The State Department, confronted by mounting charges that it failed to properly investigate complaints against the Peoples Temple commune in Guyana, has issued a defense of its actions prior to the mass suicides and murders there.
In a statement Friday, the department said the record made clear that its officials had "discharged their responsibilities fully and conscientiously" within the limits imposed by law and constitutional bars against intruding on guarantees of privacy and religious freedom.
"We believe it is safe to say that more attention has been devoted to this particular group of Americans living overseas over the past 18 months than to any other group of Americans living abroad," the statement asserted.
The statement was made after a new round of charges by Peoples Temple defectors that department officials had ignored warnings about people being held against their will in the commune and that commune leaders had made plans for mass suicide by their followers.
Many of the charges have been directed at Richard A. McCoy, formerly a consular officer at the U.S. embassy in Guyana and since August the Guyana desk officer in the department. Complaints against McCoy include allegations that he filed to investigate charges of coercion and that he was sexually compromised and given money by commune members.
In response, department officials, both on the record and privately, have vigerously defended McCoy's conduct. They say charges that he was bribed or compromised by sexual relations with one or two women from the commune are believe within the department to be false.
McCoy, they said, has denied the charges both orally and in a sworn affidavit. In addition, the officials said, he was questioned extensively by department security officers who concluded he was telling the truth.
During his service in Guyana, McCoy conducted most of the more than 50 interviews with commune residents who were reported by friends or relatives as being held against their will. In each case, the department has said, the individuals denied that they wanted to leave.
In the bulk of the interviews, McCoy is known to have told his superiors, he tried to guard against coercion of the individual by talking to the person in an open field where the conversation could not be overheard by other commune members.
McCoy also said that on each occasion he had a Guyanese government official waiting in his car nearby. He added that he had told the persons being interviewed that if they wanted to leave the commune, he was prepared to put his arm around them, escort them to the car and drive them to immediate safety.
On Thursday, a defector from the commune, Deborah Layton Blakey, said in San Francisco that McCoy had advised her not to go to the press with her allegations of abuse and a suicide plan within the commune.
In response, Tom Reston, a department spokesman, said that McCoy, in two conversations with Blakey, had told her she would have to make her own decision about talking to the press. However, Reston added, McCoy did say that, in his opinion, he didn't think press reports would help and that the best recourse would help and that the best recourse would be for her to tell her story to federal law enforcement agencies.
Earlier, department spokesmen had said that allegations of abuse, made by Blakey in an affidavit after her return to the United States last spring, had not been expressed by her in her dealings with McCoy. In the affidavit, she praised McCoy for getting her a new passport and other assistance in her departure from Guyana.