Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: When Religious Beliefs Justify Child Abuse

PORT OF SPAIN, Oct 9 1997 (IPS) - Thirty-two year old David Wong is today a bitter man. He has lost his wife and two children to a religious group, he says.

Wong, (not his real name) says he himself was fortunate to escape with his life after he was severely beaten by members of the group when he tried to wrest his daughters away.

He now considers himself, like many others here, a victim of the Thusia church. Previously an unknown entity in a country that prides itself on religious tolerance, the church shot into the limelight recently when another father, Roy Joseph, sued his estranged wife and mother of his 11-year old daughter for custody of the child as a result of alleged abuse at the hands of the leaders of this organisation.

In the presence of the press and police, the girl told a harrowing story of both physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her mother who is a member of the group along with other members.

The girl says she was barred from attending school, severely beaten for “possession by evil spirits,” and often went without food.

“They said I had an evil in me and they had to beat it out. They blamed me and beat me because they said I was lying and masturbating,” the girl said, as her father lifted her clothes to show bruises all over her body.

In response, the church hierarchy confirmed the beatings. In fact, they quoted passages from the Bible to justify their actions. “The rod of correction driveth away foolishness from the child’s heart,” was one of the passages used.

The girl’s mother agreed with the action of the members of the church saying the child has a “stubborn spirit.”

“If the civil law in Trinidad and Tobago had respected the law of God, she would have been put to death,” says leader of the church, Nyron Medina.

Since the leaking of the girl’s story to the local media, the authorities have launched an investigation into the operation of the group which is based in the poor district of Morvant in the mountainous north-western portion of the island.

The group which was founded in 1985 by 42-year old Medina, a lanky, bushy-haired and bearded man is officially called the Thusia Seventh-Day Adventist Church — an offshoot of the world- wide evangelical body of Seventh Day Adventists whose day of worship is Saturday like that of the Orthodox Jews.

The membership comprises about 150 persons including a 12- member board of elders. Four women are among the elders.

Following the widespread publicity and the attempts of the group to present itself as a genuine body, the local headquarters of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (SDA) has made it clear that the group is not affiliated with it.

“This is an offshoot group. They do not have fellowship with us. We disassociate ourselves from the beliefs, activities and practices of that group. They do not represent SDA doctrines,” says Cyril Horrell, Executive Secretary of the South Caribbean Conference of SDAs.

Meanwhile, in a sermon to his flock, denouncing the media publicity, Medina said the beatings the child got were “well within the law. All she said was lies, and you all rush to print the lies.”

Medina, who claims to be a medical doctor says the child had a sexual disease she contracted from playing with cats. But the child has talked about several instances when she was sexually assaulted by a member of the church.

“I used to refuse, but he used to beat me and I had to do it. He would kiss me by my lips as I lay on top of him,” the child says.

Medina also admits the child was not allowed to attend school but hastened to add she is intelligent. He says only children the group felt were strong enough to withstand the contamination of public schools were allowed to attend.

The publicity now being given to the movement has clearly prompted some defectors to come forward to tell their story.

One former member who said she wasted five years with the group is convinced it is a cult that is “sex-based.” She related several stories of attempts by the elders to encourage her daughter to engage in sexual acts.

The woman who requested anonymity says the indoctrination process is very gradual. While she was a member she was not allowed to question certain practices — such as members not being allowed to read any other book apart from the Bible.

“I went through real hell to get out of there. People think Medina is God. They worship him and he can do no wrong,” says the 45-year old woman.

“The people still in there are hypnotised. When Medina is talking, you have to look him straight in the eye,” she adds.

Raphael Bain of Mayaro, south east Trinidad, had a similar story to tell. He had three siblings and their spouses in the group — his brother Wilfred Fortune and sister, Susan Fortune-Gold, are still members.

Bain says members of the church are discouraged from having children. They say “Christ is coming soon,” and now is not the time to be having children.

Other beliefs include the wearing of long hair and a beard by male members. A vegetarian lifestyle is demanded of all members and the wearing of ankle-length clothes by women who must keep their hair in its natural state.

“Going to parties and the cinema, following friends, watching TV you cannot do that and follow Jesus, so we do not advocate such things,” Medina says.

As for Suzanne Fortune-Gold, Bain says his sister left her five children behind when she joined the movement. Those children are now in the care of her mother-in-law. She believes her mission is “to preach the word (of God).”

Two years after joining the group her marriage “broke up” as she had been told by the group she had to leave her husband if he was not prepared to become a member. They are now divorced.

Meanwhile, the 11-year old girl is in the care of the state awaiting a custody hearing on Dec 1. Lawyers following the case say in any question of custody, the Family Law Act says the welfare of the minor is regarded as the “first and paramount consideration.”

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  • Anesia

    where is the follow up on this story? Were the accused sent to jail? This is nothing but evil propaganda that is also libelous and google should remove it. Who is the author Avian Joseph? What is IPS correspondents?