10 Religious Leaders Who Have Been Accused Of Crimes

When religious leaders commit crimes, the impact on their communities and families tends to be especially painful. People place their trust and faith in religious institutions and the men and women who lead them, yet time and time again, we've seen people abuse that power for their often twisted gain.

The last few years have seen an influx of documentaries shedding light on some of the most horrifying examples of violence and crimes committed in the name of religion.This list showcases a few of the leaders of these religious movements that have been accused of committing grave crimes.

  • Ron Lafferty Said He Received A ‘Divine Revelation’ To Kill His Sister-In-Law And Daughter
    Photo: Under the Banner of Heaven / Hulu

    Ron Lafferty Said He Received A ‘Divine Revelation’ To Kill His Sister-In-Law And Daughter

    On July 24, 1984, Allen Lafferty walked into his home in American Fork, UT, to find his wife, Brenda, and his 18-month-old daughter, Erica, had been murdered. Shockingly, as law enforcement investigated the case, they discovered that two of Allen’s brothers, Dan and Ron Lafferty, were responsible for their deaths. Both had fled the city soon after committing the murders. The men were eventually apprehended in Reno, NV, and neither denied their culpability.

    The question of why they had committed such a horrific act was soon answered. The Lafferty brothers had been raised in the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and from a young age, the siblings were taught to distrust the government and science. Dan and Ron, however, had taken their devotion and beliefs to the extreme - they preferred polygamy and refused to give their ailing father access to medical treatment. This eventually prompted their excommunication from the Church of Latter-Day Saints and subsequent immersion into a fundamentalist fringe group called the School of Prophets.

    As their belief in polygamy and the subservient role of women grew, Ron and Dan began to see their brother Allen’s wife, Brenda, as a problem. Brenda was college-educated, progressive,  and outspoken; she was everything the School of Prophets believed a woman shouldn’t be. Ron also blamed Brenda for his split with his wife, Diana. Brenda had helped Diana leave Ron after Diana discovered he planned to marry their teenage daughters off to members of his fringe group.

    As Ron and Dan became increasingly immersed in the School of Prophets doctrine, Ron became obsessed with a particular revelation he said he had received. Ron said God had given him a “removal revelation” which he interpreted as a decree to kill those he blamed for the split from his wife, including Brenda, her daughter, and two others. Despite sharing this revelation with others in his church and his family (including Allen), no one took any action nor told Brenda. Ron roped in his brother by saying he was the “arm of God,” meaning the one who would actually carry out the act. Dan did as his brother instructed him.

    Dan was eventually sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, while Ron received the death penalty. Ron passed of natural causes while on death row in 2019, and as of 2022, Dan is serving his sentence at Utah State Prison.

    In 2022, Hulu released a series on the case, Under the Banner of Heaven, based on the bestselling book of the same name.

  • A Catholic Church In Italy Hid A Missing Girl’s Body For Decades, Refusing Investigators Access

    In March 2010, workers fixing a leak at the Santissima Trinita Church in Potenza, Italy made a gruesome discovery. Hidden in the church's rafters was the mummified body of a young girl. The girl’s body was incredibly well-preserved - her features were still distinguishable, her shoes were still on her feet, and her glasses laid next to her. Aside from the clear trauma she had suffered, the only other thing amiss was a clump of hair that had clearly been cut from her head.

    The body was identified as 16-year-old Elisa Claps, a girl who’d gone missing in September 1993. Her case had remained open and unsolved for nearly two decades, with the police’s only suspect being a friend she'd met at the church before her disappearance, Danilo Restivo. However, since her body had not been found, Restivo was never formally charged.  As authorities began refocusing on Claps’s case, they realized that in order for the perpetrator to have gained access to the loft where Claps was found, they would have had to have a key -keys that only a church worker, like a priest, would have access to.

    Back in 1993, the head priest of Santissima Trinita was Don Mimi Sabia. A powerful figure in the local community, he had locked up the church on the day Claps went missing and denied authorities access to search the property. His was also the only church in the city that didn’t ring bells on the anniversary of her disappearance. Rumors have circulated about Father Sabia's possible involvement or cover-up of the crime. Adding fuel to fire, a red button was found underneath Claps's body, matching the size and color of buttons from ecclesiastical cassocks. A photo surfaced of the priest wearing a cassock with a missing button. However, Father Sabia passed away in 2008, and therefore, his alleged involvement remains undetermined.

    In 2011, in a twist of fate, Restivo was being tried in England for the murder of a woman named Heather Barnett. The manner in which Barnett was murdered was eerily similar to Claps - she was found holding pieces of her own hair. Restivo was sentenced to life in prison for Barnett’s murder. A few months later, Restivo was also convicted of Claps's homicide in Italy, for which he received a 30-year sentence.

    In reference to the case, private investigator Marco Gallo said that:

    This whole story is a disaster. It's a complete, tragic mess. You never touch the bottom. Everywhere you put your nose there's something rotten.

  • Jim Bakker is one of the most well known televangelists in US history. He built a Christian-based empire that included apartment buildings, TV shows, books, and even amusement parks. His Christian broadcasts were, for a time, some of the most viewed preachings on television. He garnered an incredibly large following and made large sums of money from his viewers. 

    In 1992, however, things began to change, and his facade as a perfect preacher began to fall apart. An investigation into Bakker’s finances revealed that he had paid over $270,000 to a church secretary named Jessica Hahn. Further investigation resulted in Hahn alleging that she had been sexually assaulted by Bakker in 1980, when she was 21, and that he had been paying her money to keep her quiet. Bakker admitted he had sex with Hahn but insisted it had been consensual.  

    Bakker was also found to have been taking money from the ministry and placing it into his own banking accounts. This resulted in Bakker serving jail time for fraud and divorcing his then wife, Tammy Faye Bakker. His popularity significantly decreased, though many people still followed his teachings after his release from jail. 

    In 2020, Bakker was once again on the news when the state of Missouri filed a lawsuit against him and his production company. Bakker was promoting and attempting to sell a miracle cure for COVID-19 which he called the “Silver Solution.” Despite all of this, Bakker continues to host The Jim Bakker Show where he and other conservative evangelical Christians preach about the end of times. 

  • Irene Garza Was Last Seen Going To Confession With Father Feit, But He Wasn’t Arrested For Over 60 Years
    Photo: Lynda de la Viña / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    Irene Garza Was Last Seen Going To Confession With Father Feit, But He Wasn’t Arrested For Over 60 Years

    Irene Garza was a school teacher and beauty queen from McAllen, TX, whose life was cut tragically short. In April of 1960 her body was found in an irrigation canal in town a few days after Easter. The last person to have spoken to her and seen her alive was Father John Feit, the priest at the church which Garza frequented.

    When authorities questioned Father Feit he initially denied having spoken to Garza. He later changed his story and admitted that he had heard her confession the night before she went missing. Making him even more suspect was the fact that another young woman had been attacked a few weeks prior to Garza going missing. The young woman identified Feit as her assailant. Feit pleaded no contest and was fined $500. He served no jail time. Feit then left the church and priesthood and proceeded to get married and raise a family. Garza’s case remained unsolved. 

    In 2002 the Texas Ranger Cold Case Unit was asked by investigators to reopen Garza’s  case. A monk by the name of Dale Tacheny had written a letter to police that stated that Feit had admitted to killing a young woman in 1963. Tacheny revealed the following:

    I was told that he had killed a woman and then asked if we could see if he would fit in in the monastery and possibly become a monk.

    Tacheny was not the only priest to come forward, there was another one who had a similar story regarding Feit. Nothing was done about the case until 2016, when a newly elected district attorney chose to move forward with Feit's arrest. In 2017, almost 60 years after Garza’s murder, Feit was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  He passed away there in 2020. Many believe the reason Feit was able to get away with the murder for so long was because the church was protecting him. 

  • FLDS Leader Warren Jeffs Was Secretly Marrying Off Underage Girls
    Photo: FBI / Fair Use

    The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) has received a lot of scrutiny and attention due to their beliefs in polygamy, the arrest of church leader Warren Jeffs, and the sexual abuse of children that has occurred within the community. 

    The FLDS practice of polygamy is one of the main beliefs that separates them from the Church of Latter Day Saints. Jeffs was convicted of two counts of sexual assault of a minor in 2011; he had assaulted a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old claiming they were both his wives. Jeffs is not the only FLDS leader to have been convicted of sexual assault of a minor- several other FLDS leaders have been charged and convicted as well. 

    While the FLDS has always practiced polygamy, under Jeffs' leadership, marrying underage girls became much more common. Followers of the FLDS saw Jeffs as their prophet, meaning it was his job to dictate marriages within his congregation. As a result, Warren began using women and girls in his church as payment to his most loyal and fervent male followers. Currently, Jeffs is serving life in prison but is still allowed visits from family, through which he continues to instruct his followers. These followers (which number into the thousands) believe he was wrongly convicted and many still zealously follow his instructions.

    In one of the most recent documentaries focused on the FLDS, Netflix's Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, women who were child brides share their stories of horror as they recount being taken to seedy motels where marriage ceremonies presided over by Jeffs took place. 

  • Gwen Shamblin And The Remnant Fellowship's Teachings Of Total Obedience Came Under Fire After The Death Of An 8-Year-Old Boy
    Photo: Gwen Shamblin and Weigh Down Ministries / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Gwen Shamblin And The Remnant Fellowship's Teachings Of Total Obedience Came Under Fire After The Death Of An 8-Year-Old Boy

    Gwen Shamblin and The Remnant Church are generally known for their preaching of weight loss as a sign of devotion to God. While for years people have opened up regarding the toxic culture of emotional abuse practiced by the church, there is allegedly another insidious practice that isn’t as well known by outsiders - physical violence as a punishment for disobedient children. 

    This particular belief and practice came to light in 2003, when emergency services responded to a call of an unconscious 8-year-old boy. The boy, Josef Smith,  was found covered in bruises and had blunt force trauma to his head, from which he later passed away. His parents had beaten him and locked him in a box where he succumbed to his injuries. 

    Recordings soon surfaced of Shamblin and Josef’s mother, Sonya, talking about using physical violence to discipline Josef, who the Smiths stated was being influenced by the devil. In the recording Sonya shares with Shamblin that she had left her son locked in his room with nothing but a Bible for three days. She further tells Shamblin that she had followed the instructions of a church leader, Ted Anger, and beaten her child with long glue sticks. After this Shamblin can be heard praising Sonya and saying:

    You’ve got a child that’s going from just bizarre down to in control. So I praise God.

    Another recording revealed Shamblin sending children in the church a warning, stating :

    The way you show God that you are answering to him is through obeying your mother and your father on the first time… If you do not obey Mommy and Daddy the first time you will be taken out and you will be very, very sorry.

    Shamblin denied all claims the church encouraged violence towards children by saying the recordings had been doctored. However, several ex-followers of the church have stated that they had been instructed by church leaders to hit their children in order to get them to obey.  A young woman who used to babysit for several church members also came forward at the time and stated she had been instructed by Josef’s father, Joseph, to hit the boy if he acted out. When the babysitter refused, Joseph took  his son into another room and beat him. The babysitter alleged multiple church members outside the room could hear what was happening. 

    Despite having the church pay for their legal representation, in March 2007 Joseph and Sonya Smith were sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. The church continues to state that they are innocent and has released a statement claiming:

    Remnant Fellowship vehemently denies any accusation of child abuse in any form.