The Record - New Jersey May 23, 2011
Mother pleads guilty over Paterson bloody religious ritual
BY JOHN PETRICK | THE RECORD STAFF WRITER
A mother who exposed her 7-year-old daughter to bloody religious initiation rituals in Paterson that included making her watch a chicken being sacrificed and feeding the girl its heart pleaded guilty in state court Monday to cruelty and neglect of a child.
A Paterson couple who were practitioners of the Palo Mayombe religion and who the mother asked to perform the ritual also were accepted into pre-trial intervention Monday for one year.
Yenitza Colichon, 33, of Jamesburg, Pa., brought her daughter to the Paterson home of Julio Cano, 32, and Zahira Cano, 25, in May 2007. Prosecutors have said Colichon was about to begin Army basic training and sought to protect her daughter while she was away at that training by cloaking her in the Palo Mayombe religion, which originated in central Africa.
The girl told a teacher after the ritual that she was having nightmares and felt she could not talk to her mother, Del Russo said. The state Division of Youth and Family Services was contacted, and investigators executed a search warrant at the Canos’ Pacific Street home, where the ritual had occurred.
Dolls, a shrine, religious statues, bones, machetes and bundles of sticks bearing numbers and names were among artifacts found at the home. The items, some of which had blood and animal hair on them, matched a description the girl gave about what she saw at the home.
Colichon and the Canos each were indicted on charges of cruelty and neglect of a child and child endangerment.
Joseph Del Russo, Passaic County chief assistant prosecutor, said outside of court Monday that Julio Cano has since parted ways with the Palo Mayombe religion. Under the terms of their acceptance into the pre-trial intervention program Monday, the Canos each will be required to serve a probation-like term for one year after which their records would be clear.
Colichon, meanwhile, faces up to five years’ probation for her guilty plea when she is sentenced before state Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Portelli in Paterson on June 24.
Attorney Joseph Manzo of Rockaway unsuccessfully argued before Portelli during a pre-trial motion in January to dismiss child-endangerment charges against Colichon because her freedom of religion protects her from prosecution. Manzo argued that other religious rituals — such as Jewish circumcision — might be considered unsafe, bloody or gruesome, yet are not subject to prosecution. The initiation ritual at issue is as necessary to the faith as a Catholic baptism, he said. New Jersey child endangerment laws are too vague and broad, and prosecutors apply the law to some religious rituals, but not to others, Manzo said.
In addition to being fed the chicken’s heart, the rituals included making the girl witness the decapitation of a goat, and the scratching of a religious symbol into her skin.
Del Russo argued during that pre-trial hearing that the Jewish circumcision ceremony is not comparable and that the mother’s actions were emotionally and physically dangerous to the child, which is a crime. Portelli agreed. In the Jewish bris, for example, the circumcision is performed by a trained, sometimes licensed practitioner under sterile conditions, the judge said.
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