The cult watchdog
Irish Times, March 22, 2000
Mike Garde is employed by Ireland’s major churches to monitor the country’s 100-plus alternative religions. He tells Kellie Russell why we’re now more susceptible to the `unsettling presence’ of cults.
The danger of cultism isn’t always restricted to its members. Cult watchdog Mike Garde knows what can happen when you start poking your nose in other people’s religions. He’s Ireland’s theosophical Big Brother, monitoring cults – or new religious movements as he prefers to call them – for Dublin’s mainline Christian churches.
As a self-employed fieldworker for an ecumenical ministry called Dialogue Ireland, he reports to a board, composed of representatives of the main Christian churches, on what he calls the “unsettling presence” of alternative religions. He provides information, advice and pastoral support, for families, clergy, teachers and other professionals who encounter activities of cults.
Garde is not a member of the Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian or Church of Ireland congregations he serves. He is a Mennonite – “not a cult”, he’s quick to point out – but one of the Quaker-like peace churches founded before Anglicanism. It’s a personal fact not lost on at least one of the organisations he’s pursued in the name of disillusioned members and their disquieted families, a Dublin branch of the Scientologists.
“Scientology operates on a system of black propaganda,” he says. “A section of the Mennon church was linked to a drug cartel in Mexico, so they contacted the church leaders I work for to tell them they had a dark horse among them.”
The traditional breeding ground for cults has always been the United States, where religious freedom is vigorously upheld via the constitution. Now, on this side of the Atlantic, the decline of the Catholic church’s dominance and the storming advance of both the Celtic Tiger and the Internet have provided opportunities for powerful cult-promoting influences.
“The Irish people have discovered capitalism, which was not native to Catholicism. There’s a lot of stress and fatigue and it seems to be the New Age movements that provide the outlet for resolving that conflict,” says Garde.
According to his research, there are more than 100 minor religions operating throughout the country. To date, Dialogue Ireland, which replaced the Catholic-run Cult Awareness Centre in 1992, has focused on Scientology, the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, new churches with Eastern or Christian foundations, “human potential” movements and a group called Emin, which Garde describes as “quasi-occult”, promoting the powers of electromagnetic fields.
“In Ireland most people connect the word “occult” with Satanism, but actually it just means secret or hidden,” he explains. “There’s no evidence of major Satanic practices here, like there is in the United States, but increasingly with the Internet, young people in the most rural areas of Ireland will have the same access to cult information as a child growing up in the cities of America.”
The Internet has become the cult leaders’ prime recruiting ground, creating cheap, virtual communes for often-naive net surfers, susceptible to the omnipotent allure of the Internet itself. “The person who joins a cult tends to be more intelligent, even brilliant, but not necessarily emotionally intelligent,” says Garde. “Quite often they’ll come from an emotionally dysfunctional family.”
Among those Garde is trying to help is a young male member of the Dublin International Church of Christ, a controversial group also known as the Boston Movement. Recently the subject of BBC and UTV documentaries which detailed its recruitment of bright, upwardly-mobile students and business people, the church demands at least 10 per cent of its members’ incomes – including student or social welfare grants – and an all-consuming regime of prayer and street evangelising.
“They persuaded this young man not to seek information from the outside, putting it into his head that he would be a failure and go straight to hell if he left the church,” says Garde. “He was in a corner, so started drinking heavily and ended up trying to commit suicide.”
Pastoral support for concerned families is a key purpose of Dialogue Ireland. But education about the nature of cults is fast becoming a primary role. Last year Mike Garde visited 120 schools, informing students about the rise of new religious movements and the burgeoning interest in experimentation with ouija boards, seances and the paranormal.
Scaremongering, though, is something Garde says he tries to avoid, promoting his strategy as preventive, informative and empowering for youth. “People have the right to believe in anything they like, but they also have the right to information which enables them to make an informed choice. The problem with cults is that the self-interest of the group’s leader tends to dominate the lives of members, not allowing them to process the data they’ve been given and often isolating them from family and friends. Of course, there have been similar instances in the mainstream churches, but most have installed a system of checks and balances which don’t exist in the new religious movements.”
Gathering accurate information about each group has been a frustrating aspect to Garde’s work. With few cults willing to enter into open debate or discussion with him about their operations, he has relied largely on information from former members and their families, and he admits there is no statistical information on the groups operating in Ireland.
“We are the only country in Europe that still has not had a parliamentary investigation on the phenomenon of cults,” he says. Dialogue Ireland has now written to the Committee for Equality, Justice and Women’s Rights, asking it to investigate the current situation in Ireland. And last week, Dialogue Ireland lobbied the Taoiseach for State-funded research at third-level to study new religions.