The children released from Mount Carmel don’t appear to have been sexually abused, but they do show signs of being raised in an atmosphere with an “unhealthy, malignant and predatory quality of sexuality,” said a Houston psychiatrist.
Dr. Bruce Perry, associate professor of psychiatry at the Baylor College of Medicine, is part of a volunteer team of mental health professionals who have examined 19 to 21 children released.
They have worked with the children since March 7.
Perry, who released a copy of his report on the children to the media, hedged on classifying the children he’s seen as abused.
“President Clinton and Janet Reno are saying child abuse. CPS is saying, ‘Well, we didn’t see any supporting evidence to support allegations,’” Perry said, referring to Child Protective Services. “It’s a very complex set of issues.”
But Perry’s interviews with the children, who range in age from 4 to 11, did not confirm the allegations made by former cult members in the Tribune-Herald’s series on cult leader Vernon Howell, “The Sinful Messiah.”
Perry learned that many of the children were hit with a wooden paddle for minor offenses, such as spilling a drink; girls as young as 11 were inducted into wifehood with Howell; and many children learned paramilitary procedures.
During medical examinations, several girls were noticed to have circular lesions — “one inch in diameter and healing” — at the base of their spine, Perry said. Children initially said they had fallen. Later, at least one of the girls acknowledged that she had been hit by her mother with a paddle called “the Helper.”
All the children knew what “the Helper” was, Perry said.
The children said their mothers and Howell paddled them for infractions of the cult’s rules, including spilling milk.
So far no evidence exists that any of the children released before the April 19 fire that destroyed the cult’s compound were sexually abused.
However, Perry says, the children have talked about the possible abuse of children who died in the fire. The children associate sex with power, he said. Girls were prepared for sexual activity at an early age, “well in advance of their emotional and cognitive capabilities to understand the complete implications of their sexuality.”
“I don’t think it was any secret that David Koresh was into control,” Perry said. “. . . And I think there were some very malignant and destructive associations that these children were likely exposed to.”
Some of the rules governing the cult — the children told Perry — were that girls as young as 11 years of age were considered to be adults; boys and girls and men and women were separated; and men were not allowed to change the diapers of female babies, “lest they be tempted.”
Former cult member Robyn Bunds said nothing in the report was new to her.
She recalled that Howell ordered the men during a Bible study not to diaper female babies, after saying he had once become aroused when changing his daughter’s diaper.
“He thought all men were perverts,” Bunds said in a phone interview from California. “As for himself, he said that he would be tempted by all things.”
The family structure in the cult had broken down, Perry said.
Asked to draw pictures of their family, children drew pictures of “clusters” of their favorite people, Perry said.
Children had been instructed to consider Howell their father. Those who were not his biological children or those he had not “adopted” were called “bastards.”
Perry said the children were reluctant to divulge information at first. But over the course of two months, they became very attached to the social workers who visited them daily.
Federal officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno, cited reports of ongoing child abuse as justification for the raid that began several hours before the fire.
Most of the surviving cult children have been placed with relatives. A few remain in temporary state care, but they will be placed soon with family members.
Perry compared the life of the cult’s children to their peers in Bosnia, Cambodia and any inner city in the United States.
“You know kids go to school, and they hear gunfire every day,” said Perry, who is also chief of psychiatry at Texas Children’s Hospital. “This is a major public health problem. And we need to learn more about this.”
Perry would not discuss specifically the children’s reaction to the April 19 fire. But they understand, he says, that all but nine people died in the blaze.
Howell had such a hold on the children that, upon their arrival to a temporary home, they wanted to know immediately “who was in charge,” Perry said.
“I think some of the children feel a great deal of affection for David Koresh,” Perry said. “And I also think the majority of these kids feel a great deal of fear of David Koresh.”
None of the 21 children are Howell’s biological children.