Warren Jeffs' trial was nothing if not disturbing: First, Jeffs dismissed his lawyers. Then jurors listened to a religious tirade that masked as an opening statement.
And that's before the trial really got going.
This past week, those in the courtroom heard a recording of Jeffs instructing girls to shave their intimate parts before presenting themselves to him. Later, they heard an audio recording of a sexual incident between the FLDS leader and a twelve-year old girl, culminating in both of them saying, "Amen." With such graphic evidence, it's unsurprising that jurors convicted Jeffs of all charges after deliberating for less than four hours.
Even though it goes without saying, let me explicitly state that Jeffs' behavior is reprehensible, from his disrespect for his country's justice system to his repeated sexual engagements with minors. No twelve-year old girl should be wed to a man two to three times her age; no fifteen year old should be bearing his child. Jeffs needed to be held accountable for these heinous acts, and held accountable he finally was.
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' 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.
This is precisely what Warren Jeffs did. Using his position as a religious leader, he told his fourteen-year old bride that she was the "property of your husband's kingdom and the Kingdom of God on Earth;" he ordered his twelve-year old bride to "feel the spirit of God" as he raped her; and he convinced the parents of these young girls to offer their children in marriage.
In this last example, we see the way in which religious abuse becomes contagious: Living in a system that constantly justifies Jeffs' authority and theology in turn normalizes abuse, making it acceptable in the minds of FLDS members. That allows abuse to be perpetrated not only by Jeffs but also by other Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, including the parents who permit the marriage of their underage daughters and the ones who teach their sons that treating girls in this way is acceptable. As Flora Jessop, a former FLDS member turned child advocate told Harry Smith on The Early Show:
"Mothers have the instinct to protect their young, and these mothers don't. They do not step in and try to protect their children. Instead they hand their children over to these perverts knowing full well what's going to occur with these children, and that to me is just egregious in its own nature."
If there are lessons for our society to take from this trial, one was already stated loud and clear by the jury: Rape, sexual abuse, and underage marriage can never be condoned. But the other lesson to be learned is this: Religious leaders have tremendous power and tremendous trust given to them. That trust is a delicate and sacred thing. When religious leaders use that trust well, then we can empower people and help them to grow in their relationship with God. We can help them transform and find meaning in their lives. But when we make God into a false idol whose primary purpose is to gratify our own needs at the expense of others, we dishonor ourselves, our community, and our Maker.
Whether lay or ordained, those who call themselves religious leaders must ask themselves every day: What am I worshiping? How can I serve my community? Without that kind of prayerful introspection, religious abuse will continue to occur.