The Sunday Times (UK), March 26, 2000
As the influence of the traditional church in Ireland declines, thousands of Catholics are turning to the new age religions to find meaning in their lives. Very often it is a quest fraught with hidden dangers, reports John Burns
Jonathan Philbin Bowman was a spiritual man in search of the truth, according to Tom Stack, a Catholic priest who spoke at his funeral. After the journalist’s sudden death following an accident at home, relatives found a book called How Many Gods? in his briefcase.
Bowman was not unusual. Baptised a Catholic, he had drifted away from his birth religion. A “post Buddhist”, he spent last Christmas at Samye Ling, a Buddhist community near Lockerbie. “I came here to get away from Christmas and possibly from myself,” he wrote.
Instead, Bowman caught the flu and then the blues. He phoned his family and got the first plane home, abandoning a 10-day course in spiritual contemplation.
Thousands in Ireland are on similar quests. Catholics still believe in God (96%), a soul (85%), heaven (85%) and sin (84%), but increasingly like to plot their path to salvation without interference from priests.
From a high-water mark of moral authority in the 1950s, the Catholic church’s influence has declined. Since 1992, its popularity has been further diminished by a string of scandals involving clerics, some as senior and popular as Bishop Eamon Casey.
In 1991, three out of four Catholics still attended mass. Four years later, the figure had dropped to 64% and now is as low as 10% in some parishes. A generation of young Irish people has been cast adrift, without spiritual bearings. Many are hunting for a new religious home, and there are plenty of groups competing to fill the spiritual vacuum.
In Dublin last weekend, 6,000 people paid £5 each to enter the Mind Body Spirit festival, where Scientiologists and shamanic drummers, the Alpha and Omega Order of Melchizedec and the Complete Crystal Control progamme vied for their attention.
“Ireland is mission territory,” said Fr Martin Tierney, the leading Catholic authority on new religious groups. It is a richly ironic statement. For centuries this small country sent missionaries around the world to convert pagans. Now preachers from Britain, America and the East are flocking here to convert lapsed Catholics to their codes.
Tierney says the Catholic church itself is partly responsible. “The weakness of the church is helping these new movements,” he said. “It may be the mainstream churches are not preaching the real message of Christ. As priests, we were never taught to go out and preach the gospel.” The Bible-based religious movements are indeed a success in Ireland, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the biggest growth, Tierney says, is in new age and alternative philosophies of life.
“Everybody needs to give their lives meaning; otherwise they become pointless. Even a moneymaker needs something to live for. People are searching. They are looking for alternatives.”
Dick Spicer, secretary of the Humanist Association, agreed. “This is a generation in transition, that is breaking away. They will not fall prey to cults, but their children could.” Some already have.
Mike Garde is a cult buster. Officially he is a field worker who reports to Dialogue Ireland, a group of clerics from the four main churches who keep an eye on cults and sects. Garde, a Mennonite, gathers information about fringe religious groups and uses it to stall their advances by delivering lectures to students in Irish schools. He also helps to “deprogram” (provide exit counselling for) people who leave cults, a process not unlike an exorcism. He has been doing this since the 1980s and some of his former foes now look sickly. The Moonies, he says, are “on the rack”. Their Irish community is less than 10 strong and they have only one premises, on North Great George’s Street in Dublin.
The Church of Scientology is also a spent force, Garde believes. It may claim up to 200 members, but he reckons it has no more than 40 and notes, with satisfaction, that the church has abandoned two floors in its premises in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin.
But if they are on the retreat, the Scientologists are not leaving quietly. Gerard Ryan, a Dublin architect and their spokesman, questions Garde’s credentials. “He is paid to oppose these religious minorities,” Ryan says. “Thus it could be argued that he has a financial interest in the perception of danger [from cults]. If there was no perception of danger, would he have a job?”
Garde counters that his earnings before tax last year were £12,250. He gets £7,000 a year from the churches and makes approximately £35 for each school visit. “This is a vocation for me, not a money-spinner,” he said. “I get a lot of financial support from my family.”
There is no official definition of a cult, however. Experts agree that they are led by a charismatic figure who wields a high degree of control over members, who eventually suffer obvious psychological damage.
One person’s cult is another’s religion, of course, and the mainstream churches avoid the term, preferring to talk about “new religious movements”. There are no accurate figures available, but Dialogue Ireland estimates there are about 100 such movements in the country and sociologists believe between 1% and 1.5% of the population has become involved. That means about 50,000 people in the republic.
The most successful are not new to the world, just to Ireland. They include the Mormons, with about 6,000 members, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with 5,000, including 788 paid missionaries operating from 100 premises. “We find people are more disposed to listen, more tolerant,” said Aidan Matthews, a presiding minister. “The atmosphere in the country is more open. There are a lot more people searching for a spiritual dimension in their lives.” Ryan agrees: “Everyone now accepts the Hare Krishnas as decent people. When they came to Ireland first, they were being arrested for dancing in the street. It will be the same with us.”
The new pariah, as far as Garde is concerned, is the International Churches of Christ. Also known as the Boston Movement, the group is under intense British media scrutiny because it specialises in recruiting rural students, who must pay one-tenth of their income into church coffers and are sent out to win a target number of converts.
The group has more than 100 members in Ireland, including 15 in Belfast. “We don’t attempt to control our members or their lives,” said Nevil Lee, a church administrator. “Members live in the community, and hold down regular jobs. We do ask them to pay one-tenth of their salaries as a contribution.” Lee agrees that the church does not allow its followers to date or marry anyone outside the group. This is because the Bible – “Corinthians 6 or 7, I can look it up if you want” – says Christians should not get married to a non-Christian, according to Lee.
Frances Egan, from Galway, was initially relaxed when her daughter, Katherine, joined the International Churches of Christ in December 1996, aged 19. “I thought it was a phase she was going through,” she said. By the following summer she was worried. When her daughter came home, church members kept ringing her. “They seemed concerned that she was out of their grasp.” Apart from the tithe, twice a year Katherine had to pay 16 times the regular donation into church coffers. She started to bring recruiting material home, spending every minute of the day on church business. Finally Egan had enough and brought her daughter to London for “exit counselling”. Katherine went willingly.
Tim, a Protestant from Waterford, was 17 and a student in Belfast when, in 1994, he was recruited off the street by the International Churches of Christ. Soon he, too, was evangelising.
“In Dublin, it was enforced. Church members were supposed to go out every day,” Tim said. “You were expected to stay out until you got someone’s phone number. Then there were target months, when you had to get a certain number of recruits. I found it difficult. I once got 23 out of a target of 25 and was very pleased, but when I got home I was admonished.”
It was little things that turned him off the group. The leaders were manipulative; they treated people as numbers, even referred to recruits as “stats”. “Whenever I would not agree with our leader on a point, we never sat down and discussed it,” Tim said. “It was a moral fault of mine that was to blame. I got a series of unsatisfactory answers to legitimate questions.” He left after two years. The last row erupted when he refused to switch bedrooms in the house he shared with four other church members. “I had to leave early one morning when there was no one in the house, because they would have tried to stop me,” he said.
“Afterwards there were a lot of phone calls and visits. I still went to their Sunday service for a while, because I agreed with their doctrine. That was not good enough and eventually they asked me to leave. “If I had stayed longer, I would have been much more damaged. I found it difficult to readjust afterwards. For example, I found it difficult to make decisions about my free time.”
Garde estimates that up to 5,000 people have been in the International Churches of Christ. He is now helping the family of a Cork youth, signed up while on a Dublin City University course. He was told he would self-destruct if he left, began to feel trapped within the group, and attempted to commit suicide, says Garde.
Spicer thinks many of the new age religions can cause psychological damage too. One discipline, he says, believes negative thoughts can cause cancer. “What happens to people who get cancer and think they did it to themselves?” Spicer asked.
“It lays a huge burden on people who take it seriously. You are almost better off with old-time religion.”
Which is not exactly something the secretary of the Irish Humanist Association would be expected to say.
Sect that condemns mass
The Magnificat Meal Movement arrives in Ireland on Friday. The breakaway Catholic cult, with its leader, Debra Geilesky, is likely to attract sizeable crowds on a nationwide tour, even though it preaches that mass is invalid and Catholics risk their salvation by participation in it.
The group is based in Australia and was at the centre of a suicide scare last September, when some followers said Geilesky was having visions that she would die on 9/9/99. She claims to receive messages directly from God. Catholic priests in Australia say the ingredients for tragedy exist because of her dominant personality, and the hierarchial nature of the group, including the existence of “slaves”. Queensland bishops have urged Catholics to leave. Bishop John Ryan said: “I think lots of good people are trapped in there and deluded.”
One member is a 40-year-old professional, who sold her house in Dublin two years ago and moved to Australia. Friends suspect she has put all her money into the cult. “She has been completely taken over by the group,” said one. “Many other Irish people joined when she did, but have since left. She was once very sound and level-headed. Now she thinks she is a prophet and is having apparitions.
“Please don’t name her or she could get angry and break off all remaining contact with Ireland.”