This will examine the capacity of cultic and related authoritarian groups to harm children, physically and psychologically. The groups with which we are concerned are exploitatively manipulative and threaten children because they
- live by an absolutist ideology that dictates harsh physical discipline and/or the rejection of medical intervention,
- function as closed, often physically isolated, societies which resist any investigation of possible child abuse, and
- use religious beliefs to justify their ideology and reclusive nature. Their absolutist ideology provides a rationalization for child abuse. Their limited interaction with members of mainstream society (e.g., members don't visit doctors; children attend group-run schools) tends to close off the normal means by which authorities learn about child abuse and neglect. Their religious nature magnifies their capacity to avoid scrutiny because they can invoke the First Amendment in order to curtail investigative efforts. For these reasons, raising the question of child abuse and cults is not analogous, as some have suggested, to asking about child abuse and Episcopalians, or Catholics, or Baptists. The social structures and psychological dynamics of mainstream religions simply do not incline them toward child abuse and neglect as do the structures and dynamics of cultic groups.
Not surprisingly, child protection authorities cannot easily measure the scope of the problems these cults pose. Scientific literature on child abuse in cultic groups is almost nonexistent. Official investigations cover only a handful of extreme cases in which the death of a child served as the stimulus to governmental action. Nearly all of the other available information comes from individual court cases, about which newspaperreports are the only readily available sources of information. An early survey of such reports can be found in Landa (1984). Consequently, it is impossible to estimate the extent of the problem with any confidence. Moreover, the connection between a group's practices and child abuse and neglect is not always clear. Nevertheless, on the whole the evidence is sufficiently compelling to warrant examination. Much more research must be conducted, however, before we can draw confident conclusions about the relationship between cultic groups and child abuse and neglect.
This chapter will try to make the best of this unfortunate situation. We will first examine the psychological dynamics that make cultic groups especially prone toward child abuse and neglect. We will then describe the types of harm that have been observed in cultic and related groups. Lastly,we will offer some thoughts on treatment issues pertaining to children coming out of cultic groups.Psychological Dynamics
Markowitz and Halperin (1984) provide the most complete and compelling explanation of why child abuse and neglect is likely to be associated with cultic groups. First of all, because these groups are centered on the personality of a charismatic leader, the leader's idiosyncratic beliefs, no matter how mundane, may influence the group's child-rearing practices.
Because these groups' ideologies tend to be nonfalsifiable, subjectivist systems that are threatened by the outside world, ideology must be treated as sacred and unchallengeable. This feature becomes especially destructive with regard to children, in that, as Markowitz and Halperin (1984) note, "there is a primacy of ideology over biology...childcare may be seen as a disposable superfluity" (p. 145).
The cult's hierarchical structure and its setting itself up as "family" turn parents into "middle-management" with regard to their own children.How they discipline their children, what activities they encourage in their children, what they teach their children: such decisions are dictated by the group's leader. The parents' role as middle-managers can become especially dangerous for children when the leader measures the parents' dedication to him by their willingness to abuse their children at his request (Landa, 1990-91). In addition, the parents' dependence on the leader, the either-or mentality of the group, and the frequency with which members are subjected to oscillating rewards and punishments can, in conjunction with group strictures against dissent, result in a great deal of suppressed anger. Parents may then vent their frustrations on their children. Such projection of anger becomes even more destructive when the group's doctrine emphasizes harsh physical discipline, i.e., "spare the rod, spoil the child."
The child abuse and neglect to be described in this section, which offers only conspicuous, documented examples, is broken down into two categories: medical neglect and physical abuse and neglect. We do not separately discuss psychological abuse because, as the previous section implied, it is an inherent feature of the cultic structure. Nor do we discuss indirect cult influences on children, such as cult-sponsored programs being taught in the public schools, or deleterious influences on cult children that are not necessarily physically or medically harmful, e.g., custody disputes, developmentally inappropriate educational programs, The information base for these two areas is limited and the problems they pose are not as directly linked to the psychological and social dynamics of cults as are abuse and neglect.
We have located only one study that systematically examined the question of children in cults. Gaines, Wilson, Redican, and Baffi (1984) surveyed 70 ex-cult members in order to "determine the effects of cult membership on the health status of current and past members, including children" (p. 13).
Among their findings relevant to the treatment of children were the following:
- 27% of the respondents said children in their groups were not immunized against common childhood diseases
- 23% said children did not get at least 8 hours of sleep a night
- 60% said their groups permitted physical punishment of children
- 13% said that children were sometimes physically disabled or hurt to teach them a lesson
- 13% said that the punishment of children was sometimes life-threatening or required a physician's care
- 61% said families were encouraged to live together and share responsibilities
- 37% said that children were seen by a doctor when ill
- Medical Neglect
Swan (1990) examined more than 100 legal cases in which religious beliefs against medical care impacted on children. In dozens ,of these cases, children died. Although not all of these cases involved groups commonly considered to be cults (most were associated with the Christian Science Church), cults can, and do, take advantage of religious immunity laws pertaining to health care, against which Swan and The American Academy of Pediatrics have protested (Pediatricians urge exemption repeal, Cult Observer, March/April, p. 8. From "Pediaticians Fight Church Limit on Care," Pediatrics, January 6, 1988).
Hobart Freeman. This group had a maternal death rate nearly 100 times that of the state average and a perinatal death rate nearly three times the state average (Pre-natal and maternal mortality in a religious group in Indiana, June 1, 1984). As early as 1984 the News Sentinel had documented the deaths of "84 people who died after they or their parents followed the sect's teachings" (Zlatos, June 20, 1984). Despite a series of legal investigations, this figure climbed to more than 103 deaths (Faith Assembly pleas. Cult Observer, 8(2), 1991, p.5).
Among the deaths reported on in this story were a five-month old boy (son of a man who had dropped out of a medical residency to join the group) who died of bacterial meningitis, normally a treatable disease (News Sentinel, 1/3/91) and the 103rd identified death, an infant boy who died of untreated pneumonia (News-Sentinel, 5/15/90, pp. 1,7).
These fairly recent deaths occurred despite a string of similar deaths in the same group. For example, in 1984 a nine-month-old girl died from untreated bacterial meningitis (Zlatos, October 29, 1984) and a 26-day-old infant died of untreated pneumonia (Faith-healing believers sentenced in child's pneumonia. Minneapolis Star and Tribune, September 25, 1984, p. 8). Justin Barnhart, a 2-year old boy whose parents belonged to the Faith Tabernacle, died of a Wilm's tumor because his parents relied on prayer rather than medicine. Experts at the parents' trial testified that medical intervention is successful against Wilm's tumors more than 90% of the time (Couple asks supreme court to review faith-healing conviction. Cult Observer, May/June 1988, p. 6. From "U.S. Supreme Court Will Be Asked to Review Faith-death Conviction," CHILD Newsletter, Spring, 1988, p. 4).
Another child of a Faith Tabernacle family died in 1991 of dehydration and malnutrition, because he couldn't keep nourishment down, after contracting ear and sinus infections. In 1981 parents in the same group were convicted of manslaughter for letting their son die of highly treatable cancer. A judge refused to order medical examination for the couple's nine surviving children because of the state's religious exemptions to the juvenile code.
In 1990 six Philadelphia children whose parents were associated with the Faith Tabernacle, or First Century Gospel Church, died of complications from measles. With one exception, the children could have been saved with medical care, according to a local health official. Of 900 Measles cases during a six month period in 1990, 492 took place among members of two sects that run schools with hundreds of unvaccinated students (The measles epidemic. Cult Observer, 8(6), p. 6. From CHILD Newsletter, 1/91, 1-4).
In 1986 Jesus through Jon and Judy, which held that Jesus should be their only doctor ("Convicted in daughter's death," Cult Observer, March/April 1986, p. 19; from CHILD Newsletter, Winter, 1986). Not all cases that come to the attention of authorities involve deaths.
The following report from the Cult Observer ("End Time Ministries in Lake City, FL, were charged with child abuse in December for their failure to seek treatment for their 16-year-old son, who almost died before heart surgery to remove a tumor. End Timers believe exclusively in faith healing.
Although other members in several states have died in such circumstances, this is the first time a member has been charged with a crime. Before his operation, young William Myers, unable to eat, had lost thirty percent of his weight and was suffering from liver and kidney failure. In October, a physician from the Child Protection Team said William, whom he described as if he had been living in a concentration camp, was "at great risk of death, not only from his cardiac lesion but also from the complications of"' long-term malnutrition."
The Myers, who say they feel they made a grave mistake in not seeking medical treatment, add that they did not realize the severity of their son's condition. In April, the Myers' newborn grandson died from massive hemorrhaging when their daughter and her husban' ??? to get medical treatment for the infant. The inquest judge ruled that the "religious shield" protected the couple from criminal prosecution. From "End Time couple is first ever charged," by Cindy Swirko, Gainesville (FL) Sun, 12/25/90, 2B. On Dec. 20 Eighth Judicial Circuit Judge Nath Doughtie ruled that William should be sent home to his parents...AP in the Miami Herald, 12/20/90. In March of 1992 the Florida Supreme Court threw out the murder convictions of two End Time parents, whose comatose seven-year-old daughter had died after they treated her with "spiritual healing." It was the first time a state's high court has overturned the criminal convictions of parents who cited religious beliefs in denying a child medical care. The court said Florida law did not give the couple "fair warning" that they could be prosecuted if they relied solely on prayer.
In his book, Children of Jim Jones's Peoples's Temple. Wooden states:
Physical abuse of the young was part of the routine at People's Temple. As Jones began to exercise control, children were beaten if they failed to call him Father or were otherwise disrespectful or if they talked with peers who were not members of People's Temple. Belts were used at first, then were replaced by elm switches, which in turn were replaced by the "board of education," a long, hard piece of wood, swung by 250-pound Ruby Carroll. (Wooden, 1981, p. 11)
A People's Temple member described the escalation of punishments children faced:
Mild discipline gave way to making young girls strip almost nude in front of the full membership and then forcing them to take cold showers or jump into the cold swimming pool at the Redwood Valley Church. Unequal boxing matches gave way to beatings with paddles, then electric shock, and finally something [Jones] called a "blue-eyed monster," which hurt and terrorized the younger ones in a darkened room. (Wooden, 1981, p. 11)
These abuses occurred while the People's Temple was in California and regularly winning praise from newspapers and politicians.
Allegations of child abuse in the House of Judah, an ultrafundamentalist Michigan sect, resulted in the removal of 62 children from a camp run by the sect (Sixty-two youths taken away from religious camp. New York Times, July 9, 1983). This action was prompted by the death of a 12-year-old boy who was beaten to death for refusing to do his chores. A report by Ray E. Heifer, M.D. of the Department of Pediatrics/Human development of Michigan State University stated:
...These nutritionally healthy bodies have been moderately to severly injured by repetitive beatings and other physical insults. Of the first 50-55 children examined by a physician after John's death a full 20% had signs of severe physical abuse. For the children greater than five years of age this percentage increases to approximately 40% and for boys in this age range, the figure is 70-75%. Thus, the likelihood of a male child reaching adolescence without showing physical signs of severe physical abuse to his body is less than 25% (Helfer, 1983).
House of Judah leader, William A. Lewis, was convicted, along with seven other members of the group, for enslaving children and holding 12-year-old John Yarbough in involuntary servitude until he was beaten to death in 1983 (House of Judah leader and members sentenced. Cult Observer, March/April, 1987, p. 11. From "Seven sect members get prison terms," Minneapolis Star and Tribune, December 20, 1986). Lewis is now out of jail and has created a new community of 70 people in rural Alabama (Michigan cult leader's new settlement.
The Northeast Kingdom Community Church, which has branches in Island Pond,Vermont and Clark's Harbor, Nova Scotia, was the subject of much controversy during the mid 1980s (Grizzuti-Harrison, 1984). On June 22, 1984 Vermont state authorities raided the sect's houses and took 112 children into custody, intending to examine them for signs of abuse. But a district judge found the action "grossly illegal" and ordered the children returned to their homes. Fortunately, the group apparently instituted changes in its practices, including the registering of births and the seeking of outside medical help, that greatly lessened the reports of child abuse and ultimately led to a relative acceptance by the local community ("Island Pond Commune," Cult Observer, September/October, 1989).
The leader of a controversial group in Quebec, Roch "Moise" Theriault, received a two-year prison sentence for beating a child to death and burning and burying the body (Gaspe cult leader gets two-year jail term. Montreal Gazette, September 20, 1982). Having served his sentence, the leader then set up another base in Ontario, from which fourteen children were removed due to further charges of child abuse (Bellefeuille, 1986).
The Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper in Europe, described a taped sermon by preacher Darrell Dunn:
The tape tells parents when disciplining children to 'break their will," to "blister their bottom red," to "brainwash" them, to spank weeks-old babies, and reassure them that "little blue bruises" are a positive sign from the Lord. (Freadhoff, January 28, 1982, p. 9)
An Indian man, believing that Scripture-based child-rearing demanded that a child should be whipped "until his will was broken," beat his three-year-old son to death. The beating that killed Bradley Lonadier "was only one of many and only part of the torture that the Lonadiers inflicted on the boy," allegedly at the urging of Steven Jackson, the head of Covenant Community Fellowship (Harms, December 5, 1982).
In 1986 fifteen members of the Yahweh Temple of the Black Hebrew Israelites were charged with ritualistic beatings and child-torture. Five children placed under protective custody by authorities told how they were hit with switches, rods, and other items in biazarre ritualistic beatings ("Hebrew Israelites charged with abuse," Cult Observer May/June 1986, p. 28; from UPI and the Boston Globe, April 6, 1986).
In 1990 The United States District Court in Fort Smith, Arkansas awarded over $1 million to Robert Miller and his family, all formerly associated with "evangelist" Tony Alamo. A key charge in the suit involved the assertion that Tony Alamo put on "public exhibitions of corporal punishment, in the form of paddling, upon minor children; and the proof amply showed that Kody Miller, while being restrained by four adult men, was struck vigorously 140 times with a large wooden paddle by a grown man.
The evidence further showed that this punishment was inflicted in a room filled with adults and children and was not only painful (Kody's buttocks were bleeding) but humiliating in the extreme. One of the adult witnesses[to the event[, indeed one of the principal participants, was Kody's mother." ("Judgment against Alamo," Cult Observer, September/October, 1990, p. 3).
In 1984 Ariel Ben Sherman, leader of the Good Shephered Tabernacle in-Salem Oregon, was charged with five counts of child abuse. Sherman was accused of having children from the religious commune tied up and handcuffed, confined in dark areas, suspended by ropes from ceiling hooks, and deprived of food, water, and sanitary facilities ("Police seek cult leader," Cult Observer, November 1984, p. 3, from the New York Times, 11/23/84, A19 and the Middlesex (MA) News, 11/15/84, 13A).
Sometimes children are exploited economically as well as physically abused. For example, Eldridge Broussard, the founder of the disbanded Ecclesia Athletic Association, and seven of his followers were indicted in 1991 in Portland, Oregon on charges of enslaving children and denying them their civil fights. The government said that Broussard forced the group's children to be part of an exhibition team that participated in ranrung and other athletics, and showcased them to gain corporate sponsorships and money, all the while systematically beating them, depriving them of food, and subjecting them to overcrowding and poor schooling Ecclesia 'slavery' indictments,".
It is not surprising that sexual abuse will sometimes accompany physical abuse. The Swiss periodical Sonntagsblick told of 20 Children of God youngsters living isolated from other people, without schooling, in a house due to be demolished in a rural Zurich parish. There had been claims that sect girls were sometimes driven across the border to Germany to go on the street. A Bern Children's news agency reported the case of a 12-year-old girl from the group who was admitted to a hospital suffering severely from VD. The child was said to be in a pitiable state, quite apathetic, and barely able to read or write (Switzerland. Cult Observer, 8(4), 1991, p. 9. From FAIR News, Winter 1990/91, p. 5).
Arvin Shreeve, 61, leader of a purportedly polygamist sect, pleaded guilty to sexually abusing four girls under the age of 14 in Northern Utah (Sect leader's sexual abuse. Cult Observer, 9(2), 1992, p. 5, from San Francisco Chronicle, 11/8/91, A10).
The 28-year-old son of Connecticut cult leader Julius Schacknow was indicted for sexually assaultingg children of families in the 100-member group, 'The Work," for whom he baby-sat. The leader, who claims to be God and a "sinful Messiah," has himself been accused of sexual abuse in civil lawsuits, which he settled out of court, but has never faced criminal charges (Cult leader's son charged with sexual abuse. Cult Observer, 9(1), 1992, p. 4. From CAN News, 11/91, p. 6).
Sometimes children are killed during attempts to "heal" them. A couple and two young, self-ordained preachers were indicted in 1985 in North Carolina for the choking death of a four-year-old during a "laying on of hands" healing service at a store-front church. This attempt to rid the boy of a demon resulted, according to a medical examiner's report, in abrasions and tingemail marks on the boy's throat and a crushed windpipe (Parents and preachers indicted in death. Cult Observer, January/February, 1986, p. 11. From CHILD Newsletter, Fall 1985). In Louisiana in 1987 an eight-year-old Downs syndrome girl was strangled to death, while her mother was present, in an attempt to exorcise evil spirits from her body (Five held in "exorcism" death of child. Cult Observer, May/June 1987, p. 13. From "Five accused in child's death," Daily Sentry-News, January 11, 1987, p. 2A).
Children born in cults or brought into cults at an early age do not have a mature pre-cult personality to awaken. They are socialized into an environment that denigrates independent critical thinking, maintains members in a state of dependency, and fosters a private insecurity by attacking members' while demanding that they not protest and show a positive front to the world. Thus, the cult environment can create an anxious dependent personality (Martin, 1992). In the case of adults, this is a "pseudopersonality," ergo the rapid and large decline in dependency after cult rehabilitation (Martin, 1992). For children, however, anxious dependency may indeed be fundamental to the child's character.
People who join cults as adults learn a great deal about the mainstream world before they join. They may be indoctrinated into a bizarre belief system with bizarre practices. But if they leave, they can call upon their pre-cult knowledge about the world in their attempts to adjust to mainstream society.
Children raised in cults have little knowledge about the world, especially if their group was isolated. Therefore, when they leave a cult, even if its practices and beliefs were highly deviant, they will take the cult's world view with them because they know no other. Hence, their capacity to think critically and act independently may be deficient, not merely "blocked" as may be the case with ex-cultists who joined as units. Ironically, those children who were most uncooperative in the cult, those who rebelled may be most likely to make an effective transition into mainstream society, because they will not have imbibed the group's world view so completely as others.
First of all, medical attention may be needed. A complete physical examination should be performed as a precaution. The medical exam should include a thorough history, especially in regard to abuse and neglect. The examiner should keep in mind that experiences that we would readily identify as abusive may be perceived as the normal course of events to the former cultist, especially if he or she is still a child and has had little exposure to the non-cult world.
Second, a long-term psychotherapeutic relationship will probably be advisable. The magnitude of adjustment confronting such ex-cultists, their limited capacities, and the likely lack of a social support system beyond the immediate family (if that) suggest that much time and psychological support will be needed. Psychotherapy with these persons is not likely to be traditional. They will probably need immense educational effort, not only about how cults work, but about how the mainstream world works as well. Their education will have to include skill building, especially social skills, as well as cognitive learning. Many things that we take for granted may be alien to these former cult members.
Third, these persons will also probably need socialization experiences. Socialization is different from education because it involves much more than systematic learning. It consists of a myriad of experiences through which people learn the unwritten rules and expectations of a culture. It is difficult to "teach" someone about thousands of minor rules such as, to take an extreme example, the inappropriateness of asking a bus driver where one should sit. Individuals accustomed to years of totalism may be inclined to ask just such a question of someone they may perceive to be an authority figure. To a great extent ex-cultists born in cults must learn these types of rules and expectations through guided experience. Therapy can help with the guiding, but it cannot provide the real-life experiences. Furthermore, unlike in traditional therapy, the therapist may not be able to assume that the ex-member client will necessarily encounter experiences from which to learn. Unless the therapist actively encourages the client to seek out experiences that will contribute to socialization, the ex-member client may be likely to fall into a safe routine that limits his or her growth.
The suggestions above apply more to adults or young adults who were born in a cult. Young children will not only need therapeutic, educational, and socialization experiences, but will also need management as well. Someone will have to.. make sure that the various remedial interventions are coordinated and make sense to the child. Parents may be able to do this, although they may also be struggling with post-cult issues. Therefore, the therapist, or some other helper, may be called upon to function as an ombudsman, as the child's advocate.