Aug 23, 2012

Religious Abuse: The Amish Hair-Cutting Trial

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

The trial of the Amish hair-cutting ring is set to start next Monday, August 27th. And prosecutors will be able to present evidence of Sam Mullet's abuse of his own parishioners: sex with other men's wives, paddling, the chicken coop, all of it. The government's argument is that these things are evidence of Sam Mullet's control over his flock, making him culpable for the hair-cutting raids on other Amish communities.

"His ability to convince those women, as well as their husbands and parents, to permit him to do so, establishes the extent of defendant Mullet's control over the community," the government said.

Based on that, the government said, the jury can conclude that Mullet was aware of 2011's attacks and approved.

In addition to the sexual conduct issues, alleged paddling rituals and punishing members by sending them to a chicken coop "are not inflammatory; they are undisputed facts" that the jury should hear, the government said.

Defense attorneys had moved to have much of this information excluded on the basis that it was unproven and prejudicial. But Judge Dan Aaron Polster has largely agreed with the prosecution. He found that Mullet's treatment of his own people is an element in the crime in question and testimony about that treatment can be heard by a jury. He did agree with the defense that prosecutors not use prejudicial language to describe the Bergholz clan which has been characterized by many as a cult. Witnesses, however, will not be so constrained.

Federal prosecutors will be allowed to question witnesses about Amish leader Sam Mullet’s sexual activities when the hate-crime trial of Mullet and 15 followers begins next week, a federal judge ruled Monday (Aug. 20).

U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster also agreed to allow testimony about Mullet’s use of corporal punishment to control followers, but forbid prosecutors from describing his group with words such as cult, sect, clan, band, schism, faction, offshoot, breakaway, renegade, rogue or splinter group. Witnesses, however, can use any terms they choose.

Judge Polster also upheld the request by defendants that they not be required to swear an oath, in deference to the Amish prohibition against swearing oaths. They will have to verbally affirm their truthfulness.

This is shaping up to be a very interesting case. Once again, what we're looking at is the psychology of influence and how evidence of that can and can't be used in court. As with the James Ray trial, testimony is being presented about a charismatic leader with a sadistic streak about a mile wide. And, once again, we have a defense team arguing that it's not a cult and that the word cult should not be used. Of course, the punchline in the Ray case was that it was the defense which kept using the word and battling a straw man that was never actually argued by the prosecution.

The cult question seems to be coming up a lot, not least in the political sphere, where Mitt Romney's Mormonism has raised concerns about how independent his choices might be were he to become president. I just watched The Mormon Candidate on Current, which asks that question of Mormons and disaffected ex-Mormons, alike. Many, including Mitt Romney's own second cousin, Park Romney, have deep concerns about the hold the Church of Latter Day Saints has on its members' psyches. Says the outspoken ex-Mormon, "I don't really think they understand the degree to which they are engaging in brainwashing. These are masters of mendacity."

Therein lies one of the trickiest bits when it comes to the psychology of influence. Not only don't followers realize they are being manipulated, many leaders don't realize they are participating in manipulation and that their own thoughts are not, in fact, their own. This, of course, raises larger questions about how all of our thoughts are influenced, by whom, and the point at which that becomes dangerous -- let alone a possible element in a crime. As I've said repeatedly, these are very tricky First Amendment questions.

The upcoming trial looks not to be just a trial about a hate crime that arose out of a sectarian conflict. Sam Mullet's crime is being framed as a case of religious abuse, whether or not that terminology ever becomes explicit. The charges against the senior Mullet will only really stick if it can be proven that he either actively or tacitly encouraged his followers to assault the members of other communities with hair clippers.

Religious abusers are dangerous and concerns have been raised by the local sheriff and some of the local Amish that there are shades Jim Jones in the Berghoz community. But I would also caution against the common assumption that religion is a necessary element in this kind of psychological tyranny. Bear in mind that the two landmark studies into the psychology of influence, the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment, had nothing whatever to do with religion. Abuse of authority can arise in any case of leaders and followers.

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