HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Cults find college students away from home for the first time are easy prey, an expert warned University of Southern Mississippi criminal justice majors Tuesday.
Rick Ross, a 15-year "cult-buster" visiting Southern Miss for a University Forum lecture, told members of Lambda Alpha Epsilon, USM's criminal justice honor society, that cult activity is on the rise and that freshmen need to be especially vigilant.
"We've seen a tremendous proliferation of cults," Ross said Nov. 8 before the evening's University Forum lecture on "Cults, Militias, and the Threat They Pose for America." "And a great deal of recruiting is done on college campuses, targeting people ages 18 to 26."
Definitions of cults are problematic because they usually involve "intense devotion to a person, place or thing," a description that applies also to many religions, Ross said.
"A cult could be benign because it poses no direct harm to its adherents," the former Arizona businessman said. "Typically, they have a dictatorial figure or cadre of leaders at the helm."
Millennial cults, which impose a special significance to the upcoming New Year, pose particularly ominous problems, Ross said. Israel has taken precautions to exile such groups, he noted.
"I think we will see some activity" related to cults that attach significance to the start of the Year 2000, Ross said.
Cults are flourishing, thanks to the Internet, but Ross said he feels that cyberspace also serves as an informational deterrent to the influence of deviant groups. "They lose more than they gain through the Internet," he said. Thousands log on daily to his Internet website at www.culteducation.com, designed to spread information about the insidious influence of cults.
Ross became interested in cults after a family member's experience with a religious group. In 1986, Ross became a private consultant on cults and a deprogrammer, working with persons who have come under the influence of a cult, usually at the request of a family seeking to break the group's hold on a loved one.
Ross had studied the Branch-Davidian cult since 1988 and deprogrammed four members of the sect before the 1994 Waco tragedy resulting in several deaths. During the crisis, he acted as a consultant to FBI and Alcohol Tobacco Firearms agents.
"In fairness to the FBI, I don't know if they had done exactly what I and others had suggested, if it would have turned out much differently," he said of the Waco crisis.
Ross is the fifth of six University Forum speakers visiting Southern Miss this fall at the invitation of USM's Honors College, one of the oldest insitutions of its kind in the nation. The fall's final speaker will be Dr. Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, who will offer a slide-lecture presentation on the "Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization" at 7 p.m. Nov. 30 in Bennett Auditorium.