Analysis - Future of sect is unclear after recovery of bodies

The Providence Journal/October 29, 2000

The biggest question in the year-old investigation of an Attleboro religious sect was answered last week when sect member David Corneau led investigators through the remote Maine woods to the gravesite of his infant son, Jeremiah Corneau, and another sect baby, Samuel Robidoux.

But much remains unresolved in this true-life drama that has raised questions about religious freedom, the rights of pregnant women and the role of the state in protecting children, before and after birth.

Who, if anybody, will face criminal charges, and what will those charges be? Will the sect fall apart? Will David Corneau want to remain in the sect and, if so, will he be allowed to do so? Will David Corneau get his daughters back?

The questions about criminal charges will probably be the first to be answered.

As part of an immunity deal with Bristol County Dist. Atty. Paul F. Walsh Jr., David Corneau promised to lead the police to the babies' bodies in Maine and to testify before the grand jury. He has already identified the site of the bodies. He is scheduled to testify next week.

Besides getting immunity from prosecution, Corneau expects Walsh to put in a good word for him in Juvenile Court, where he is fighting for the return of his four daughters, who are in temporary state custody. Several people who know Corneau say that his love for his daughters is the only reason he is cooperating with the authorities.

The case should wrap up quickly after Corneau testifies. His immunity agreement bars Walsh from calling any witnesses after him. If the grand jury returns indictments, it will probably be the week after Corneau testifies. As to who gets charged, the picture is murkier.

One thing is certain, under the immunity agreement, David and Rebecca Corneau will not be charged. It seems unlikely anyone else would be charged in the death of their son, Jeremiah, who prosecutors say died shortly after birth because material from the birth canal had become lodged in his throat. PROSECUTORS seem to be focusing on 5 of the 13 members of the sect in the death of Samuel Robidoux, the son of Jacques D. and Karen E. Robidoux. Prosecutors believe the baby starved to death at 10 months old, when the sect stopped feeding him, limiting him only to his mother's breast milk.

Karen Robidoux, by then pregnant with another son, had apparently stopped lactating or was producing very little milk, despite drinking almond milk, a beverage that is thought to stimulate lactation.

Last week, Walsh said he is contemplating murder charges, though he has declined to discuss who would be charged. It is not likely that the baby's parents would escape charges.

It is less clear about the other three that prosecutors believe played a role in the death: Jacques Robidoux's parents, J. Roland and Georgette M. Robidoux, and his sister, G. Michelle Mingo.

According to diaries seized by the police that are believed to be written by sect members, the alleged starvation of Samuel began with a vision that Michelle Mingo had and was continued at the urging of Roland and Georgette Robidoux.

Whether those three will be charged may hinge on whether Massachusetts statutes can be interpreted as making it a crime to encourage parents to starve their baby to death.

As to whether the sect will fall apart, observers see signs that the group's hold over its members is weakening.

Robert T. Pardon, a cult expert with the New England Institute for Religious Research, predicted two months ago that, as members remain separated from the group, the group's identity will slowly dissolve.

David Corneau's future with the sect is unclear.

Other parents in the sect, whose children have been removed by the state, may resent Corneau for trying to get his daughters back by breaking with the sect's rules about cooperating with the authorities.

Also, although Walsh believed he had a strong case against the sect before finding the bodies, Corneau's cooperation has virtually guaranteed that at least Jacques and Karen Robidoux will face charges.

Corneau has also shown signs of being less faithful to the group in smaller ways, such as chatting with investigators while in Maine. Only a few months ago, Corneau would not even acknowledge the presence of authorities.

Despite all his efforts, Corneau may never get his daughters back.

The Department of Social Services, which has temporary custody of all four girls, has said it would not even consider supporting the return of the girls unless the Corneaus put their current lifestyle behind them and seek the sort of counseling provided to people who leave cults.

Although Corneau has shown signs that he could go down that road, his wife remains steadfast in adhering to the sect's ways.

Perhaps the biggest question remaining, one that may never be answered, is how this collection of apparently smart, friendly and loving people wound up in what some experts consider a dangerous and destructive cult.

Pardon, who has met with members of the sect, said that, five years ago, they would have been horrified and incredulous if anyone had told them they would be accused of letting two children die.

"These individuals were all devoted, caring parents," Pardon said. He points to the surviving children as proof of what good parents the sect members had been. They are all good children, well-mannered and precocious, Pardon said. "Through slow, small steps, you all of a sudden realize you are in a position that is far afield from what you ever envisioned," he said. "They were not trying to use and manipulate people. They really believed they were doing the right thing."

Yet, now, two children are dead, and sect members have lost more than a dozen others to state custody and may be facing prison time. Said Pardon: "It's a sad, sad tragedy all the way around."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.