Controversial 'Retard Baptisms' Lead to Several Drownings
Hal Cosgrove, BFP

NORTH CAROLINA -- A parish is under fire for its practice of aggressively pursuing baptisms for mentally handicapped people, despite a string of drowning deaths. In the midst of an ongoing investigation, a reverend and several of his lay assistants have rushed to defend a rite they say has been performed without incident on "dozens of retards."

"We're performing an invaluable service to the community and for which there is no secular substitute," says Reverend Jim Poulin of Red Sea Ministries in Catawba, North Carolina. "These retards aren't just sick. When they're flailing about, rocking their heads, attacking people, babbling 'Bah, bah, bah'—that's the devil."

Poulin argues it's his duty, as a man of God, to baptize individuals afflicted with mental handicaps. He compares his obligation to that of a physician caring for patients suffering from treatable illnesses.

"These people we've baptized are sick. Sick, but curable. Now, am I supposed to sit by and do nothing, when I have it in my power to help?" But, he adds there is a crucial distinction. "It is beyond the power of medicine to do anything for retards. The devil is at work here, and I haven't met a doctor yet who could do anything about that."

The trouble started last year, when three candidates for baptism with Down syndrome drowned in the shallow waters of a nearby river the parish uses for its sacraments. In all, twelve have died in the past nine months. Reverend Poulin claims the deaths occurred because the victims panicked and he was unable to restrain them. He doesn't deny they may have experienced pain or emotional trauma.

"Retards, like all the devil's possessions, hate holy water," Poulin says. "And that shouldn't surprise anyone. This isn't a leisure time activity we're pursuing.

" 'Ith burm me, ith burm me!' I can't count the number of times I've heard that. It's sort of the point, you know?"

"My heart weeps for those heathen simpletons," Poulin insists. "You think it's easy watching them thrash about, gulping their death in a foot of water? A few have died. But the fact is I've ridden dozens of 'em with no problem." He says he is not speaking figuratively.

Poulin has been interviewed by authorities, but thus far has not been charged with any crimes. He enjoys great support, even among law enforcement, in this deeply religious community.

"We understand what he's trying to do. Retards are a problem, no question," says Sheriff Walter Halberstam. "People think they're cute, with their flat faces, stubby hands and wagging tongues." This, he believes, poses a danger. "The fact is, they're strong as monkeys and twice as dumb. Sometimes, it seems Reverend Poulin is the only trying to do something about it."

The Sheriff says Poulin has been forthcoming throughout the investigation.

"He hasn't held anything back," Halberstam said. "The first time we interviewed him, [Reverend Poulin] told us, 'Look, this was a struggle, lots of drooling, a lot of nonsense talk. There was biting on both sides.' So, when we examined the victims, we weren't surprised to find the Reverend's teeth marks on their hands, feet, arms, legs, chest, face and back. To his credit, he's not hiding anything."

At least one mother of a challenged child whom Poulin successfully baptized has come to his defense. Mary Beth Callender says her son was out of control before they sought help at Red Sea Ministries. "My husband and I are just so grateful to the Reverend. Bobo is such a different boy now. A real boy," she says. "We're trying to teach him to count cards."

She understands people are concerned, but worries the reaction of local authorities might be excessive. "No one's been fondled, or anything like that," she adds without prompting.

Poulin remains defiant. "You can't abide the devil. You have to expel him. You think they way they buck around with me on their backs is natural? That ain't human strength. It's pure wickedness and it's dangerous."

Sheriff Halbertsam is adamant the investigation will continue. He will not comment on whether he thinks charges will ultimately be filed. "I can tell you this," he says. "The reverend also bit their ears. I forgot to mention that before."

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