ATHENS, Ga. - The social organization of the religious sect led by Dwight "Malachi" York appeared to have been structured as an elaborate grooming process for victims used to satisfy the lust of a pedophile, according to experts on child sexual abuse.
Growing up in isolation on Mr. York's 440-acre Putnam County compound, children - along with their indoctrination into the sect's philosophies, which held Mr. York to be a deity - appeared to have been subjected to a form of brainwashing commonly used by pedophiles known as "child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome," according to William Bernet, the director of forensic psychiatry at Vanderbilt University.
"What happens is, the child just comes to expect what she has learned within that small culture, and if kept in that isolated place, that child will accept and adopt whatever she is told," Mr. Bernet said.
Mr. York, 59, is being tried in U.S. District Court in Brunswick on 13 federal counts, including child molestation. Witnesses have testified that they were being groomed as Mr. York's sex partners when they were as young as 8 years old.
According to trial testimony, children were segregated from their parents by sex and kept in substandard housing. They were home-schooled on the compound and taught that Mr. York was a deity.
"Because he was able to manipulate people into believing he is a god makes him very powerful," said Carole Lieberman, a psychologist from Beverly Hills, Calif., who has testified as an expert witness in several high-profile cases. "For the victims, it becomes an honor to be able to serve him."
One witness testified that, when she was 8, a 16-year-old follower of Mr. York showed her a videotape of adults having oral sex, "telling me that was what I was supposed to do to Mr. York." The witness, now 19, testified that she did what she was told, thus beginning an eight-year period of abuse in which Mr. York allegedly had sex with her "two or three times a week" and in which the acts escalated to anal sex, then intercourse and finally group sex with Mr. York and other young girls.
Girls who had sex with Mr. York were treated better than others on the compound, according to testimony, given such rewards as jewelry, clothes and trips to Disney World.
"At its core, this case is about power," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Thacker told jurors in opening statements when the trial got under way last week in Brunswick. "Mr. (York) abused that power to engage in criminal sexual activities with minors, and to structure financial transactions in a criminal manner."
Mr. York is leader of a religious sect that until recently called itself the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors. The group is now called the Yamassee Native American Moors of the Creek Nation, and refers to Mr. York as Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle. He was accused by federal authorities in May 2002 of molesting more than a dozen girls, at both a house he owned in Athens and at the Nuwaubian compound near Eatonton in Putnam County.
Mr. York's trial is being held in Brunswick because of the defense's change of venue request, which claimed potential jurors would be influenced by the massive publicity Mr. York's case had garnered while being prosecuted in Macon in the pretrial stage.
Ms. Thacker told jurors that Mr. York ran his sect in a way that isolated his young victims - making them live separately from their parents under sometimes squalid conditions - in order to make them dependent on him and more pliant when approached for sexual favors.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Adrian Patrick said allegations of sexual abuse of children had been fabricated by a small group of Mr. York's estimated 5,000 followers and spearheaded by a woman who used to manage the Nuwaubian business office but was kicked out of the group.
According to Ms. Thacker, the house in which the young girls lived on Mr. York's compound often lacked heat and electricity, and had no television. She told the jury that sometimes the children survived by eating flour, sugar and popcorn seeds.
Alleged victims being groomed for Mr. York's sexual gratification would be brought to his house on the compound, where they would be lavished with good food, candy and ice cream, and would be allowed to watch television, the prosecutor said.