Boston University alumnus warns of cults

Boston University alumnus warns of cults

The Daily Free Press (Boston University), 24 February 1998.
By Amber Hansman

It took a near-fatal car accident to get Boston University alumnus Steven Hassan out of the international Moon group, an alleged cult.

Now, Hassan is one of the nation’s leading experts on cults and author of the best-selling “Combating Cult Mind Control,” a guide to protection, rescue and recovery from such groups.

Hassan was an idealistic, 19-year-old student at Queens College in New York when he was recruited by a front organization of the Moon group in 1974. Hoping to make the world a better place by encouraging others to study Moon’s “Divine Principle,” Hassan dropped out of college, donated his bank account and quit his job.

Moon rewarded Hassan for his devotion; a group leader named him one of his top 12 American disciples. He attended special meetings with the group’s founder and “messiah,” Sun Myung Moon, who on one occasion gave Hassan $400. Before long, Hassan had given up his friends, family and former life to become the assistant director of the church’s headquarters.

In May 1976, 27 months into his involvement, Hassan was nearly killed in a van accident during a fundraising trip. Moon granted him permission to visit his sister after having his leg operated on. During the five-day visit, his family and former members of the group confronted him; in his writings, Hassan recalls shouting, “I don’t care if Moon is like Hitler! I’ve chosen to follow him and I will follow him to the end!” That’s when he realized his mind was being controlled.

“They don’t have a sign on their foreheads saying they’re a cult,” he says. “Nobody joins a ‘cult.’ They get deceptively recruited.”

As a former “Moonie,” Hassan knows the methods cults employ to attract members, and he says campuses are a prime picking ground for potential members. He warns that as the year 2000 approaches, cults will become more prevalent at colleges.

Hassan says most students think they are too intelligent or savvy to be drawn in by a cult. That attitude is precisely what the groups depend on, he says, explaining that recruiters appear friendly and often approach prospective members at concerts, coffee shops or on campuses.

Hassan has counseled thousands of former cult members and says those who are approached must be cautious. He tells students not to give out their names, e-mail addresses or phone numbers and to investigate any group they are thinking of joining.

“If a group is legitimate, it will stand up to scrutiny,” Hassan says. “There’s no such thing as instant friends. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Recruiters frequently approach students during high-stress periods such as midterms or finals, he says, adding that some cults even offer time management classes to entice prospective members. Others will invite students to bible sessions or group meetings.

“People are more vulnerable during times of stress,” Hassan says. “They are more subject to manipulation.”

“If you are really stressed out and someone comes up to you and says, ‘We have all the answers,’ it is only at a time like that when you are most vulnerable that you would believe that,” added Marsh Chapel Dean Robert Watts Thornburg. “On campus… students are so very vulnerable. Most of us think that students are the most independent folks in the world, so they are sitting ducks.”

Boston University has long recognized the presence of cults on campus, and is aware of the tactics used to recruit students. Since 1984, BU policy has stated that any student who is approached by a group and gives a clear, emphatic “no” will be free from further solicitations. If a group fails to comply with this rule, it can be prosecuted for religious harassment.

The only group ever to be banned from campus for violating the rule is the Boston Church of Christ, a world-wide organization also called the International Churches of Christ.

In a 1996 paper, Thornburg summarized the reasons for the university-imposed sanction against the BCC, citing recruitment techniques that employed harassment and guilt, thought-reform techniques, time domination and an authoritarian system which denied members rights of personal choice or interpretation.

“The reason this group is so destructive is that they presume to tell you what to think… from what kind of car to drive, to what color sweater to wear,” Thornburg says.

The Boston Church of Christ did not return several calls seeking comment.

BU is currently home to 37 registered religious groups, and Thornburg says the university is proud of its religious diversity. But destructive cults will not be tolerated, he says.

“I think religious freedom is very important. The reason I’m down on these groups is that they’re curtailing religious freedom,” Thornburg says. “They play on your sense of open-mindedness to draw you in, but questioning is never allowed.”

Back to other media reports about the International Churches of Christ.