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Monday, February 13, 2012

Child Witches in America, and Related Matters

A House of Commons report in 2003, the Victoria Climbie Inquiry Report (www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmselect/cmhealth/570/570.pdf), told the extremely disturbing story of the long period of abuse ending in the death of Victoria Climbie, an 8-year-old Ivorian child living in London with a relative. The attacks on Victoria were related to the belief in “child witches”, children possessed by demons, and British social workers appear to have been afraid that they would be culturally insensitive if they interfered with her treatment. Victoria was not alone in suffering from accusations of demonic possession and from the treatment others deemed appropriate for her (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7003534.stm).

Couldn’t happen here? Maybe--  but look who’s coming to dinner in Texas: Helen Ukpabio,head of Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries in Nigeria. Ms. Ukpabio will be performing a marathon deliverance (casting out of demons) at Liberty Gospel Church in Houston (http://libertyfoundationgospelministries.org/images/U.S..jpg). She plans to cast out demons for those who have bad dreams, are possessed by mermaid spirits, have many miscarriages, fail to achieve promotion, and so on. The flyer for this event does not state that she will perform deliverance for possessed children, but she has been quoted as saying “If a child under 2 screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan [i.e., possessed by demons]” (www.nytimes.com/2010/05/22/us/22beliefs.html). Ms. Ukpabio has been accused, and apparently not without reason, of encouraging and spreading the belief in child witches that led to injuries and deaths like that of Victoria Climbie.

I haven’t been able to access any of Ms.Ukpabio’s books,  but I see that Malcolm Gaskill, in Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction, quotes her 1999 End of the Wicked as claiming that children’s souls can leave their bodies at night to attend a witches’ meeting. (Whether they follow Robert’s Rules of Order is not mentioned.) David Tonghou Ngong writes in  his recent The Holy Spirit and Salvation in African Christian Theology that Ukpabio states that the children are said to be “taken to a witches’ coven… where they are spiritually inculcated  with recalcitrant and destructive behaviors such as the ability to drain out health, happiness, and money from people; they are also made to be stubborn, to steal, to lack interest in school, to destroy electronic appliances, and so on. Thus it is that in many communities in Nigeria and the DRC, children are blamed as witches when appliances break down, when they are stubborn, or when there is sickness or poverty around them. In Nigeria, Ukpabio runs special seminars on detecting and exorcising witches, like the one she held for seven days in 2008 to a packed auditorium. Her activities foster an imagination that demonizes children [N.B., Ngong is not using this term in the Pentecostal sense of demon-possessed. J.M.] and sometimes even death. However, scholars of African Christianity hardly raise the issue” (pp. 36-37).  

Ukpabio’s views of child witches and the dangers they bring are a bit different from beliefs common in the United States. However, members of  U.S. and Canadian Pentecostal groups have for many years attributed both mental and physical illnesses of children as well as adults to demonic possession, and have suggested that healing results from expulsion of the demons by means of divine powers available to believers. This process is called “deliverance” by Pentecostals (including Ukpabio) but may also be referred to as exorcism.

Unfortunately, deliverance practices can be dangerous in themselves, as well as interfering with the use of conventional treatment for both mental and physical disorders. In one case in 2008, a 13-month-old Texas child died as a result of parental attempts at deliverance (http://www.ktbs.com/news/27447281/detail.html), and there are numerous similar cases in the United States, like that of Kairissa Mark, whom I mentioned in an earlier post.  An important point to understand about deliverance is that such rituals are not limited to “professional” deliverers like Roman Catholic or Church of England exorcists, who may have some awareness of potential harmful outcomes, but may be performed by any believer, including family members. (In fact, some authors discussing deliverance state that the father of a family is the most capable of “delivering” his wife and children.)

Ms. Ukpabio’s presence in the United States  is relevant to ongoing questions about religious exemptions from ordinary requirements for parents. A number of states continue to permit “philosophical” exemptions for parents who reject immunization of their children. Many states continue to have laws protecting Christian Scientist parents whose children die for lack of medical care. Protection of parents whose children die in the course of deliverance seems less likely, because the actions that cause death are in themselves prohibited by law--  but  it is possible that the “good intentions” of parents may minimize the crimes of which they are convicted and the penalties imposed, if prosecutors, judges, and communities sympathize with their beliefs. It’s also an issue whether some U.S. and Canadian social workers, like their British counterparts, either share deliverance beliefs or feel it is politically incorrect to oppose them. If so, how far will they go in sympathy with Ms. Ukpabio’s claims?

As I write this, I begin to ask myself, where is the State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues in this situation? Why is Ms. Ukpabio permitted to visit the United States and to speak publicly? Do we have to wait until “it happens here” (as it did in England) before we recognize the dangers to children inherent in these beliefs?  

***NOTE: a petition to deny Ms. Ukpabio entry to the U.S. can be signed at www.change.org/petitions/the-president-of-the-united-states-deny-entry-to-the-usa-for-helen-ukpabio.



  1. Atheists need to locally organize so that we can actively resist this stupidity at the doors of Liberty Gospel Church.

    1. It is not just Atheists that are against people like this. I consider myself a Pagan and have lots of issues with this woman.

    2. Sorry to leave you out, Henry-- please jump on board!

  2. Well, do that,if you're down there! And don't forget about contacting the State Department-- it's hard to believe that we're deporting other people and leaving Helen U. to preach.

    By the way, atheists, this is an issue on which a coalition with the UUs and the Friends (if any in Texas) could be useful, and I believe without injury to atheist sensibilities or values.

  3. Unfortunately I'm not in Texas, but I'll do a blog post about it tomorrow.

  4. My mistake-- thanks for joining in here--

  5. Andy-- thanks for your comments-- also please note the URL I added, for the change.org petition to deny Ukpabio entry to the U.S.

  6. For some reason your link to the Climbie report isn't working . Here it is again http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmselect/cmhealth/570/570.pdf

  7. Thanks-- don't know what the problem is.

    By the way, there's an interview with the pastor of the Houston church on youtube.