Local media in Ohio are reporting on the arrest of Daniel Hess and live-in girlfriend Lacey Day for the sexual assault of a 15-year-old family member. NBC affiliate WTAP noted that Hess and Day admitted to the sexual acts, and that according to police deputies the victim seemed to be there willingly. Hess allegedly told police that the sexual acts were part of the Wiccan faith.
“We’ve been conducting the investigation for about the last two weeks. It came to our attention through another public service agency within the county,” said Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks. Upon his arrest, Hess maintained the assault was a result of his religious beliefs, according to the sheriff. “The guy sort of alluded to the fact the reason he did it was his belief in Wicca,” Mincks explained. […] Regardless of what religious belief a practitioner has, it does not justify the assault of a child, say officials with Washington County Children Services. “It doesn’t matter what kind of religion it is. In America, in Ohio, in Washington County, it is illegal to sexually abuse a child,” said Alice Stewart, intake assessment supervisor with Washington County Children Services.
Sheriff Mincks went on to say that Hess “indicated and justified, or tried to justify what he had done by his belief in Wicca which is a form of witchcraft, or the practice of witchcraft.”
There are a lot of different issues to unpack here. First, let’s reiterate that no mainstream Wiccan organization condones this behavior. No Wiccan group that I know of, whether eclectic or traditional, engages in sexual threesomes with under-aged family members as part of its rites. No matter how precocious or willing that family member was, the law in Ohio clearly states that 16 is the age of consent, and no coven that I’ve encountered encourages breaking the law in order to engage in sexual acts with a minor. Further, if we accept that these sexual encounters were indeed a part of their religious practice, Hess and Day could be charged with a third degree felony.
“However, the preceding statute, Section 2907.03, specifies that sexual conduct between anyone under 18 and a teacher, administrator, or coach of the school they attend, a cleric, or other person in authority, is punishable as a felony of the third degree. 2907.03 Sexual battery. (A) No person shall engage in sexual conduct with another, not the spouse of the offender, when any of the following apply: […] The other person is a minor, the offender is a cleric, and the other person is a member of, or attends, the church or congregation served by the cleric.”
So, if this truly was a Wiccan ceremony of their design, the consequences for Hess and Day could be far more severe than if the incidents had been purely secular in nature. No doubt more details, and explanations, will arise during the trial.
To close, as I did during the John Friend scandal, I want to reiterate my call for Wiccan and Pagan organizations to be more proactive, and use painful moments like these as times of clarification and outreach.
“Wicca’s roots, its core, is in sacred union. Many over the years, both detractors and adherents, have called it a “sex cult” or a “fertility religion.” This can lead to some taking liberties that ignore our ethical base, our commitment to sacred trust, our belief that “as above” is at one with what’s “below.” It can lead to people like Friend misusing the currents of both Wicca and yoga for his own gratification. […] This is not the time to hope it “blows over,” but a time for our leaders to engage in powerful outreach on what Wicca is, what its ethics are, and what our stance is on Friend’s behavior. If we don’t, we run the risk of others doing it for us, quietly, with whispers, insinuations, and misinterpretations.”
This call to outreach isn’t for the sake of media outlets in Ohio, but for the young people who may be out there being “groomed” as we speak to believe their route to power, to control, to acceptance, comes through sexual activity with a coven, grove, circle, or kindred leader. Those who blur the boundaries of power and responsibility to engage in sexual gratification with minors are repugnant, and we have a special responsibility to speak out against those who sully the names of our sacred traditions, who twist the psyches of those they hold spiritual authority over. I hope this latest incident act spurs us into reiterating what our sexual ethics are in a manner that leaves no excuse to those who would twist or abuse the decentralized non-hierarchical nature of our faiths and community for their own purposes.