The quiet animosity of cynics who decry religious influence in America erupted into a growl with the arrest of Dennis Rader, president of Park City's Christ Lutheran Church. After incessant revelations of priests who abuse young parishioners, let alone teachers and Scout leaders, news of BTK's identity shook the earth under those who recall a man they trusted.
Experience with serial killers, psychopaths and offenders, however, inspires in this forensic psychiatrist the question of how much worse this tragedy would have been if not for Rader's faith and his other moorings.
History reflects most serial killers to be disenfranchised, typically marginal folks with few trappings of identity. The occasional politically active John Wayne Gacy or married Gary Ridgway is more the exception to Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Coral Eugene Watts and Henry Lee Lucas.
Or are they? The holy grail question bedeviling forensic psychiatrists such as myself is: Why do serial killers stop? Why, when a hunger to destroy and torture is so compulsive, does a serial killer restrain himself sometimes when at other times, he does not?
Dennis Rader stopped killing, possibly for many years. Only his need for acknowledgment ultimately smoked him out — not his reoffending. But were BTK never identified, he would have joined the ranks of scores of other unnamed serial killers, content to anonymously relive in self-gratifying fantasy the ingenuity of their sadism. Some of them stopped, never to resume. Never to be apprehended. What happened to them?
Taming the beast
Rader's case poses the realistic possibility that some of them may have gone to church. The meticulous temperament that becomes serial killers lends itself to ritual adherence.
Psychiatric experience teaches us that compulsive, rigid personalities may employ defenses of overinvolvement in opposite pursuits — known as "undoing." And even when a callous disposition enables a human to so grotesquely violate another, if even a smidgen of conscience rears its uninvited head, there may be no better place to tame the beast of moral self-scrutiny than church.
In the seven years in which I have spearheaded the Depravity Scale, a research effort to standardize how courts engage the most heinous crimes, I have appreciated the importance of recognizing how anyone is capable of depraved acts. For this reason, our research focuses not on who is depraved but on whether a crime is depraved, and what forensic evidence makes it depraved. Evil crimes — even under the unflinching focus of forensic pathology, anthropology and psychiatry inquiry — are simply the most extreme forms of what religion terms "sin."
Faith helps many turn away from sinning, and aims to redeem sinners large and small. We know from the example of inveterate hit men that they may find solace in churchgoing and even the confessional. Religion promotes the tenets of charitable giving that saw Rader use his knot-tying skills to guide young people to create, not destroy. Those who create thus divert — in action and spirit — from destruction.
Need a higher authority
Religion can reach morally empty psychopaths where psychiatry and incarceration cannot. To someone who believes himself to be clever enough to fool all of the people all of the time — including his psychiatrist — a higher authority may be the only entity to whom he is capable of feeling accountable. Sure, there are those who fake it; some "find Jesus" in order to pander to the well-meaning nuns who advocate for them. But still others do take those journeys of self-evolution.
Many a man prays over his unwanted urges. We will never know the substance of Rader's prayers. But we have to imagine that a man who kept his mementos was regularly reminded of the destruction of his lust in a community in which he circulated freely.
My experience interviewing some of America's scariest killers has taught me that the trappings of the mainstream — loving family, meaningful career, outside activities and, yes, spirituality — may be key ingredients keeping a human from behavior that would shame an animal.
In Rader's case, if his prayer redirected him into the Scouts, responsible parenting, chasing stray dogs or being a super-Christian at his church, many lives likely have been spared.