Cult Control

Cult Control

European Governments search for ways to contain the growing influence of religious sects without endangering freedom of belief.

TIME Magazine, January 27, 1997 Vol. 149 No. 4.
By Rod Usher

Faith is in the eye of the believer. Alain Gest, the French politician who presided over a parliamentary commission investigating cults and new religious movements, puts it bluntly: “If you want to wake up at 4 am each day to pray to an onion that you call God, I have nothing against it.” But he adds: “Where I do have a problem is if you also pray in my name or on my behalf, and ask me for $30,000 for it. That is where we are drawing the line.”

In France and around the world, the need to draw a line between mainstream and manipulative beliefs is becoming pressing as new proselytizers–from mere adapters of traditional creeds to frightening merchants of doom–blur the distinction. Trying to reconcile the resulting clash between liberty and protection is proving a big headache for governments.

The French parliamentary commission, in a report published last year, underscored the problem facing most countries when it said: “The notion of the sect is totally absent within French law.” It added: “Religion being the private sphere of citizens…creates the legal impossibility of defining the social forms religious exercise can take…” But the conundrum has to be addressed as bizarre new groups, from Aum Shinrikyo to the Order of the Solar Temple, take belief to such lethal extremes as putting gas in the Tokyo subway or committing group suicide in French forests.

Many modern seekers of souls–and frequently wallets–call themselves churches and claim the enshrined rights the name entails. Some of them cause families to fall apart, or prove that a faithful fool and his money are easily parted. The French commission listed as characteristics found among these groups: mental destabilization; rupture with a member’s previous environment; physical abuse or constraint; sequestration of children; anti-social messages; threats to public order; unorthodox financial practices; and possible infiltration of government.

The rise of cults and new religious movements has accompanied the decline in congregations of traditional religions. Their prime attraction is gospels that wash away the doubt and searching intrinsic to older creeds. They offer Simon Says theology instead, a follow-the-earthly-leader approach which appeals because ultimately leaps to obedience are easier than leaps of faith. Says Daphne Vane, of the Britain’s Family Action Information Resource (FAIR), which counsels cult-leavers and families: “In the past 20 years we have seen a burgeoning of new movements offering solace and a total solution.” The European approach to this upsurge of both benign and malign unorthodoxy differs from that in the United States, where many of the new groups began. While the European response tends to be tougher, it is anything but unified.

Nowhere is the liberty/watchdog debate more polemical than in Germany. Says Ingo Heinemann, of the Bonn-based Campaign for Intellectual and Psychic Freedom, a parents’ committee: “Consumer protection is already the law for medical or food items, and it’s time that the state regulates the psycho market as well. These organizations can take away people’s ability to protect themselves.” Various German states have heeded this advice, but there are also voices raised against intervention, calling it at best unnecessary, at worst discriminatory. Says Irwin Scheuch, emeritus professor of sociology at Cologne University: “Sects come and go. Nobody should really get that excited. The danger to German society is not the sects but the hysterical reaction to them.”

Some reaction has been intense enough to ruffle international diplomacy. The U.S. State Department, in its annual reports on human rights, has criticized the German Government for “discrimination” against the Church of Scientology, which claims to have about 30,000 followers among more than 80 million Germans. The U.S. attitude has been firmed by action taken in Germany against American Scientologists, such as jazz pianist Chick Corea, who in 1993 was barred from playing at a state- sponsored concert in Bavaria. Last October, Scientologists renewed a campaign begun in 1995, placing advertisements in American newspapers using Holocaust references to claim their treatment is comparable to that of the Jews by the Nazis. The State Department eventually balked at this, spokesman Nicholas Burns calling the comparison “outrageous.”

The department’s initial stand, however, reveals the gap between American and European thinking, a difference underscored this month when more than 30 U.S. media and film stars and moguls wrote to Chancellor Helmut Kohl to protest at the treatment of Scientology in Germany. At a higher level, the First Amendment to the American Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion, has been interpreted very widely by the Supreme Court, a tradition which has made U.S. officialdom reluctant, for example, to help parents retrieve children who have entered cults. Says Michael Langone, executive director of the Florida-based American Family Foundation, a group that includes many academics: “I think there is a knee-jerk reaction to back off because [officials] see it as a religious issue.” But Johannes Aagard, head of Dialog Center International, a Danish clearing house for information on new religious movements, refers to America’s “First Amendment neurosis.”

Another deterrent is that some of the new movements are extremely wealthy, and have learned how to wield the law against opponents. Says Langone: “The fascists of the 21st century aren’t going to come with swastikas and billy clubs. They’re going to come with clerical collars and lawyers, and they’ll sue their critics into bankruptcy.” This is a more attractive option in America than in Europe because in the U.S. it is harder for the winner of a court case to extract legal costs from the loser.

The silence-by-lawsuits approach has already forced a leading U.S. monitoring organization, the Cult Awareness Network, to file for bankruptcy. Chicago-based CAN received more than 350 phone inquiries a week from people wanting information about unconventional religious groups. It has also received dozens of lawsuits. It filed for bankruptcy after losing one of them, a case brought after a CAN volunteer referred a Washington woman to a “deprogramming” expert to try to persuade her 18-year old son to leave a Pentecostal group. The son, now aged 24, has recently indicated he may reach a settlement with CAN–which was ordered to pay him $1.8 million–that will enable the network to continue.

    [Webmaster’s Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was bankrupted and bought up by Scientology since this article was written. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]

In Europe, where there are fewer legal and constitutional restraints, governments are more willing to act to restrict or oversee religious movements. In several German states, particularly Bavaria, North-Rhine Westphalia, Berlin and Rhineland Palatinate, there are moves by the respective ministers for internal affairs to have the Church of Scientology put under the scrutiny of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the equivalent of America’s FBI. In France, government money helps fund one of the main anti-cult groups, something unheard of in the U.S.

Until recently the French attitude was more laissez-faire than force de frappe. But pressure to act was heightened by the Order of the Solar Temple. It was the 1994 suicide-murder rituals in Switzerland and Quebec of 53 Templars, many of them French citizens, that led to the parliamentary commission. In January last year, just before the commission delivered its study, another 16 Solar Temple members died in a similar murder-suicide in the French Alps near Grenoble.

Late last year an individual case again reminded the French of the minefield between freedom to believe and the state as Big Brother. Nelly Vic claimed that her husband, Patrice, 31, an industrial designer, became so engrossed with Scientology that he would turn down job offers to continue his treatment with its officials. Nelly Vic said that in early 1988 Patrice was restless and grew distant from her and their two children. The cost of his courses was a source of tension. In May that year, she said, she received a visit from local Scientology president, Jean-Jacques Mazier, suggesting a further course for Patrice at a cost of $6,000. “That evening,” Nelly Vic recounted, “my husband was agitated. He kept hyperventilating. Early the next morning, he said: ‘I can’t help it, it’s the only solution’.” As their children, then aged 3 and 8, watched, she said, Patrice went to the balcony of their 12th-floor flat and stepped off.

On November 22, a court in Lyons sentenced Mazier to 18 months in prison for involuntary manslaughter, the judges finding him guilty of negligence in handling the emotionally fragile Vic. Fourteen of Mazier’s colleagues were given suspended sentences on fraud-related charges. The tribunal also addressed the “line” referred to by politicians, noting “the liberty of belief is one of the fundamental elements of French public liberty (but)…nevertheless has its limits in the interest of public order.” Mike Rinder, a spokesman for the Church of Scientology International in Los Angeles, countered that “The judgement is no more than a diatribe against a religion perceived as ‘heresy’ by the French court. We are confident that justice will prevail at higher levels.”

Apart from rare criminal cases, European courts are also starting to take a consumer protection attitude towards people who put their money where their new belief is, then recant. In October, Norway’s Court of Appeals ordered the Church of Scientology to pay about $95,000 to former member Magne Berge, who had taken out hefty loans to pay for courses during five years with the Church. The Scientologists are seeking leave to appeal to Norway’s Supreme Court.

But given the fact that courts are about remedy rather than prevention, what can be done to protect citizens from psychological or financial hurt by the belief business? The French have opted for education. On October 1, Youth and Sport Minister Guy Drut announced a campaign to make it harder to snare young people. It aims to tell them what sects are, and how they operate. Sports events organizers, club officials, coaches–in total 6,500 ministry employees–will be trained in the subject. There will also be 1,300 information centers around the country where young people can learn about sects and air any doubts they may have.

Despite the heavier hand used in Germany, there, too, the use of publicity is becoming as appealing as prohibition. Says Renate Rennebach, a Social Democratic Party member of a committee on sects set up by the Bundestag last March, and due to report this year: “The right approach is to provide citizens with information and explanation.”

Although her view is gaining support, many Germans remain convinced of the need for regulation. Munich judge Jurgen Keltsch argues, “The state has the responsibility to ensure a fair and risk-free relationship between cults and citizens.” To this end, Keltsch proposes a “psycho-ethic convention” which would “guarantee that people who undergo the psycho-treatments employed by ‘commercial’ sects are protected from psychological, and as a consequence, financial, exploitation or enslavement.” The convention would govern the wording of any documents the “psycho-consumer” is asked to sign.

The British government is closer to the French government position than to the German, although the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, did act to deny the head of the Unification Church, Sun Myung Moon, right of entry to Britain in October 1995. After being petitioned by parents, clergy and Members of Parliament, Howard decreed the presence of Moon would not be “conducive to the public good.” The High Court ruled the ban unlawful, but on grounds of procedural unfairness to Moon rather than of Howard having exceeded his authority. Moon’s lawyer withdrew his entry application, Howard insisted “the ban is still in force,” and the case served to prove that in Britain cult-watchers agree to disagree about government action. Says Harry Coney of Inform, a group based at the London School of Economics which keeps a data base on new movements: “Although freedom of worship doesn’t have quite the same ring here as in America, Britain tends to be more tolerant about new religious movements than some European countries.”

This approach doesn’t please everyone. Says Ayman Akshar, who runs a group called Triumphing Over London Cults: “Unless we have a Waco in Britain we will never act.” He is particularly critical of the established churches’ attitude. Says Akshar: “The Archbishop of Canterbury says things like ‘We will do our best to pray for these people.’ That’s like saying ‘Let’s pray for an ambulance’ when someone is knocked down by a car.” Akshar is a former member of one of the fastest-growing movements, the Los Angeles-based International Churches of Christ. The ICC was started in 1979 by Boston evangelist Kip McKean, which is why it is also known as “the Boston Movement.” Akshar accuses it of high-pressure tactics to win converts. Akshar, who belonged to the London branch of the ICC for seven years, says it likes to recruit at universities, but is now banned from several UK campuses. John Partington, an elder of the London branch of the now re-named U.K. Churches of Christ which has about 2,500 members in Britain, refutes claims of high-pressure tactics. Says Partington: “There is no point in trying to force people to do what we do. It doesn’t work.” Of the bans he says: “They have saddened us, but not worried us. The Wesleys were looked on with grave suspicion when they started calling people to obedience and they were banned from the Anglican church, but I think history has shown that they were godly men.”

In 1988, the Home Office funded Eileen Barker, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, to establish Inform, which has built up records on about 1,600 groups. Inform is against forced deprogramming of adherents, and even exit-counseling to help people break from cults. Says Coney: “The problem with exit-counseling is that the person has not chosen to be counseled. Yes, the premise is that the person has been brainwashed, but the evidence doesn’t support that these new movements brainwash people.”

While some anti-cult groups accuse Inform of being apologist, Prof. Barker says these groups can themselves be part of the problem. “Anti-cultists often frighten parents, who go on the attack and won’t listen to their adult children,” says Barker. She thinks deprogramming of cult members fails on legal, moral and practical grounds. “The practical results are either that the person escapes and goes back [to the cult] far more fanatic than before, or, having been told there’s no choice, comes out without having sorted things out for him or herself.” Barker admits there are dangers in cults, particularly that of isolation, but points out that Christians also disappear into monasteries. Says London solicitor Simonetta Hornby, who has been involved in cult cases: “Some religious cults appear indistinguishable from the early days of some established religions. And in certain aspects the established religions are still similar to some of the cults.”

Such comparisons are uncomfortable for mainstream churches. Another reason for their maintaining distance in the debate is that many have new movements taking off within their own ranks, outgrowths which can be seen as signs of renewed spiritual vitality, or as sects. Englishman Gordon Urquhart in 1995 published The Pope’s Armada, a searing attack upon three of the most energetic new movements in the Roman Catholic Church: Focolare, Communion and Liberation, and the Neocatechumenate. Urquhart, who spent nine years in Focolare, claims the movements have rigid, secret hierarchies, demand blind obedience, and create personality cults for their founders, who wield absolute authority. Replies Robert Moynihan, editor of the conservative monthly Inside the Vatican: “It is traditional Christian spirituality that seems to be under attack here…Silence, fasting, cutting oneself off from one’s former friends and associates to devote oneself to God, laboring to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth, all of these behaviors are seen as fanatical, irrational, cult-like. But these are behaviors that Catholics honor and praise in St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas More.”

For many new movements, the “ends of the earth” Moynihan refers to means the old eastern bloc countries, especially the former Soviet Union. There, the Russian Orthodox Church has set up counter missions and youth movements to try to stem the recruitment drives that followed the collapse of communism. Roman Mihailovich Kon, of the church’s Moscow-based division of external relations, thinks cults have spread because Russian laws are not being applied. He endorses the view of former national security adviser General Alexander Lebed, who during last year’s election campaign called for groups such as the Mormons to be “regulated and controlled.” Legislators appear to share that view.The national parliament, the Duma, is considering a law which would ban religious organizations whose aims “contradict public security.” There is already a law against using schools for religious education, but authorities have not prosecuted those who take foreign money for “optional” courses that could include the study of imported religions.

Russia has a continuing tradition of its own millenarian sects and charismatic leaders. For example, a man calling himself Vissarion, who in 1991 proclaimed himself “the mouthpiece of God,” has attracted 3,000 followers to a Siberian settlement. His real name is Sergei Torop, a former traffic cop. Vissarion now has a steady flow of human traffic selling their worldy goods, handing over the proceeds, and joining him in Siberia to await salvation.

Alexander Dvorkin, a student of cults and a member of the Orthodox Church’s religious education division in Moscow, is more disturbed by the foreign movements that bring money and tested recruitment methods. Some–such as Aum Shinrikyo–have been banned and members have gone underground. Other groups adopt what Dvorkin calls “pseudo-indigenization,” meaning foreigners remain in control, but stay behind the scenes.

Dvorkin’s co-religionist Roman Kon objects to foreign movements also preaching their own model of civilization. Says Kon: “I was at a meeting of religious people from abroad, and some of them said their religion was only compatible with a market economy. This is not a value of Orthodoxy; we don’t endorse any sort of economy.” The “religious people” he refers to were American Baptists.

Mainstream religions prove there is nothing new about beliefs being molded to human forms and value systems. The French political philosopher Baron de Montesquieu quipped more than 200 years ago: “If triangles invented a god, they would make him three-sided.” Being an advocate of civil liberties, Montesquieu would have spoken up for those who wish to believe in four-sided triangles, or to wake at 4 am to kneel to an onion. But, like today’s campaigners, he would have insisted on two concomitant rights: that followers should not be financially ruined in the process, and that they can walk away from onions or triangles at any stage, uninhibited. Without such guarantees, the line will be crossed that separates unmolested belief from unholy snake oil salesmen.

–Reported by Greg Burke/Rome, Bruce Crumley/Paris, Helen Gibson/London, Larry Gurwin/ Brussels, and Sophia Sears/Moscow.

The Church of Scientology International sued TIME in the U.S. in 1991, alleging libel in a cover story and seeking $416 million in damages. Those claims were dismissed by the District Court last year. The Church has said it will appeal the verdict.


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