A Brief History
On February 21, 1245, the first known Bishop of Finland, Thomas, confessed to charges of forging a Papal letter and torturing a man to death, among other felonies, and was allowed to resign his post. Far from an isolated case, many church and religious leaders over the centuries have proven to be crooks, hypocrites, con artists, charlatans, sexual predators and profiteers, among other nefarious tendencies. Many religious leaders have been the driving force behind terrorist activities, have been collaborators with brutal regimes, helped persecute and murder people of other religions, have covered up wrong doing by others, have engaged in petty and vindictive behavior, and have been phony prophets, taking advantage of gullible followers. Today we take a look at 10 of the more egregious cases of religious leaders that did bad things. Who would you add to this list? (Note: There are a bajillion candidates!)
Operating in far away Uganda where news barely reaches Western world, it is easy for people to not be aware of this modern day maniac and his followers, the “heterodox” Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). (Yes, we purposely used a big, unusual word. Heterodox means, more or less, unusual or unorthodox, or perhaps even contrary to the way it sounds.) Kony claims to be the “spokesperson of God” and leads his holy flock in some sort of misguided mission to “purify” the Acholi people while supposedly fighting government oppression. Blending Christian fundamentalism with an ethnic nationalism and with mystic overtones, Kony and the LRA’s characteristic tactic is to kidnap children and turn them into either child soldiers or sex slaves. His goal appears to be a theocratic government based on the 10 Commandments. Now fugitives in Uganda, Kony and his cronies operate in the surrounding countries. Possibly born in 1961, Kony is believed to now be in poor health, but his exact whereabouts are unknown.
Born Vernon Wayne Howell in Houston in 1959, Koresh was the leader of a breakaway sect from the Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Church, a sub-group known as the Branch Davidians. Koresh competed for leadership of the cult with another questionable religious type, a man named Benjamin Roden that had been leading the group. Roden ended up in prison for murdering yet another rival leader, leaving Koresh to claim to be the “final prophet” of the Branch Davidians. Koresh claimed to have Divinely inspired visions, one of which was that God wanted him to father a child with the 61 year old widow of Roden, a child that would be “The Chosen One.” Koresh also believed he was to lead his flock to Palestine where he would establish a “Davidic Kingdom.” Koresh even as a younger man had proven to have shaky sexual morals, including having an illicit affair with a 15 year old girl whom he impregnated when Koresh was 19 years old. He later claimed to have a vision where he was supposed to marry a preacher’s underage daughter, getting himself promptly expelled from that congregation. He then hooked onto the Branch Davidian group in 1981, and generated a coup against Roden by turning over evidence of Roden’s crime of murder to the authorities. In order to get that evidence, Koresh led an armed assault against Roden and his followers! Roden had killed his rival, Wayman Dale Adair, when Adair claimed to be the “true messiah.” Roden was ruled insane, and perhaps so should have been Koresh! Koresh adopted his last name in 1990, taking a version of the name of Cyrus the Great, the ancient Persian king. The first name, David, was in honor of his “direct lineage” to King David of the Bible. Believed to be engaged in various forms of child abuse, including sexual abuse, and of weapons violations, Koresh and his followers’ Waco, Texas compound was raided by Federal agents in 1993, a raid that was met with armed resistance and automatic weapons fire. In the initial firefight 6 Branch Davidians and 4 Federal agents were killed. Koresh had also been personally wounded. A stand-off ensued, turning into a siege of the compound that lasted until 51 days later when Attorney General of the United States Janet Reno authorized an assault to take the compound by force, supposedly for the welfare of the children still inside. Using mass quantities of tear gas and a modified tank called an M728 Combat Engineer Vehicle, the Feds poured in, but the compound caught fire, and in the raging inferno 79 Branch Davidians died, among which were 21 children under the age of 16. Among the dead was Koresh who was shot and killed by his second in command, who then turned the same gun on himself.
Another delusional cult leader with a megalomaniacal vision of himself as the savior of his followers, Jones did not need a name change to indicate his religious supremacy. Earlier in his life he had been ordained by the Independent Assemblies of God and then again by the Disciples of Christ. He started the People’s Temple cult and moved his operation to Guyana in the 1970’s, carving a compound out of the jungle and maintaining tight control of his 1000 or so followers. The reason for the move to Guyana was so that Jones could escape the prying eyes of investigator David Conn, who had been checking out reports of sexual abuse and other human rights violations by the cult. When US Congressman Leo Ryan came with a delegation to investigate claims of abuse by Jones, Ryan and his group were gunned down at the airfield by Jones’ followers. Realizing the certain invasion of law enforcement troops that would follow, Jones led his followers in one of the largest and most notorious group suicides in history, mostly by drinking cyanide laced fruit punch. Reticent followers that did not want to commit suicide were either shot or forced to drink the poisoned drink. Over 900 people died, and “drinking the Kool-Aid” became a slang term for suicide similar to “falling on your sword” or other euphemisms. Only thing was, the fruit flavored drink was NOT Kool-Aid, but a rival brand called Flavor Aid.
Tomás de Torquemada (1420-1498) was a Dominican Friar appointed as the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834), a religious operation ordered by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to root out non-Catholics and heretics. Thousands of Jews and Muslims were forced to flee from Spain or face coerced conversion to Catholicism, often being tortured into agreeing to make the switch. (Because that is obviously what God wanted.) Perhaps as many as 2000 people were executed under Torquemada’s tutelage. Not surprisingly, any critics of Torquemada or his Inquisition were labeled as heretics and tortured or executed.
Born in 1933, this Israeli Orthodox rabbi is still alive in Israel, though not in his former office as Chief Rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba. He is best (worst?) known for preaching that the killing of Palestinians is morally acceptable among other reprehensible ideas. His hard corps religious zealotry is racist and quite ethno/religious-centric. Basically, anything that furthers the interests of Israel and the Jewish people is good, and all other people and things are bad. A murderer named Baruch Goldstein that killed 29 Palestinians in an act of terror was called by Lior, “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust.” Lior mirrors the anti-Jewish rhetoric of Islamist terrorists by making statements such as, “Arabs are evil camel riders.” In 2012 he referred to the then serving President of the United States, Barack Obama, as, “kushi of the West.” (If it is not obvious, “kushi” is a racial epithet for Black people.) This “Man of God” has also said Europeans deserve the Islamic terrorism that has been inflicted on them in recent years by saying, “The wicked ones in blood-soaked Europe deserve it for what they did to our people 70 years ago.” (A reference to the Holocaust.)
Another splinter group leader, in this case of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS Church), a polygamous group not endorsed by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Jeffs is currently serving a life plus 20 years sentence in prison for having sexual relations with minors. A hallmark of his religious ideas was to force marriage upon underage girls with men in his cult, a practice for which Jeffs found himself convicted of, specifically as an “accomplice to rape” for arranging the “marriages.” He was sentenced to 10 years to life in prison for the offenses in 2007, but won an appeal in 2010. Far from being off scot-free, Jeffs was extradited to Texas where he faced charges of having had sex with a 15 year old girl and a 12 year old girl, both children he had “married.” This time the conviction was upheld and Jeffs will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
A famous television preacher, Bakker enriched himself and his heavily made-up wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, from the massive contributions made by gullible television watchers. A minister of the Assemblies of God church, Bakker hosted a TV show called The PTL Club, from 1974 until 1989. He also founded a Christian theme park called Heritage USA, though the place no longer exists. His (temporary) downfall came when news of “hush money” payments to a woman, Jessica Hahn, that he had been having an affair with became public. Scrutiny of those payments resulted in an investigation of his and his ministry’s finances, leading to his conviction on fraud and embezzling charges. After getting out of prison and losing his wife to divorce, he started a new television show called The Jim Bakker Show. (How people can give this creep money blows my easily blown mind!) Bakker has also profited from writing books about his moral weaknesses.
Sun Myung Moon.
A man claiming to be the “Messiah,” Moon and his wife are believed by his followers to be their “true parents.” His church is called The Unification Movement, and he is known for political activism and extensive business dealings that have resulted in troves of income. He is also a prominent advocate of the reunification of Korea and is staunchly anti-communist. A hallmark of his religious activity are the much celebrated mass weddings he conducts of his followers, people often referred to as “Moonies.” In 1982 Moon was convicted in the United States, his adopted country, for filing false income tax returns. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Born in what is now North Korea in 1920, he died in 2012. (Note: Moon founded the news media corporation that in turn founded the Washington Times newspaper, known for its conservative views.)
Have you been wondering when we would get around to bringing up the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy? We use the case of Philippe Xavier Christian Ignace Marie Barbarin, a Catholic Cardinal to represent that branch of religious hypocrisy and criminality. The erstwhile Archbishop of Lyon, Barbarin could easily be called “Barbarian” for his willful covering up of the sexual abuse of kids by Catholic priests. Charged in engaging in the coverup of the misdeeds of a priest in 2017, he was convicted in France in 2019 and sentenced to 6 months in jail. On January 30, 2020, his conviction was overturned on appeal. The number of Catholic priests accused of various forms of sexual misconduct and especially child abuse is so extensive an entire book or even set of books could be written about it. Especially disturbing are the mass allegations of cover-ups by Church officials, often accused of transferring offending priests instead of turning them over to legal authorities or defrocking them.
Now 98 years old, Angley is a Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio based Christian Evangelist originally from North Carolina that is famous for his television ministry that has reaped millions of dollars. An ardent anti-homosexual preacher, it turns out Angley is accused of a long history of sexual abuse of male flock members, conducting personal genital examinations and the like, as well as ordering forced vasectomies and abortions! Reporters investigating Angley say witnesses describe his ministry as “a cult, not a church.” Angley was recorded at his church admitting to the physical examination of male genitalia. Angley in turn mounted a campaign of invective against the former parishioner that did the recording. Like Jesus would have…
Question for students (and subscribers): Who do you believe is the worst religious hypocrite? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Alford, Warren. Relipocrisy (Religious Hypocrisy). Speckbohne, 2010.
Boston Globe. Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church: The findings of the investigation that inspired the major motion picture Spotlight. Back Bay Books, 2015.