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James Theodore Highhouse, a former Army chaplain who later took a job at a federal prison, was sentenced to seven years in prison for sexually abusing female inmates. He used his status as a Man of God to coerce prisoners into having sex with him, even telling inmates not to report him because “no one will believe you because you’re an inmate, and I’m a chaplain.”

According to a press release from the Department of Justice, Highhouse first began his work at FCI Dublin, a Federal Correctional Institution in California, in 2016. He knew exactly how to use his religion to give himself a position of power:

In his role as a prison chaplain, he led religious services and offered spiritual guidance to incarcerated women. He also taught religious-based classes about boundaries and self-worth, with the understanding that many of the women with whom he interacted came from a background of trauma, abuse and substance addiction. At times, Highhouse also performed a custodial role, that is, he could handcuff inmates, write up incident reports and refer inmates for disciplinary action. 

It didn’t take long, however, for Highhouse to use his power to pressure inmates into letting him use their bodies for his own satisfaction. The spiritual manipulation and physical abuse was so egregious that, despite federal guidelines suggesting a sentence of no more than 2.5 years for this sort of crime, a federal judge imposed a much harsher sentence of seven years.

Highhouse [would tell his victims] that everyone in the Bible had sex and that God wanted them to be together, prosecutors said.

An Army veteran, he pressured one inmate into intercourse on Veterans Day by telling her she needed to serve her country and on Thanksgiving by telling her she needed to show her gratitude for him, prosecutors said.

Highhouse was first arrested earlier this year for sexual abuse as well as lying to investigators by denying his actions. He wasn’t alone. Multiple other staffers at FCI Dublin were also arrested for sexual abuse, including the warden. Highhouse later pleaded guilty to the charges, admitting he repeatedly abused a prisoner over a nine-month span beginning in 2018.

That woman said in a victim impact statement that she cried herself to sleep after testifying before a grand jury about Highhouse’s abuse.

“I felt so lost, hopeless, worthless, and betrayal and truly do not know what to do or who to talk to about my problems,” the woman wrote.

No prisoner deserves that kind of treatment. The punishment is the imprisonment. .

There were other victims, too. Two inmates, according to the Associated Press, claimed Highhouse presented himself as a sex therapist, pried into their personal lives, and said they could have sex in his office. Another said he “raped her multiple times” after she went to him for counseling. Even though she reported him, her claims were shrugged off by a staffer who suggested it didn’t matter since she’d soon be transferred to a different location.

It didn’t just ruin her trust in the criminal justice system. It made her lose faith in faith.

“He took my ability to sleep at night and he took my ability to trust in the Church,” the inmate wrote in a victim impact statement. “I would never go back to Church. I’m constantly on alert. He played on my vulnerability and took advantage of me — I have nightmares.”

While the prison itself clearly lacked necessary oversight, you have to wonder how much Highhouse was able to get away with because of his religious title and the unearned respect automatically granted to chaplains of all stripes. At what point did he decide he would use his religion for his own personal satisfaction and at the expense of the people he was hired to help?

All this is happening, by the way, as atheist chaplains, trained to do all the same work expected of their religious counterparts, are effectively excluded from military and prison positions. In 2020, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said The Humanist Society (affiliated with the American Humanist Association) would have the power to endorse chaplains applying for jobs, giving them a stamp of approval, but there’s no indication there are any open atheists employed by the chaplaincy yet.

Meanwhile, Highhouse, a Christian chaplain, will be sentenced to prison for several years due to his heinous behavior. It’s long past time the federal prison system stop treating religion as inherently moral.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.