Cults - and if they exist - remain church sex-case issue

The Advocate, Louisiana/September 29, 2008

Hammond - Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the nation was gripped by news stories about children allegedly being abused in satanic cult rites.

The idea of children being abused in such rites was so prevalent that the federal government commissioned a five-year study to analyze cases of ritualistic abuse, such as the one alleged at the now-defunct Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula in recent years.

In 1994, the five-year report to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, the federal commission, found that a quarter of the 1,079 prosecutors, law enforcement agencies and social workers who responded to a survey had handled a ritualistic or religious-based abuse case.

The report, conducted by professors at the University of California at Davis, also says the case information that came from these agencies shows little concrete evidence to support the ritualistic abuse claims in these cases.

Independent of that study, Debbie Nathan, an investigative journalist and co-author of "Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern Witch Hunt," found something surprising: She examined more than 100 ritual abuse state cases prosecuted from 1982 to 1989.

By the late 1990s, most of these cases fell apart, and most of the people accused of such crimes had been acquitted at trial or had their convictions overturned on appeal, Nathan said. Asked about the Hosanna Church satanic cult case in Louisiana, Nathan said she is "shocked" that prosecutors are still taking satanic ritual abuse cases seriously.

Louis Lamonica, the 49-year-old former pastor of the Ponchatoula church, was convicted Sept. 5 in 21st Judicial District Court of aggravated rape of his two sons. Some of the abuse took place during alleged satanic rituals at the church, according to testimony.

Lamonica will be sentenced Oct. 21 and faces a mandatory life sentence without parole.

He is one of two men convicted in the case and one of seven people indicted in the case.

There was no physical evidence presented at trial that the boys had been sexually abused. And there was no physical evidence, such as the existence of pentagrams on the floor or buried remains of sacrificed animals.

The boys, now ages 18 and 22, recanted from the witness stand their earlier allegations of abuse against their father. But Lamonica had confessed - and he recanted his confession on the witness stand as well.

District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said the Hosanna cases have never been about cults, satanic or otherwise.

"This case, from our perspective, had nothing to do with a church or cult or any sort of high pressure situation," he said. "This case is about child abuse and molestation."

Perrilloux said the two cases brought to trial so far have corroborating evidence of the victims' statements and the defendants' written and oral confessions.

Is it a cult?

The defense theory in the Lamonica case was there was, indeed, a cult at Hosanna Church, but it was Christian-based rather than satanic one. And the theory says the Christian cult exerted so much control over its members they falsely confessed.

That theory was presented at Lamonica's trial by his defense attorney, Michael Thiel, through testimony of other church members not charged with sex crimes and through Thiel's remarks to the jury to explain why his client confessed to molesting children.

"There has to be a reason he said it," Thiel said.

"That is what I had to give to the jury. The only way to explain it was: 'Yeah. There was a cult.' I don't see any other explanation you can give."

The defense theory also is supported by Richard Ofshe, a social psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who for 40 years has studied false confessions and high-control organizations.

State District Judge Zoey Waguespack ruled social psychology was too new a science to be allowed in a Louisiana courtroom, so Ofshe, hired as an expert witness for the defense, did not testify during the trial.

That decision will be among the reasons Lamonica will use in his appeal, Thiel said.

After the trial, Ofshe said he could have offered the jury insight into the nature of cults to help them understand what was happening at Hosanna. He said he could have told them there is no such thing as satanic cults that abuse children.

If the initial statements of the children and suspects indicate the abuse occurred as part of a satanic cult - something that has never happened - then the truth of everything alleged in that statement is questionable, Ofshe said. Ofshe was not involved in the 1994 federal report.

Cult traits

Rather than a satanic cult, Ofshe and defense witnesses who testified at Lamonica's trial say the handful of members left at Hosanna Church formed a cult based on their Christian beliefs.

Cults, or high-control organizations, can be made up of first-generation adherents to a new ideology or be formed from an existing organization, Ofshe said. The cult at Hosanna Church appears to be the latter, where its leaders were longtime church members who took an existing Christian doctrine and applied it in unique ways, Ofshe said.

"That person has a tremendous advantage and capitalizes on existing beliefs, offering a 'proper,' 'true,' 'better' interpretation of a sacred document," Ofshe said.

Emerging cult leaders often kick out people who challenge their new doctrine, and rid the organization of competing ideas, Ofshe said.

Cult members also are isolated from their families and friends, who can provide a different perspective than the cult leader's teachings, Ofshe said.

What is difficult for the average person to understand is the amount of pressure applied by cultlike groups that could lead to false confessions or even acts of violence, Ofshe said.

The Hosanna cult

The defense focused on Lois Mowbray, a woman who claimed to be a prophet of God, as the leader of this cultlike group, witnesses testified.

Mowbray, 56, formerly of Ponchatoula, was arrested by the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office in May 2005 but was never charged with the crimes by the District Attorney's Office.

She was not called to testify at the trial.

Mowbray allegedly began ridding the church of people who challenged her, including Lamonica's mother and aunts, witnesses testified.

Former church members also testified Mowbray twisted Christian doctrine to control the church. For example, Mowbray allegedly taught that sinful thoughts are the equivalent to spiritual misdeeds, so lustful fantasies must be confessed, witnesses testified.

Efforts to locate and contact Mowbray for her comments were unsuccessful.

Besides writing confessional journals, members also were told to confess their sins publicly during Sunday services, witnesses testified.

Lamonica told the jury he was forced to live at the church in 2004 and work for "$10 a day" as a way to work on his troubled marriage.

He said he had no contact with his family or friends.

Lamonica's sons, too, testified they were coerced into making false statements in writing and false statements to authorities about child abuse.

The other cult cases

Five more former church members face charges of child abuse. Prosecutors have indicated Paul Fontenot, 25, of Ponchatoula, might be tried next, but no trial date has been set by the court.

Another former member, Austin "Trey" Bernard III, 39, of Hammond, was convicted on Dec. 3, 2007, of aggravated rape in attacks on one of Lamonica's son and on Bernard's daughter.

Bernard maintained he was controlled his ex-wife and Mowbray, but he offered no reasons for why when he took the witness stand at his trial.

Attorney Gary Jordan, who represents Christopher Labat, 27, of Hammond, said he plans to bring up many of the cult issues brought out during Lamonica's trial.

Public defender Reggie McIntyre, whose office is handling the defense of Paul Fontenot, indicated the cult will not play a large role in Fontenot's case.

Unlike Bernard and Lamonica, Fontenot and Labat have maintained their innocence from the beginning, never confessing to authorities or writing confessional journals, McIntyre and Jordan said.

"They convicted themselves with their writings," McIntyre said, referring to Bernard and Lamonica.

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