Cult awareness conference courts protest, debate
Minnesota Daily, May 18 1999
By Rob Kuznia, Staff Reporter
- Scientology wages war on cult-watchers
- Former cult member at the conference
- The International Church of Christ
On Friday afternoon, a handful of protesters mingled among a crowd of people in front of the St. Paul Student Center, toting picket signs stating “Don’t tell us what to believe!”
Meanwhile, inside the student center, about 150 people convened for the weekend-long American Family Foundation Cult Awareness Conference, where prominent psychologists, sociologists and writers from all over the world discussed issues of mind control.
“Everybody’s got the right to their own opinion — the KKK, AFF or anybody,” said protester Casey Dickerson, “but the University shouldn’t sponsor these guys.” A public contact secretary for the Church of Scientology, Dickerson and a handful of cohorts came to decry the conference’s stance on freedom of religion.
The small protest was a microcosm of a bigger war between the Church of Scientology and cult awareness groups such as the AFF.
Two days before the conference, Scientologists released literature denouncing the AFF and discrediting many of the speakers.
The release, however, did not contain the word “Scientology.” Instead, the writers of the release referred to themselves as the Cult Awareness Network.
Speaker Ron Enroth, professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., said the letter was a product of the church’s legal strategy to combat anti-cult groups.
“These guys have unlimited funds,” Enroth said. “And they use them to pay good lawyers to wage war on groups they hate.”
The original Cult Awareness Network from Chicago was one such group. In a span of about 20 years, the Church of Scientology filed more than 50 libel lawsuits against CAN, none of which they won. But in July 1997, CAN lost $1.1 million and went bankrupt in a separate lawsuit. Soon after, the Church of Scientology bought the rights to the network’s name.
According to the release, the conference was held at the University solely to “borrow the University’s standing in the community, and for no other reason.”
In addition, the practices and theories of several of the cult experts have been denounced by the American Psychological Association in recent years, the release said.
Among the practices called into question by the association was deprogramming.
The conference provided information on how families of cult members can hire psychologists affiliated with the American Family Foundation to reclaim their loved ones through a psychological process called “thought reform” — a concept that has spawned animosity among groups like the Church of Scientology.
But the protesters didn’t refer to the concept as “thought reform.” Instead, they used the word “deprogramming.”
“The AFF is the think tank behind groups that did the deprogramming,” Dickerson said. “They forcibly coerce you to change your mind about something you came to on a logical or philosophical discussion.”
Deprogramming was an early method of converting cult members back into mainstream society by oftentimes kidnapping, scaring and even beating members. Used most heavily during the mid-’70s, deprogramming has been a sore spot for the Church of Scientology and other groups deemed “cults” since.
But AFF Thought Reform Consultant Carol Giambalvo said the times have changed.
“I’m not saying deprogramming hasn’t been done in the past,” she said. “But now we only do voluntary interventions. People are no longer physically restrained in any way. Now we just have an exchange of information.”
Conference attendee Brenda Sue Daeges never needed deprogramming to integrate her into society. At 17, she voluntarily walked out of the cult into which she was born.
In the last four weeks, Daeges has been in newspapers all over Canada. Formerly a member of a Montreal-based cult titled Apostles of Infinite Love, Daeges’ appearance on a Canadian television documentary titled “In the Hands of Strangers” ultimately resulted in the arrest of the cult’s guru, Pope John Gregory the XVII. He faces 51 charges, including child abuse and molestation, in a preliminary hearing on May 28.
During her 17 years in the cult, Daeges experienced daily beatings, sexual abuse, family alienation and was forced to eat her own vomit and feces.
“They presented themselves very well in public,” she said. “Everybody thought they were just about giving to charity and being spiritual.”
Armed men equipped with night-vision goggles constantly guard the compound, she said. She added that group has an authoritative demeanor that warrants such security. The male and female children of the compound are completely separated; women and girls are forbidden from revealing any skin — even when bathing.
“We took baths once a week in sinks, and we had to wear veils while bathing,” she said.
Daeges said she was only allowed to see her family three times a year for two hours at a time. But she said it was unclear as to who her family members really were in the first place.
“Pope John would always sit me on his lap and say, ‘there’s my little girl,'” she said. “I was the only girl he ever did that to, because he liked boys usually. My theory is that he and my mom had an affair, and it makes my mother very uncomfortable when I tell her.”
Daeges said the Canadian and United States governments should take more responsibility in dealing with such religious sects.
“The government doesn’t help the AFF, but yet cults like that don’t have to pay taxes. These things should change,” she said.
Enroth said Bible-based fundamentalist groups like The Apostles of Infinite Love are on the rise. “In fact, one of the most controversial groups in the U.S. is the International Church of Christ, which has a Minneapolis location,” he said.
A psychology senior, who wished not to be identified, said her interest in the conference was the result of her former affiliation with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Church of Christ.
The University woman said at first she really enjoyed the group.
“The thing is, they would usually skirt around the Bible part, to rope people in,” she said. “We just had fun. We played volleyball, and a woman I liked very much had me over for dinner. But when I became a member, I realized the bottom line was to recruit as many people as possible.”
Making someone feel unconditionally accepted while withholding from them the true aims of a group is a tactic known as “love bombing,” according to a report from the cult awareness organization Free Minds. In 1993, Free Minds examined the Minneapolis-St. Paul Church of Christ and deemed it a cult because of the deception it employs to attract members.
The Church’s tendency to minimize the importance of the individual is another one of the Church’s cult-like attributions, Enroth said.
The University student agreed, mentioning that people attending the cult could not date each other without first gaining approval from their mentors.
She said that her decision to finally leave the church didn’t happen in one day.
“I tried to make myself believe what they believe, but I couldn’t force it,” she said. “It was a slow process.”
Back to other media reports about the International Churches of Christ.