Features

Fatal revelation

National | How a small "Christian" Bible study group turned into a deadly cult

Issue: "Reining in the UN," Feb. 17, 2001

in Attleboro, Mass.-On a small cul-de-sac in Attleboro, Mass.-about an hour south of Boston-stands a modest duplex home with a white picket fence and white ruffled curtains adorning the windows. This is the home of cult members recently accused of murdering a 10-month-old baby named Samuel. According to written and eyewitness testimony, Samuel's parents, Karen and Jacques Robidoux, and 11 other adults watched and methodically took notes as Samuel slowly starved to death. They thought they were obeying God. The Robidoux family belongs to a small Attleboro cult that loosely refers to itself as "The Body" and claims to follow the Bible. Last spring members of the cult, composed of 13 adults and 13 children, believed they had received a revelation from God that Samuel could no longer eat solid foods. After the cult allegedly denied him solid food for two months, Samuel died in April 1999, three days before his first birthday. Four months later, another baby, Jeremiah Corneau, died under the cult's care when members, in accordance with their belief that modern society is evil, allegedly neglected to seek help from a doctor during a difficult birth. The deaths of Samuel and Jeremiah are frightening examples of the havoc wreaked when practicing "Christians" replace the Bible's eternal authority with the shifting sands of man-made "revelation." The incidents also provide a tragic reminder that it is possible to believe lies sincerely, and that sometimes those lies have deadly consequences. The Body didn't start out deadly. According to ex-cult member Dennis Mingo, the Attleboro cult began as a benign Bible study. When he joined in 1986 at age 22, only six people belonged to the group. They met once a week to study Scripture, rotating through each others' living rooms. Mr. Mingo was introduced to the group through his girlfriend Michelle, whose father led the Bible study. "I was hungry to learn. I knew there was a God and I just wanted more information," he said, recalling how excited he was about "learning the word of God for the first time." The following year, Mr. Mingo married Michelle Robidoux, and the couple raised five children over the next 12 years. What Mr. Mingo didn't know was that Michelle's father, Roland Robidoux, had previously left another cult. According to cult researchers, Mr. Robidoux in 1976 had abandoned his position as an elder in a Rhode Island-based cult, vowing never to join another high-control group. Cults, some with Christian roots, have proliferated in recent years. In a society characterized increasingly by fragmented families, many people search for intimate and stable personal environments-something modern mega-churches often fail to provide. Some 185,000 Americans join cults each year, according to the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center, a cult-exit program, and more than 3,000 "destructive" cults currently exist in the United States. As head of the New England Institute of Religious Research (NEIRR), Bob Pardon, a former Congregational minister, has worked with over 30 cults. The subtle transition from theologically off-base Bible study into a full-blown cult is marked with clear warning signs, he said. One glaring red flag: lack of accountability. Most budding cults disassociate themselves from historical Christianity. By contrast, respected Christian reformers relied on historical biblical understanding to make arguments for change. "Cults essentially wipe the slate clean and start over," said Mr. Pardon-and that's what happened in Attleboro. A close-knit family environment attracted Mr. Mingo to the Attleboro group. "I came from a broken home. So for me, it was like going back in time to The Waltons," he said. At first, it was a pleasant existence: Group members began each day with an early morning Bible study and worship time that included hymns like "Amazing Grace." Members supported themselves through a profitable chimney-sweep business. But over time Bible study lessons became more legalistic, said Mr. Mingo. Suggestions became mandates as Roland Robidoux gradually recreated the same environment he had escaped in Rhode Island. By 1996, he and other Bible study leaders had banned television, secular music, medical treatment, caffeine consumption, songs not composed by group members, and contact with the outside world-though they made an exception for the chimney-sweep business. Cult leaders also denounced all of the major variants of Christianity, discarding their hymn books and any connection to churches. In 1998, said Mr. Mingo, Attleboro cult leaders began to claim "leadings" from God. The leadings required group members to rid themselves of their bank accounts, jewelry, family photo albums, and all books except the Bible, because only God's knowledge was good, said Mr. Mingo. "It didn't matter if it was a dictionary, cookbook, or coloring book. They got rid of everything." More danger signs appeared: One person's revelations or interpretations of Scripture were being perceived as having more authority than the Scripture itself. In March 1999, after reading chapter 7 of the Gospel according to Mark, Michelle Mingo said she received a revelation from God that Karen Robidoux, her sister-in-law, struggled with the sin of vanity. To deal with that sin, Mrs. Mingo allegedly told the cult God wanted Mrs. Robidoux to subsist on homemade almond milk while breastfeeding her baby. As part of his mother's discipline, 10-month-old Samuel would not receive solid food so that he would be dependent on his mother's body. Karen Robidoux was pregnant with another child and her diminishing milk supply was not sufficient to nourish Samuel. Still cult members-including her husband, a cult elder-insisted she obey the "revelation." State prosecutors have alleged that Mrs. Mingo's "revelation" may have been motivated by her jealousy of Mrs. Robidoux's petite frame. Cult journals obtained by WORLD describe how Mrs. Robidoux countered the cult leaders' edict with Lamentations 2:19, a scripture that refers to "children who faint from hunger." But cult elders allegedly insisted Satan had planted the scripture in her mind to keep her from trusting God. According to court testimony, Mrs. Robidoux became so horrified by her son's gaunt body that she stopped bathing him, and shut herself in a room so she could not hear his piercing cries. Mrs. Robidoux faced intense pressure to obey, said Mr. Mingo. Since cult members insulated themselves from society, disobeying meant painful separation from not only family but also their only social circle. Plus, "You believe that these people are right and that they are following the true God," he said. To defy The Body leaders was to defy God. "Full-blown cults abuse individuals psychologically in incredible ways," Mr. Pardon said. "The prison created in the person's mind is often far greater than any physical bonds you could place on them." Furthermore, high-control cults often have deceptively innocuous beginnings, he said. Jim Jones, who led over 900 people in a mass suicide at the People's Temple in Guyana, was a former Methodist minister. The Waco Branch Davidians began as an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist church. In both religious and nonreligious cults, mind control is a step-by-step process designed to change a person's identity through behavior control and indoctrination, explains cult expert Steve Hassan, who heads the Boston-based Resource Center for Freedom of Mind. The process begins subtly with the "love-bombing" stage during which cult members shower newcomers with love and attention. Once new members let their guard down, cult leaders subject them to intense behavior modification techniques. Cults use a legalistic punishment-and-reward system to maintain control. Mr. Mingo, for example, resented The Body's rigid rules and occasionally snuck away to buy a Coke or secretly listen to secular music. Cult leaders learned of his disobedience and ostracized him from the group, a nonviolent but emotionally powerful punishment. Cult leaders hoped such "discipline" would change Mr. Mingo's attitude. Instead, a nagging sense of failure drove him into severe depression and spurred suicidal thoughts. He tried, he said, to obey the rules, but trying made him miserable: "I just figured there was something wrong with me." Although many cults claim to be Bible-based, in practice they ignore the work Christ has already done on the cross. By relying on man-made rules to purge evil, they deny Christ's power to take away sin. A legalistic perfectionism also underlies their emphasis on separating from the world. Instead of obeying the biblical mandate to become ambassadors to the world, cults see society as their enemy. Many cults cement member loyalty by instilling fear: Leaders convince members that to leave the group would mean eternal separation from God or divine punishment. Still, after spending 12 years with The Body, Mr. Mingo decided to get out, leaving in November 1998, but he left his wife and children there. Mr. Mingo didn't take his children, he says, because at first he felt his own departure was an act of disobedience to God, then because he wasn't sure he could support them on his own. Unaware of Samuel's death, he visited the cult several times over the next year to check on his family, even though cult members always ignored him and instructed his children to do the same. During those visits, Mr. Mingo noticed that the pregnancy of Rebecca Corneau, another cult member, had mysteriously ended without a baby. So when he discovered The Body hosting a front-yard garage sale in September 1999, he took the opportunity to investigate. Inside the house, he began a frantic search for the Corneau baby, not knowing that just a few feet below, two tiny coffins remained hidden in the basement bulkhead. Cult members had tried to preserve the bodies of Samuel Robidoux and Jeremiah Corneau-the baby who had died in childbirth-believing that at least Samuel would be resurrected. Mr. Mingo missed the coffins but discovered photocopied cult journals on a kitchen shelf. Hoping to find clues, he grabbed the notes and left. Later that evening, shock and anguish overwhelmed him as he read a detailed description of Samuel's slow, painful death. The cult journals described the events of March and April 1999, a sad saga during which Samuel eventually stopped crying, nursing, and drinking water. As his life ebbed away, the 1-year-old's eyes began to lose focus and he slipped into a vegetative state. During this time, Samuel's father frequently held him and tried to comfort him while his mother sobbed and sought refuge behind closed doors. The notes described the doubts of cult members anguished by the sight of a starving infant and their leaders' admonitions to focus on "spiritual" realities instead of the baby in front of them. The notes "wrenched my stomach. I could not accept the fact that Samuel was dead," said Mr. Mingo. Four days later he returned to the cult and spent an hour begging his wife to leave. When she refused, he told her he would return one more time before notifying police. "That whole week I was in turmoil," said Mr. Mingo. "I knew I had to go to the police but I really wanted to just get my family out of there." When Mr. Mingo returned on Saturday, Sept. 18, cult members barricaded themselves inside the house until he left. Then, at midnight, they slipped into their cars and, in a dark funeral procession, headed for Maine. Because of a supposed "revelation," the cult regarded Maine as the true Holy Land, and believed Samuel's resurrection would take place there. The group buried both infants in Baxter State Park. When the group returned to Massachusetts, they found Mr. Mingo had made good on his promise to call police. The Body's first court hearing was held in November 1999. Minutes before, officials reunited Mr. Mingo with his five children. Still indoctrinated, the children at first refused to talk to or even look at their father. But once they escaped the watchful gaze of other cult members, they quickly warmed up to their dad. Today, the children have forgotten most cult rules and relate to him normally, said Mr. Mingo. But they have not forgotten about Samuel. They still hope the baby will be resurrected. Mr. Mingo has given up efforts to convince them otherwise, deciding that time will prove a more gentle teacher. Eight other cult children remain in foster homes. The Body returned to the news in September 2000 when police learned that Rebecca Corneau had become pregnant again. To protect the new baby's right to life, and keeping in mind Jeremiah Corneau's death soon after birth without any medical attention, a Massachusetts judge ordered Mrs. Corneau into the custody of a state hospital (WORLD, Sept. 30). Katterina Corneau was born Oct. 16, 2000, and remains in state custody. Her parents, who have reconvened the cult under the leadership of Roland Robidoux, are fighting to get her back. While in jail, cult members remained outwardly apathetic, showing no emotions to court spectators or their jail visitors. But when Mr. Pardon showed David Corneau pictures of his three older children, whom he had not seen since they were taken into state custody upon his arrest, the apathetic façade crumbled. "He leaped up, burst into tears, grabbed all of the pictures on the table and out of my hands and ran out of the room," said Mr. Pardon. "Then he just leaned his arm on the wall, put his head on his arm, and sobbed." Hoping to gain immunity from prosecution and eventually win custody rights, Mr. Corneau led police to the burial site in Maine. In November 2000, the Corneaus were released from jail. Jacques and Karen Robidoux and Michelle Mingo remain in custody on murder charges relating to Samuel's death. A hearing to determine a murder trial date was scheduled for Feb. 14. "This [kind of tragedy] develops when people claim to have some kind of direct pipeline to God and there is no accountability and no checks and balances," said Mr. Pardon. "The Christian church needs to be very aware of that."

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