, Americans are quick to turn the other way when abusive practices are enthroned in religious dogma and the trappings of religious organization, even when there is psychological and physical coercion. In fact, in this country it seems when concerned families or specialists refer to destructive religious cults, an unlikely cabal of cultic groups, left-leaning religious organizations, the fundamentalist right and extreme civil libertarians cry, “First Amendment!” to end discussion.

In my forensic psychology practice, I usually have to avoid using the word or mentioning religious beliefs or practices because many judges will disallow testimony about cults or the impact of religious coercion on children or adult behavior.

During the 2004 murder trial of Lee Boyd Malvo, the teenage “Beltway sniper” who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area, I and other defense witnesses argued he was subjected to cultic indoctrination to become a “child soldier” in John Muhammad’s race war. It took an entire day for Malvo’s defense lawyers to argue we should be allowed to bring this up.

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The unfolding tragedy in Texas benefits no one, least of all the children. Children raised in cultic environments are very different from those who become involved in such groups in adolescence or young adulthood. They cannot be “deprogrammed.” They have no pre-cult personality or lifestyle to which they can return.

Growing up in an isolated community that sanctions sexual abuse is very different from growing up in an abusive family. These children believe this is how the world — and God — work. They will need considerable expert guidance and long-term counseling.

Keeping them separated from their mothers is barbaric. It is unlikely that these mothers will perpetrate sexual offenses. Separation will only exacerbate their traumatic stress.

In addition, it seems likely these mothers are victims themselves, and at least some of them may be candidates for what cult experts refer to as “exit counseling.” This is specialized mental health intervention that, among other things, encourages cultists to begin to think for themselves and evaluate their experiences in light of information their group denied them. Like all forms of counseling, this requires trust. Keeping mothers from their children does not promote trusting relationships.

Again, I wish and hope we will learn from this tragedy in Texas. Research on how to monitor and intervene in cultic situations — including terrorist organizations like al-Qaida — is sorely needed yet remains unfunded in this country.

In addition, we refuse to critically examine the conflicted interface between the religious freedom enjoyed by parents and the basic rights of their children. There is significant expertise among a small group of professionals who have worked with children raised in cults, yet this expertise is untapped, even in the wake of tragedies like the one we are now witnessing in Texas. So we once again ask, “Who speaks for the children?”

Steve K.D. Eichel, of Newark, is a psychologist and expert on cults.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 21, 2008.
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