For many, the intersection of crime and religion has long been a source of intrigue. Sometimes, groups who find themselves in this intersection are labeled as cults and have a history of red flags that members ignore.
While across the world, people practice a wide array of religions safely and peacefully, some of history's most atrocious crimes have been committed in the name of religion. Many people looking for salvation, community, and acceptance have instead found themselves lost in the web of an extreme religious group or cult that discourages freethinking.
Today, thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix, we can all delve into true crime documentaries that expose the dark side of religion. These also include examples and warnings of what can happen when religious leaders take their beliefs to the extreme - and when their members willingly follow them into the dark.
'Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey' Follows The Crimes Of FLDS Leader Warren Jeffs
Netflix released the four-part docuseries Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey on June 8, 2022. The series dives deep into the world of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). Through interviews with ex-members, investigators, and law enforcement officers, the documentary outlines the rise of their self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs and the church’s dark descent into the systematic sexual and physical abuse of women and children.
The documentary explains what the church members believe and how Jeffs claimed power after the death of his father - the original FLDS Prophet, Rulon Jeffs - in 2002. FLDS church members believe their Prophet is a direct line to God, and that the end times are near. As such, the Prophet has an enormous amount of power and influence within the church. Followers also believe that in order to be saved and enter God’s kingdom after death, they must adhere to all of the Prophet’s rules. They also practice polygamy and believe it is paramount to salvation.
While polygamy was always part of the FLDS, under Jeffs's rule, underage girls began marrying men decades older than them. Jeffs also moved the church headquarters to Short Creek, UT, where followers built a town completely run by FLDS members. Here, Jeffs outlawed the teaching of various science and history subjects in schools and laid out a strict dress code for all members. He also prohibited contact with the outside world.
The documentary interviews some women who were child brides. They tell their stories and the trauma they continue to face. In the finale, the series explores Jeffs's partial downfall when he was finally arrested for the sexual assault of two underage girls - ages 12 and 15 - whom he took as wives. Despite receiving a life sentence, Jeffs continues communicating with and controlling his followers from prison.
- Photo: HBO Max
HBO began their five-part docuseries The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin in September 2021 and ended it in April 2022. The series explores the secretive world of the Remnant Fellowship, a weight-loss-focused religious movement founded by Gwen Shamblin.
The series delves into who Shamblin was and the impact her organization has had on its followers. Shamblin was a Christian businesswoman and trained dietician who rose to fame through her books and infamous “Weigh Down Workshop,” which she began in 1986.
The workshop focused on weight loss through prayer. People were encouraged to only eat when their stomachs were growling and to pray cravings away. Shamblin's views on religion and diet led her to found the Remnant Fellowship in 1999. The church was founded on the belief that weight loss is a reflection of spiritual commitment, while weight gain is a failure and a sin. While Shamblin clearly exerted control over her followers' health and weight, she eventually moved on to control their relationships, parenting choices, finances, and communications with non-church members.
Through interviews with former members, the docuseries reveals some of the abuses Shamblin's followers have faced: restrictive dieting, legal repercussions for leaving, discrimination, blackmail, and physical and mental abuse. Women and children were particular targets for the church, as Shamblin preached that they should be subservient to God and their husbands.
Per Shamblin's instructions, parents used physical violence to make their children obey. Some say this belief eventually led to the tragic murder of 8-year-old Josef Smith in October 2003. Josef died as a result of blunt head trauma after his parents beat him. Authorities discovered that, at the church’s behest, his parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, beat him to “get the Devil out of him.” Recorded phone calls between Shamblin and Sonya make it clear that Shamblin knew the Smiths were abusing their son.
Despite being provided with legal defense on the church's behalf, the Smiths were sentenced to life in prison in 2007. The docuseries contains parts of this recorded conversation and casts a severely critical eye on Shamblin and her church.
In response to the HBO series, the Remnant Fellowship has dedicated an entire page on their website to refuting the series's claims. They stated:
Remnant Fellowship categorically denies the absurd, defamatory statements and accusations made in this documentary.
We feel this documentary was yet again another Hollywood and media attack on religion.
In May 2021, Gwen Shamblin, her husband, and several other high-ranking church members died in a plane crash. Her daughter, Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah, will reportedly take over as church leader.
In 'Sins of Our Mother,' Lori Vallow Daybell's Extreme Beliefs Leads To Multiple Tragedies
Netflix's limited series Sins of Our Mother follows the case of 16-year-old Tylee Ryan and 7-year-old JJ Vallow, who went missing in September 2019, and their mother Lori Vallow Daybell, who refused to tell anyone where the children were as investigators searched for ten months.
Lori Vallow Daybell had her oldest children, Colby Ryan and Tylee Ryan (pictured), in previous marriages before marrying her fourth husband, Charles Vallow, in 2006. The couple later adopted Joshua “JJ” Vallow, Charles's biological grand-nephew. Lori and Charles reportedly had a happy marriage and blended family until Lori started to turn toward extreme religious beliefs. A long-standing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Lori met Chad Daybell in 2018. Daybell authored many books about an impending apocalypse, and believed himself to be a prophet. Around this time, Lori reportedly started adopting some of Daybell's more extreme beliefs, including that after the upcoming doomsday, there would be a chosen people of 144,000 remaining.
Lori and Chad also reportedly believed that the people around them could be overtaken by dark spirits, essentially becoming “zombies.” The only way to save their spirit at that point was to kill them. In January of 2019, Charles reported concerns about his wife to the police, relaying her beliefs and fearing for the safety of Tylee and JJ. At this point, Lori allegedly believed that her husband had been taken over by a dark spirit named Nick Schneider. Police noted in their report that they instead found Charles's behavior to be strange. When they met with Lori, they didn't find she seemed a danger to herself or others, but asked her to take herself to a mental health evaluation.
Charles filed for divorce in February; he tried to contact Lori's family about her strange behavior and got little response. In July, after going to Lori's house to pick up JJ for school, Charles was shot and killed. Lori's brother claimed he shot Charles in self-defense after an argument. Lori tried to collect the money from Charles's life-insurance policy, but found she was no longer the beneficiary. In October that same year, Chad Daybell's wife, Tammy, mysteriously passed. She was buried without an autopsy. A month later, Lori and Daybell were married in Hawaii.
It wasn't until a family member grew concerned about the lack of contact from Lori and JJ that investigators finally began to take a closer look at the couple. Lori had recently relocated her family from Arizona to Idaho to be closer to Daybell. In November, Idaho police went to do a welfare check on JJ. Lori gave varying statements about where the boy was, none of which turned out to be true. Investigators eventually realized that Tylee and JJ hadn't been seen since September, and a search ensued. While Lori maintained to friends and family that the children were safe and she would never do anything to hurt them, their remains were finally found in 2020 in Chad's backyard.
Lori and Daybell have been charged with the murders of Tylee and JJ. Daybell also faces homicide charges in Tammy's case, while Lori has been charged with conspiracy to commit murder in both Tammy's case and Charles's case. While she was initially found incompetent to stand trial, she has now been found mentally fit and her trial is scheduled to begin in January of 2023.
'The Keepers' Suggests The Murder Of A Nun May Have Been Part Of A Sinister Cover-Up
The Keepers debuted on Netflix in 2017. Through interviews and reenactments, the docuseries details the still-unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a 26-year-old teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore, MD. Sister Cesnik went missing in November 1969, and her body was found in the woods in January 1970.
While the investigation into this murder is initially the series's primary focus, it soon takes a very dark turn. Specifically, it looks into why Sister Cesnik was murdered and whether or not her homicide was part of a larger web of lies and cover-ups on behalf of the Catholic church. The series turns a critical eye towards both the church and the justice system, who seem invested in keeping Sister Cesnik's murder unsolved.
Eventually, women who suffered horrific sexual abuse at the hands of the school's chaplain, Father Joseph Maskell, came forward in the series to tell their stories. This eventually gives way to the prevailing theory that Sister Cesnik was murdered because she was about to expose sexual abuses perpetrated by Father Maskell.
Father Maskell is another mystery of the series. There isn't much information on who he was, nor what he was doing before he became a chaplain in Baltimore. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has refused to release any information they have on him. Series director Ryan White said:
We were only concentrating in our documentary for the most part on certain parts of Maskell’s character, but he had a long career before and after his time at Keough. A predator doesn’t stop abusing, so it’s been a sad truth that people from other sides of his career - and from Keough - have come out of the woodwork.
Father Maskell died in 2001 and was never prosecuted or brought to justice for any of his alleged crimes; however, The Keepers's impact has been significant. While the documentary only shows six survivors, White has said that he spoke to nearly 40. White has also said that hundreds of survivors have reached out to him to share their stories.
Baltimore PD released an online form for people to report offenses committed against them related to the series. An online petition calling for the release of information on Father Maskell has garnered thousands of signatures. Ultimately, the documentary reveals the deep scars left by sexual abuse.
- Photo: HBO
Released in 2015, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief focuses on exposing the abuses of the Church of Scientology.
Through interviews with eight formerly high-ranking Scientologists, the documentary breaks down recruitment; the history of the church and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard; and the abuses the members experienced. The documentary also delves into the church’s use of celebrity to attract new followers. The church’s seemingly endless funds have made them a formidable force to be reckoned with.
The abuses exposed by the individuals in the film range from blackmail and extortion to physical beatings and severe mental abuse. They claim the church works hard to ensure that those who can provide monetary value do so, while those who can’t provide physical labor instead. Some claim the church has a prison camp called the “The Hole,” an alleged place where individuals who have crossed Scientology’s leader, David Miscavige, are sent to be punished - sometimes for years at a time.
The film also discusses the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), another prison camp (this one created by Hubbard) where the Church of Scientology would send anyone critical of their beliefs, practices, or methods. Those who have reportedly been a part of RPF describe it as a place where menial labor is used to “de-stress” followers who have become unsure of the church’s actions. The film touches on coerced abortions, the separation of families, and the church’s evasion of taxes, among other things.
The church responded to the documentary by letter, in which they refute all of the film's claims. The letter opens with them stating:
In two hours this film racks up more falsehoods, errors, embellished tales and blatant omissions than were committed by Rolling Stone, Brian Williams, and Bill O’Reilly combined. By our calculation, the film on average includes at least one major error every two minutes.
Currently, David Miscavige remains head of the Church of Scientology.
Jacoba Ballard, One Of The 90+ Children Of The 'Our Father' Fertility Doctor, Believes He Associated With The Quiverfull Movement
Netflix released Our Father in May 2022. The documentary investigates Dr. Donald Cline, a fertility specialist from Indiana who artificially inseminated women - unbeknownst to them - with his own sperm. The documentary follows the journey of Jacoba Ballard and her siblings, all of whom took a DNA test and discovered they had dozens of half siblings.
As the number of individuals who share Cline’s DNA rises throughout the documentary, the siblings share the emotional trauma they had to cope with when they discovered who really fathered them. The women who went to Dr. Cline for help were often under the impression that the sperm being used for the procedure came from donors. Some women had husbands who provided a sample so that they could attempt to get pregnant. Even in these situations, Dr. Cline used his own sperm. The burning question in the film is why. Why did Dr. Cline do this?
One theory the film poses is that Dr. Cline is associated with the Quiverfull Movement. The documentary frequently makes clear that Dr. Cline is extremely religious. He continually quotes Jeremiah 1:5, a Bible verse used by and associated with those in the Quiverfull Movement: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Quiverfull doesn’t approve of birth control and pushes for their followers to have as many children as possible. Their belief is these children will spread Christianity. They also fear the white race disappearing, so they focus on creating large, white families.
While Dr. Cline’s actions may be morally and ethically reprehensible, his actions fell in a legal gray area. The film explains why this is and outlines current issues in the justice system pertaining to sexual assault and battery. Indiana has since enacted a law protecting couples from fertility fraud, but the majority of states have no such law.
Dr. Cline’s church (where he was an elder upon the documentary’s release) has responded to the film by saying that Cline had admitted to them that he had been unethical but that they were unaware of the extent of his acts. They have since removed him from his church elder position. Cline lost his medical license but remains free and currently lives in Indiana.