Aug 11, 2011

Religious Abuse

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Warren Jeffs was carted off to prison on Tuesday after being sentenced to life plus 20 years. He will not be eligible for parole until he's 100 years old. While I'm gratified that there is some measure of justice and that he will be precluded from directly harming anyone else, what's left of his life will never balance any great scale. He has stolen the childhoods of what is probably an unknown number of children. And, unfortunately, his incarceration is unlikely to stop the cycle of abuse in the church that still considers him a leader and prophet.

Polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, to his followers a prophet who speaks directly with God, is likely to continue to lead his church from behind bars after being sentenced to life in prison on child sex assault charges.

"The vast majority are just not going to leave," Atlanta-based polygamy historian and writer Ken Driggs said. "They've got family ties and marriage ties and a culture deeply rooted in their faith."

. . .

There was no mass exodus in 2007 after Jeffs' conviction on Utah sex assault charges. Most members remained loyal. As he spent almost five years in various jails, Jeffs continued to spiritually direct the faith, counsel followers and lead Sunday services by phone.

Elissa Wall, whose forced marriage at 14 to her 19 year old cousin formed the basis of the Utah case remains hopeful that his conviction and incarceration in Texas will spark some transformation in the church and lifestyle she escaped. But she admits that most are too thoroughly indoctrinated.

For those who have questioned why James Arthur Ray still has passionate defenders even after his conviction for cooking three people to death, witness the ardent followers of Warren Jeffs, a convicted child molester.

I was contemplating some of the similarities between these two men a few days ago when I read this blog post on Warren Jeffs's abuse of religious authority.

But as a religious leader myself, there is another aspect to the Warren Jeffs trial that I find particularly disturbing, one which has not received much media attention, overshadowed as it has been by Jeffs's horrendous sexual exploitations. That issue is the way in which Jeffs manipulated power -- specifically religious power -- in order to harm those entrusted to his care. One might term this kind of mistreatment religious abuse.

Religious abuse, as Jack Watts explains it, is "the mistreatment of a person by someone in a position of spiritual authority, resulting in the diminishing of that person's sense of well-being and growth -- both spiritually and emotionally" (Recovering from Religious Abuse, 2). Religious abuse occurs when individuals in positions of religious authority use their power to manipulate those entrusted to their care. It involves degrading people, harming them, and preventing them from growing into the potential God intended for them.

Much of that could have been written about Ray who also made promises of spiritual attainment to those who did what he told them to do no matter how degrading. Like Jeffs, Ray used his authority as a spiritual teacher to manipulate people for the gratification of his impulses; financial, sexual, and, I dare say, sadistic.

Jeffs, like many Catholic priests, used his religious authority to gratify his sexual compulsions -- largely pedophilic.

Warren Jeffs headed to prison Tuesday to spend life in prison for sexually assaulting two girls he took as his "brides" -- a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old who gave birth to his child. And Jeffs' niece, who has said she was sexually abused by the polygamist sect leader when she was just 7 years old, says she's glad her testimony will help keep him there -- most likely for the rest of his life.

"I feel a lot stronger now that I've put the man that needed to be put in prison in prison," Jerusha Jeffs told ABC News. She provided bombshell testimony during Jeffs' trial when she said her uncle had also abused her, coaxing her into sexual play by telling her she was special and that she would go to heaven if she complied.

I speculate that there were more than we know about because abusers like Jeffs tend to be prolific and to use intimidation tactics to silence their victims. In addition to his niece, his nephew and another woman testified to being abused by him when they were children.

A 28-year-old woman who attended Alta Academy, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints school operated at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon with Jeffs as its principal, began crying on the witness stand as soon as she said Jeffs’ name.

The woman said she was 8 when Jeffs summoned her to his office and asked her to sit on his lap. She did not specify what Jeffs did to her but made it clear it was molestation.

"I didn’t know I was supposed to tell him no," the woman told the jury.

. . .

The jury also heard Saturday from Brent Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’ now 28-year-old nephew. The man was in tears as he told Texas District Court jurors about being raped by his uncle when he was 5.

He said Jeffs pulled him aside at a family meeting, took him into a restroom, ordered him to kneel like he was praying, then raped him.

"He told me this was God’s will, this was God’s work," the nephew said.

Warren Jeffs also warned the boy that, "this is between me and you and God and no one else needs to know about it."

Jeff's appetite for young flesh also purportedly led him to smuggle children across the border from Canada.

In an affidavit filed in B.C. Supreme Court in February, the Ministry of the Attorney-General said it received information from a Texas prosecutor about the alleged child smuggling.

The prosecutor told B.C. officials that two 12-year-old girls from Bountiful were reportedly “celestially married” to Jeffs in 2005.

The prosecutor in Jeffs’s trial told the 10-woman two-man jury this week he “played a sick game of child molestation under the guise of religious ceremony.”

At least five underage girls were secreted from Canada to become part of Jeffs harem of 78 -- 24 of whom were under 17 at the time of their "celestial marriage." Recordings of Jeffs's instructions to his brides included directions on pubic shaving, I would speculate, to make them look more childlike.

It's alarming how many parents, Canadian and otherwise, handed over their young daughters to serve God by satisfying the perverse needs of their prophet. The FLDS devotion to the principle of polygamy served as useful cover for its leader's pedophilia. In my humble opinion, Mormon polygamy has never been anything but an excuse for men to exploit women and girls.

Years ago, I read Orson Scott Card's Saints, not because of any real interest in Mormons but because Card made the story of the church's origins engaging in a way that only he could. As Card tells it, Joseph Smith was a deeply conflicted man struggling to live with God's demands.
Of all the things God demanded of him, celestial marriage was the hardest, for it smacked of adultery even to him. And hiding it from Emma made it feel yet more like a sin. It was a sin, in fact, for celestial marriage was only to be practiced with the consent of the first wife. Hadn't Sarah given Hagar to Abraham of her own free will? Hadn't Leah and Rachel asked their husband Jacob to go to their handmaids and conceive children? But what wife would Emma ever give to him?

He could tell her that God would damn him if he didn't obey the commandment, but he knew that Emma would not be swayed by that. "Then go to hell," she'd say, "but I'll give you no wives but me." So to obey the larger law, he broke a lesser one, and denied his wife the choice that was hers by right. He knew that he could never teach polygamy to the Saints if weren't living it himself; and yet he was also setting an example of deception and faithlessness, because he had not yet taught the law to his own wife. Telling her, though, might well be the end of their marriage, and he could not imagine life without Emma. Yet the longer he waited, the more deceived and betrayed she would feel when she finally learned. Emma, my love, I have already seven wives besides you, and in heaven they will be mine forever.
As discussed, an honest reading of the Bible makes women possessions -- for polygamous Mormons, eternal possessions. In reality, Smith and Brigham Young also took care of that pesky problem of female choice by making it a devil's bargain. Women who did not "choose" to comply with their husbands' wishes were damned and lost their voice entirely.

Despite Card's great writing and impassioned apologia for polygamy, I just didn't buy that Joseph Smith was anything more than a randy husband attempting to justify his philandering. In closing chapters for the book, Card explains at length his own experience with his religion's history of polygamy.

Polygamy is the great smokescreen of Mormonism. For a hundred years whenever people spoke or wrote of Mormonism, it was that peculiar institution that drew their attention. A generation of readers of pulp fiction grew up with a picture of Mormons as dour-faced patriarchs who sent out handsome young missionaries to seduce or kidnap young girls and bring them back to their harems. Those who did not think Mormon polygamy was a moral outrage found it to be a bizarre curiosity.

I, however, never thought of polygamy that way. Even though the Church had forsaken the practice years before I was born, I was aware almost from infancy that my grandparents had grown up in plural families -- my one grandmother even told me stories of the day her father brought home Aunt Velora, the second wife. So the Principle did not seem strange to me, and I knew from the start that most of the most titillating tales of polygamy were nonsense. With rare exceptions, the men and women who practiced the Principle were quite Victorian in their moral attitude. Polygamy was not promiscuity -- all the children of all the wives were loved and cared for by their fathers, and adultery was regarded by the Church as a sin next to murder in seriousness. Women were never physically forced into polygamy, and while some no doubt were pressured into marriages they did not want, I suspect that there were no fewer non-Mormon girls pressured into equally detestable monogamous marriages. And some of my female ancestors, like Dinah Kirkham, were ardent advocates of the Principle. I know of no serious student of Mormon history who has found evidence to justify any other conclusion than this: Whatever other faults they might have had, Mormon men and women were almost never hypocritical about polygamy. It was not an excuse for promiscuity and exploitation. They entered the Principle as a sacrament and lived it as a serious family responsibility.

I think even Card would be hard pressed to describe the actions of Warren Jeffs as anything but exploitation. Jeffs used his status not only to procure a bevy of underage girls but to entertain himself with some live girl-on-girl action. More details of that bit of debauchery were revealed today as Texas prosecutors released the recordings which played such a large part in his his conviction.

Jeffs talks about group sex in one recording he made.

"Many thought the Law of Sarah was simply, 'I agree my husband should have another wife,' " Jeffs said. "Now I reveal to you that the Lord has required of me and this family, that the fullness of the Law of Sarah is for quorums of wives to be with me. To assist me. To be a comfort. Yes, even physically. Where more than one woman is with me at a time."

Much of the recorded material is being withheld by media outlets because it just isn't family friendly. Parts were reportedly so disturbing that jurors were visibly shaken. One was in tears. Such are the horrors that come tumbling out from under religious shrouds of secrecy.

Like so many religious abusers, Jeffs took cover under the blanket of religious sovereignty. He characterized his prosecution as persecution for his protected beliefs. It's an argument that has served polygamous Mormons well... in Canada as well as in the United States.

It seems officials are still stymied by a notion that somehow that might infringe on these pedophiles’ religious rights.

They ought to have been paying close attention to what Texas has done rather than diddling about like officials in Arizona and Utah. (There, at least politicians have the excuse of not wanting to offend their large number of mainstream Mormon voters by resurrecting the issue of polygamy, which they renounced more than 120 years ago.)

In Texas, only Jeffs has tried to make religious freedom an issue. Defending himself after firing his seven lawyers, Jeffs tried repeatedly to stop the trial by claiming it was religious persecution and violated his rights.

James Arthur Ray's defense team also argued that the State was treading on his First Amendment protected rights by exposing, among other things, his god complex. (Ironically, they also mocked the First Amendment protected spiritual beliefs of key witnesses for the prosecution.)

Prosecutors, civil attorneys, victim's rights groups, police, and politicians, in countries all over the world have discovered how hard it is to penetrate of layers of protection sexually abusive priests enjoy. Those who've sought justice from the Vatican have hit a wall of religious bureaucracy so thick that even the very Catholic country of Ireland is rejecting its authority and embracing secularity.

To understand the momentous nature of this event, you need to understand the history of Europe. It is one of a constant struggle against the power of the Church. The power of Rome was not only religious, but also political and economic. As nation states arose, the yoke of the Pope's writ increasingly rankled. Individual empires, then nation states tried to break away. Some, like Italy, eventually limited the power of the Pope to the 44 hectares that make up the sovereign Vatican State, as agreed in the Lateran Treaty of 1929.

Other states, like England, Scandinavia and parts of Germany left Catholicism altogether, under the banner of the Reformation. You could say that the US obsession with the separation of Church and State stems from the fact that the Protestant tradition in the US was born from a struggle with a Church that was once more powerful than any state.

I doubt the framers had Warren Jeffs in mind when they crafted the Bill of Rights. The freedom from state sponsored religion guaranteed by the establishment clause was devised to protect Americans from abuses of power by religious authority. That those protections can be twisted by some religious leaders to conceal their crimes could, I guess, be chalked up to the law of unintended consequences. But the simple fact is that leaders who claim to have a lock on "the truth" will invariably arrogate to themselves god-like powers. That they would abuse such power seems inevitable.

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