Yesterday, Victor Barnard, the former leader of River Road Fellowship in Minnesota, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting two girls in his isolated religious sect (a.k.a. cult) over a number of years, beginning when the girls were age 12 and 13. As part of his plea, he has agreed to serve 30 years in prison.
If his name doesn’t ring a bell, Barnard was one of those “messiahs” who, when entrusted with the well-being of his following, tried to have sex with as many of the women and girls as he could. From convincing married women to have sex with him as part of counseling sessions to assuring girls they will remain virgins despite having intercourse with him, due to him being “a man of God,” Bernard knew all of the manipulative dirty tricks and exploited them until two victims finally came forward.
Once that happened, Bernard was on the run. He escaped the US and hid in Brazil, where he was finally captured and extradited to the US for prosecution.
Religious sects like River Road Fellowship are a microcosm of the purpose, and subsequently the danger of organized religion. Religious organizations are about power and control. We see it at every scale. From the international reach of the Catholic Church, to small-town one-room churches across the country, to Good News Clubs infiltrating our schools, to cults like this one, the success of religious organization hinges on manipulation and control. That’s how you keep people in the door and bring more into the fray — through manipulative evangelism.
Then we have those like Victor Bernard and the thousands before him who have taken that manipulation a step further, seeking sexual gratification as a bonus. It’s amazing to me how so many can be blinded by religious conviction that they allow, or even participate in, egregious offenses against themselves or other people, when in any other situation they would likely resist or cry foul. I suppose by now, I really shouldn’t be amazed. Call me an idealist.