New Research Reveals Secrets About Psychology of Polygamous Sects and Their Leaders

A judge ruled today that Brian David Mitchell, the man accused of kidnapping Elizabeth Smart, forcing her to be one of his multiple wives, and holding her between 2002 and 2003, is competent to stand trial.

Mitchell, 56, was declared psychotic and incompetent in Utah State Court in 2005, but Federal prosecutors, who indicted Mitchell in 2008, asked a U.S. District Court to conduct another competency trial.

Prosecutors asked forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner, an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and the chairman of The Forensic Panel, to examine Mitchell, a street preacher who has claimed to be a Mormon prophet.

To better understand the tenets of fundamentalist Mormon doctrines and practices and determine the differences between religion and psychosis, Welner analyzed the case histories of more than 60 leaders of American fundamentalist sects. He identified a number of psychiatric and justice issues distinct to polygamous and rejectionist sect leaders and followers and presented this research for the first time at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting in Seattle last week.

Welner, who is also a consultant to ABC News, shared his findings in a glimpse of the context he had to consider in evaluating Brian David Mitchell:

Q: What has surprised you the most about what you've learned about the polygamous sects?

A: The sexuality issues are not to be generalized. There are sects in which one finds absolute perversion on the order of the depravity scale, and there are others in which polygamy serves the sect in ways that have nothing to do with the gratification of the leader. This study has taught me that their enforced solitude and separation from the mainstream does often conceal crime that is more devastating to human rights than anything we cover in our most sensational news. But to simply dismiss polygamists as a bunch of degenerates is a simplified broad brush.

Q: We've covered a number of cases of polygamous sects. What is the connection with the Mormons?

A: Joseph Smith, the prophet who spawned the Mormon religion in the 1830s and 1840s, recorded the revelation of polygamy. Controversial even within the church, the LDS church advanced polygamy only beginning in 1852, some years after Smith's murder. Polygamy became part of the mainstream Mormon church identity at a time when Mormons were persecuted, slaughtered, and endangered. Antagonism toward the Mormons was quite active at the legislative level; polygamy was outlawed in the U.S. in 1862.

With the Mormon community largely migrated to Utah and dominating the law there, the practice continued despite an 1878 higher court decision in Reynolds v. United States that polygamy was not protected religious activity. Pressure from the U.S. government escalated to threatened harsh financial sanctions and threats of confiscation of property. Amidst this pressure, the church discontinued polygamy in 1890 with the Manifesto of President Wilford Woodruff.

The Mormon faith is one with a particular respect for scripture, history, and orthodoxy. In the years since the decision to abandon polygamy, dissent within the church has argued that polygamy is a sacred tenet, for having originated from revelations to Joseph Smith. Over 200 groups have splintered from the LDS church, many in order to restore what they commonly refer to celestial marriage.

Q: So are they Mormons?

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