NBC interviews local prof on group for TV show

PLATTSBURGH — Anthropology professor Dr. Richard Robbins will be an advocating voice for a controversial religious group on an episode of "Dateline NBC" later this month.

The broadcast date has not yet been scheduled.

"Dateline" producers contacted Robbins, a longtime professor at Plattsburgh State, to talk about the Twelve Tribes, a group that has been accused of acts of child labor, mind control and child abuse.

"What they see themselves doing is trying to create what they consider a righteous nation," Robbins said.

Members of the group take the Bible literally and practice their religion while living in small communities, where they remain as self-sufficient as possible.

Robbins became interested in the group 10 years ago when one of his students, Dave Cjenecki, decided to join Twelve Tribes after one of the group’s periodic visits to the Plattsburgh State campus.

A few members gave a presentation to Robbins’s Comparative Religions class, and he’s been in contact with them ever since, traveling to various communities around the world.

Robbins is thinking about writing a book on the Twelve Tribes, focusing on their history and the issues they face.

Some of those issues were discussed during the "Dateline" interview, but Robbins doesn’t know how the story will be told.

"I think it’s probably going to be a negative slant because ‘Dateline’ has done these things in the past, and they tend to focus on the ‘cult’ angle," Robbins said.

Portions of the two-and-a-half-hour interview with Robbins, which took place in New York City, will be spliced into a report filled with other experts and aired in two 15-minute segments.

A producer from the program said they had been working on the story for about a year, but, Robbins said, it may have stemmed from an incident with the Estée Lauder corporation in February.

Upon an inspection of a mill where tribe members were making soaps and lotions for the company, officials found two 14-year-old children working with their father, Robbins said. Fearing signs of child labor, the company withdrew from the contract.

"The Twelve Tribes are intensely devoted to their children," Robbins said in explanation. The children often come to work with their parents when they are done with the day’s schooling.

"I see it as no different than my 9-year-old daughter working with her mother down at her store," he said.

The New York State Labor Department is still investigating the issue of Twelve Tribes children working with their parents.

Twelve Tribes was also in the news in 1984, when members of a community in Island Pond, Vt., were accused of child abuse by another member who had been excommunicated for child molestation.

Police and Social Services seized 112 children, but a judge ordered them released back into the group the next day.

"The child-abuse thing tends to follow them around," Robbins said.

The group does practice corporal punishment, but it is done in a highly controlled and very ritualized way, Robbins said. The children are hugged and encouraged afterward.

"They believe righteous people have to be free of sin and guilt, and the act of corporal punishment, in their perspective, is an act of forgiving."

Not everyone who joins the group ends up staying.

"Some people did have a bad experience, and I think the people in the Twelve Tribes recognize that, but that’s not what’s supposed to happen," Robbins said.

"They give people the opportunity to live the life of the Gospels, particularly the Book of Acts and the Book of Revelation — some people can do it, and some people can’t."

He believes their attitudes toward general society, child-raising, marriage and the environment are "very healthy."

"It’s a demanding life," Robbins said. "When you visit them casually, it looks like a very ideal type of society, but it takes an awful lot of work to make it work."