McLennan County taxpayers and voters of good conscience should start asking hard questions of their local enforcers of the law.
- How in heaven's name could these officials have allowed to flourish in the shadows of Waco the kinds of abuses against human beings detailed in a series of articles beginning on today's series?
- How long before they will act?
For starters, long-time McLennan County Sheriff Jack Harwell bears responsibility for upholding law and order in the rural sections 10 miles east of the city where self-proclaimed holy man Vernon Howell runs a religious encampment called Mount Carmel. Is it law and order when young girls are sexually exploited in the name of religion?
District Attorney John Segrest possesses the power to expose suspected crimes to grand juries and to seek convictions. Segrest should use his power.
More than two years ago, a detective hired by ex-members of the Mount Carmel cult met in private with law officials in Waco. The detective laid out what appeared to be allegations sufficiently alarming to get the full attention of those people the taxpayers employ to see to law and order. He offered to provide witnesses.
Yet, disappointingly, nothing happened. Of the reported abuses, a quotation from a sheriff's lieutenant in one of today's articles seems to speak for the prevailing attitude: "I considered it sour grapes."
When it comes to religion — any denomination or cult, any expression of religion or lack of it — we are a tolerant people, most of us. So may we ever remain. When it comes to the law, religious freedom is the very first guarantee spelled out in the federal Bill of Rights.
That the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel are a religious body with constitutional rights might explain in part local officials' reluctance to act. However, the right to religious freedom doesn't include the right to abuse others, whether or not somebody chooses to cloak his behavior in the language of theology.
The sheriff might claim insufficient resources. And yet a staff of 45 and a current budget of $2,066,250 (not counting 118 employees and $5,793,052 to run the jails) suggests that something would have been done by now had Harwell given the allegations the attention which they deserve.
Granted, statements to newspapers don't in and of themselves make legal cases. And yet it seems odd that two reporters, neither trained in the arts of law enforcement, can gather so much convincing information while inaction for two years has been in the path for local experts with badges.