All God's Children: Another Cult Tragedy

By Steve K. D. Eichel


[This column appeared in the Wilmington (DE) Sunday News Journal, on 4/20/08.]


Reading about the massive child abuse in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Yearning for Zion ((FLDS-YFZ) community in Texas is painfully frustrating for cult specialists like myself. Having worked with cultists and former cultists for over 30 years, I am amazed and disheartened at the inability of authorities to learn from history. Sadly, we don't have to look that far into the past (the Jonestown, Guyana mass murdering of children, the deaths at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas) or that far away (the bombing of MOVE headquarters in Philadelphia that resulted in multiple child deaths) to see evidence of official denial and incompetence when it comes to understanding and dealing with extremist religions and cults. What is especially painful is the continuing refusal to place the rights of children above those of their parents who practice their "religious beliefs" on the most powerless class of people in our society. Religious sects that deny medical care are a good example; all too often, children who get sick wind up dying, whereas adults somehow manage to be "cured." (I have always suspected that many of these adults see doctors on the sly. If only their children could!)

The FLDS-YFZ situation has been known to authorities for years, just as the neglect and abuse of MOVE children was known to the Philadelphia health, police, and child welfare departments for years. My colleagues and I were called in to consult with authorities prior to the MOVE disaster; we accurately predicted a violent confrontation and begged authorities to simply remove the MOVE children who were often seen playing in parks and playgrounds near their southwest Philadelphia compound. There was more than enough evidence of harm. The reluctance of authorities to intervene was based on MOVE's so-called "religious" standing as well as its allies' political clout. If the MOVE scenario or the FLDS situation had occurred outside the mantle of "religion," it is highly likely authorities would have intervened long before these situations snowballed into tragic proportions. European countries seem to know better. Their memories of the abuses perpetrated by totalitarian movements and governments on powerless victims--often under the cloak of supposedly religious belief systems--is still very fresh. Both Germany and France have official governmental agencies devoted to monitoring the activities of cults and sects (and intervening when they break the law). But in the United States we are quick to look the other way when abusive practices are enthroned in religious dogma and the trappings of religious organization, even when we know there is a substantial amount of psychological (and, in the case of children, physical) coercion. In fact, in this country it seems almost guaranteed that when concerned families or specialists dare to use the term "destructive religious cult," an unlikely cabal of cultic groups, left-leaning religious organizations, the fundamentalist Right, and the more extreme civil libertarians cry "First Amendment!" and that almost immediately ends the discussion. In my forensic psychology practice, I usually have to be careful to avoid using the "C-word" or even mentioning religious beliefs or practices because many judges will automatically disallow testimony on "cults" or the impact of religion-based coercion on children or adult behavior. During the murder trial of Lee Boyd Malvo (the teenage "Beltway sniper"), whom I and numerous other defense witnesses argued was subjected to cultic indoctrination to become a "child soldier" in John Muhammad's "holy" (sic) race war, it took an entire day just for Malvo's defense lawyers to argue that we should be allowed to bring up "cultic indoctrination."

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 these groups in adolescence or young adulthood. They can not be "deprogrammed" or exit-counseled; they have no "pre-cult personality" or lifestyle to which they can return. Growing up in an isolated community that sanctions and even encourages sexual abuse is very different from growing up in an abusive family. These children believe this is how the world (and God) works; they will need considerable expert guidance and long-term counseling. Keeping them completely separated from their mothers is barbaric (it is very unlikely that these mothers will perpetrate sexual offenses) and will only serve to 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." Exit counseling is a very specialized mental health intervention that, among other things, encourages cultists to begin to think for themselves and to evaluate their experiences in the light of information their group denied them. Like all forms of counseling, this intervention requires trust, and keeping mothers from their children does not promote trusting relationships.

Beyond the current situation in Texas, I once again find myself wishing and hoping we will learn from this tragedy. Research on how to monitor and intervene in cultic situations (including terrorist organizations like al-Qeda which I and others have long argued are somewhat similar to cults) is sorely needed yet remains unfunded in this country. In addition to a complete lack of governmental support for cultic studies, there is a continuing refusal 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 to my knowledge this expertise is completely untapped, even in the wake of tragedies like the one we are now witnessing in Texas. And so we are once again faced with a preventable catastrophe, and left to ask "Who speaks for the children?"

Steve K. D. Eichel is a psychologist based in Newark, DE and a recognized expert on the psychology of destructive cults. He is the 1990 recipient of the John G. Clark Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Cultic Studies awarded by the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), and serves on the Professional Advisory Board of ICSA and the Editorial Board of the Cultic Studies Review. In 2004, he was an expert witness for the defense in the Lee Boyd Malvo "Beltway sniper" murder trial.