Category Archives: Religion

The Next Challenge for Religion: Accept Mental Illness and Embrace the Sick; Don’t Shun Them

Soldier w folded flagOn Veteran’s Day last month, Televangelist Kenneth Copeland insisted that American veterans returning from combat need not suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), mostly because they were killing in the name of God and would therefore remain somehow Biblically “blameless” and thus emotionally unharmed.

The comments were moronic, and in fairness intensely criticized by heavily conservative religious groups including the Southern Baptist Convention. But Copeland’s words shouldn’t just be written off as an isolated and ignorant rant. There is reason to believe that many religious individuals- particularly ones with a “just world” view and a belief in an omnipotent if often inscrutable God- tend to want to explain away mental illness in terms of a spiritual failure or a demonic force.

Historically, this should come as no surprise. The physically disabled, disfigured and diseased were for millennia made to feel somehow responsible for their predicaments and admonished to either beg forgiveness or somehow pray harder. There has long been an irksome internal conflict presented to those who believe in an all powerful God Who would yet allow disease and disability to stalk His creatures. Certainly not all religious thinkers over the centuries wrote off these maladies as the fault of the stricken, but even as religious thought has evolved, the idea that people are somehow responsible for their fate has remained a tempting conclusion for those who have a difficult time with how God appears to work in the world.  It is also, sadly, a common, defensive strategy imposed by the lucky to distance themselves from the unlucky. Ask the legions of sexual violence survivors who have borne blame in exactly that way.

Where somatic disease is concerned, though, to a large extent, medical science, common sense and better standards of human decency have led most religious away from blaming and isolating the physically ill.

But we need to ask ourselves very frankly if the same thing is true when it comes to mental diseases and disorders. Prayer may no be longer be the sole remedy suggested by a deeply religious person for an inflamed appendix or a broken bone. Yet how often is it still being suggested confidently as the only necessary answer to chemical depression, organic mental illness, and yes- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

An Intolerable Glimmer and an Intolerable Focus on Controlling Women: Why I Still Fight Victim-Centered Rape Prevention

The “glimmer” is one of doubt. It’s the doubt that’s created when we analyze a rape perpetrated on a victim who was drunk, dressed seductively, or engaged in whatever behavior we have adjudged unwise and foolish. It’s a glimmer that allows for the blaming- ever so slightly, but still substantively- of the victim. It’s a glimmer that allows for the exoneration- ever so slightly, but still substantively- of the offender.

That’s what victim-centered rape prevention does. Regardless of how well-intentioned. Regardless of how coldly logical. Regardless of the reservoir of love and benevolence that lies behind it. Regardless. It still serves to create the glimmer. And the glimmer is too much.

See, we can claim we’re not blaming victims all we want when we advise seemingly obvious and demonstrably effective means of prevention. It does not matter; the effect still serves to blame victims and protect offenders. Why? Because sexual violence is a crime different from any other.

Read that again. Rape is categorically, undeniably in a class by itself. When one person attacks another sexually, the crime is analyzed differently than any other. Since criticizing Emily Yoffe’s State pieces earlier this week (her pieces are here and here) , I have received dozens of messages from people who construct analogies to other crimes to describe why her key advice (control your drinking) is simply sound advice and not victim blaming, regardless of how unfair it might seem. Others shake their heads and tell me I can wish for a kinder, fairer world all I want, but they’ll be damned if they won’t tell their daughters and sons exactly “what not to do” in order to protect them.

That’s understandable. But here is an undeniable truth: Leave aside my belief that all that advice, even if it works in many situations, also potentially opens up the hearers to other vectors of attack. For those who would still prefer to create rules and encourage loved ones to follow them in order to best play the odds, I will challenge them on at least one aspect of their thinking: They cannot avoid a charge of victim-blaming by claiming they would give similar advice to anyone in order to avoid, say, robbery (by walking on well-lit streets), or car theft (by locking doors).

Rape isn’t like robbery, car theft, or even murder. Sex, and how we view it, doesn’t allow for that.

The nature of sexuality in our culture (and most others) does not allow for it to be analogized to any other crime. The nuances and complexities of sexual interaction, seduction, flirtation, gender roles, the intensely private and culturally shame-based nature of the whole subject, the relation of the sexual organs to the excretory ones, the continued prizing of “purity,” etc, etc, etc, all combine to make sexual crime one that is always analyzed differently from any other.

So the danger of tipping the scales even a tiny bit and judging victim choices, thus marginally exonerating offenders, is magnified with sexual crime.

Another hard truth: The further we dig into the nature of sexual crime, the further we must dig into the nature of sex itself. And that means taking an honest look at gender roles, expectations, and deep-seated fears and obsessions that have shaped how society judges, treats, confines, punishes and subjugates women.

Read that again also, if you would. Far too much of the debate concerning how women can and should protect themselves from men is polluted with the continuing and still deeply unresolved obsession that men (and some women as well) still have with women as sexual beings. Our major religions, our societal structures, our laws, customs and mores. How many are hyper-focused on controlling female sexuality? When we can answer that question honestly and accurately, we’ll have uncovered much of what is wrong with how we seek to prevent rape.

That, in a nutshell, is why I find even the best intentioned, victim-centered prevention strategists to be ultimately wrong-headed. Try as they might, they are still tipping the scales. They are still creating doubt. As a prosecutor, that’s a thing I was trained very carefully to avoid when justice is on the line.

Child Protection in Virginia: Cuccinelli Is A Fraudulent Standard Bearer

Virginia’s Crimes Against Nature statute (it punishes as a felony anal and oral sex) was one I viewed as somewhere between sad and silly when I first encountered it as an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney. But as a child abuse prosecutor there were times it was a useful, if awkward tool.  

Some have mistakenly stated Virginia’s “age of consent” as 15. That isn’t true if “age of consent” is defined as the age at which someone can legally consent to sexual intercourse. Virginia does punish sex between adults and teenagers 15 – 17 years old. The crime is a Class 1 misdemeanor under Virginia’s “contributing to the delinquency” statute with a maximum jail sentence of 12 months. Petit larceny is also a class 1 misdemeanor. So if I, at 46, were having sex with a 15 year-old girl, I’d be guilty of the same level of crime as if I’d stolen a candy bar.

For this reason, there were times when Virginia ACA’s looked to the Crimes Against Nature statute to pursue egregious cases of “contributing,” i.e, where we knew of, for instance, a 40 year-old who was sexually exploiting a 16 year-old. If we could prove the defendant engaged in oral or anal sex with the victim, we could charge the felony because of the antiquated law.

This approach was halted, though, with the MacDonald v Moose decision in March, which rendered Virginia’s Crimes Against Nature law unconstitutional. Looking to the 2003 landmark Lawrence v. Texas decision, the 4th Circuit federal appeals court ruled that Virginia can’t criminalize consensual oral or anal sex between adults. MacDonald was convicted of solicitation to a commit a felony, meaning he enticed a 17 year-old to perform oral sex. Since the underlying crime (oral sex, or “sodomy”) couldn’t be a felony, neither could his criminal solicitation.

Cuccinelli wants that decision overturned in hopes that Virginia’s law could survive in “as applied” form, meaning it could still be invoked in cases involving minor teens, i.e, the way child abuse prosecutors have used it over time. He argues that sex offenders under supervision due to the use of the law will be freed if the ruling stands and their convictions are overturned.

Fair enough, but interestingly, Cuccinelli as a state senator helped to kill a bill in 2004 that would have made Virginia’s Crimes Against Nature law “Lawrence proof,” meaning it would have made oral and anal sex between consenting adults legal, as case law now demands. Between adults and older minors, it would have criminalized oral and anal sex the same way vaginal intercourse is now criminalized- as a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt for a moment, I can understand opposing a bill that would have preserved only misdemeanor criminalization of sexual acts between adults and teens. In my mind, Virginia should punish serious sexual contact- given a certain age difference- as a felony, period. But if Cuccinelli agrees, why in nearly 10 years hasn’t he called for raising the age of consent across the board to protect minors? Instead he seems focused on “homosexual acts,” which he believes should remain crimes because he thinks it’s appropriate public policy. 

Cuccinelli is more than a religious conservative; In 2010, he distributed office lapel pins altered to cover the breast of Virtus, the Roman Goddess of Bravery, which adorns the Commonwealth Seal. Three centuries of Virginia legislators and 45 previous Attorneys General, most with religious backgrounds just as strong (and cultural strictures far stronger) than Cuccenelli’s, somehow accepted the bare-breasted figure as exactly what it was supposed to be; a classical and non-sexual symbol used to visualize the defeat of tyranny. Cuccinelli saw it as “not family-friendly.” This is religious extremism paired with adolescent ignorance and narrow-mindedness, but gone mainstream and with power. In short, it is frightening.

To be fair, Cuccinelli has been strong on issues like human trafficking and has long seemed concerned with sexual exploitation and abuse in general. Those policy instincts are laudable. But otherwise he speaks and acts like a typical religious extremist and anti-gay bigot, continuing to argue that “homosexual acts” should be criminalized as sound public policy. He has the right this view, but not the right to drag the issue of child protection into it when he has other tools to work with.

Unheeded Warnings: The Puppeteer “Wannabe” Child Molester Cannibal And His Environment

“He has no criminal record in Florida, which helps explain his frictionless association with these groups, many of which routinely perform background checks.”-Peter Jamison, Tampa Bay Times.

The quote above was a minor footnote in the article about Ronald William Brown, the youth minister and puppeteer from Largo, Florida who was recently sentenced to 20 years for possession of child pornography and investigated for conspiracy to rape, murder and actually cook and eat an identified, targeted child at his local church. But the quote makes a strong point anyway.

Many youth organizations, religious and non-religious, perform criminal background checks of candidates and current employees. The problem is they’re usually worthless. Child predators, particularly relatively educated, middle-class white men with ties to the community and convenient covers for their methods, are usually not criminally versatile, meaning they don’t engage in “typical crimes” like robbery, burglary, car theft, etc that are most often reported immediately (unlike child abuse, particularly sexual abuse). So between the very low rate of reporting child abuse and the low likelihood that it will be successfully prosecuted, there’s nothing to alert well-intentioned leaders of youth groups that a certain candidate is dangerous. This played out exactly as expected in Brown’s case where there was no footprint in the criminal law reflecting the reality of his pathology and intentions to act on it.

Nevertheless, there were warnings.

From the same article: “In 1998, a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy stopped Brown for a traffic violation and observed boy’s underwear between his front seats. Brown said he used the underwear to dress his puppets. In 2010, Largo police were called to Brown’s house by a neighbor who had suspicions about his habit of driving boys around. No arrest resulted.”

Most likely, no blame lies with the police officers who were alerted to these facts but made no arrests. As is typical, Brown was ready with a plausible explanation on both occasions, the first a tragic 14 years before his arrest in 2012. I say tragic because although the Federal prosecutors who pursued Brown found no evidence of him actually harming children, it is at least quite possible that he did so to one degree or another given the access he created over the years through many different venues. His attorney insisted that Brown’s pathology was limited to fantasy, and thankfully this was challenged by the prosecution and the judge. But even in the court proceedings, the assumption by all parties (prosecution, defense and the bench) seemed to be that Brown had not yet acted on his impulses.

Granted, that assumption is appropriate in terms of legal sanctions for Brown; he cannot be convicted or punished for what he might have done or wished he could have done. But the fact is, given how infrequently children report acts of abuse and how often men like Brown get away with them, we’ll likely never know for sure what he did over the many years his pathology evolved and metastasized. Brown alone drove groups of children to church in a van the church itself provided. He had them over for pizza and proselytizing.

The pastor from Brown’s church, Randy Morris, where Brown was active for more than 15 years, stated that, to his knowledge, Brown was never alone “at the church, with any child, at any time.” I’m sorry, but that should be little comfort to parents whose children interacted with Brown over time. The more jaded among us (those who have, for example, seen Brown’s now vintage ventriloquism on the Christian Television Network) may assert that leaders and involved parents at Brown’s Gulf Coast Church were foolishly naive to give him any access to children, ever. After all, Brown did match every Internet child molester stereotype, right down to his trailer formerly shared with his parents and pet cat. But in fairness, the typical Evangelical pastor is often not the typical young adult on the internet looking to make fun of something salacious.

Regardless, the question becomes whether a decision-making leader like Randy Morris should monitor people like Brown, with not only conviction records but also arrest records (they are public), and with any other available and potentially reliable information. The answer should be obvious.