Rick Ross, Cult Expert

Rick Ross, 52, is an internationally known expert regarding destructive cults, controversial groups and movements. He has performed interventions, lectured, consulted, assisted local and national law enforcement, and testified as an expert witness on the subject.

Gothamist (www.gothamist.com)/July 18, 2005
By Mindy Bond

You have your own institute, The Rick A. Ross Institute. What is the purpose of your organization and what does your job entail?

The Institute is a nonprofit tax-exempted effort to essentially maintain a database about controversial groups and movements, some which have been called "cults" for educational informational purposes. There is a blog associated with the site. My professional work includes interventions for families concerned about someone's cult involvement, lecturing at colleges and universities and court expert testimony.

What are some of the defining characteristics of a "cult?"

Destructive cults typically conform to three basic criteria. (1) An absolute authoritarian leader without any meaningful accountability that so dominates the group he or she virtually comes to define it. (2) A process of intense indoctrination that inhibits critical thinking and ultimately leads to undue influence, often called "brainwashing." (3) The group is harmful. This can be seen through anything from financial exploitation to physical abuse and medical neglect.

It is important to note though, that not all groups are equally destructive and/or controlling to the same degree, that some are more harmful than others are.

The term “new religious movement” is often thrown around. How are they different from cults?

"New religious movement" is often a euphemism used by cult apologists in an attempt to spin a supposedly "politically correct" term for groups more commonly called "cults."

You alluded that some "cults" are not that dangerous, what are some other popular misconceptions about cults?

Not all cults are religious, visibly strange and/or have compounds where members live together in a restricted community. Some so-called "cults" may be benign. Wicca, witches and Satanists are often portrayed as "destructive cults" largely by those who don't appreciate their beliefs. However, most if not all of the stories about the allegedly evil acts of these groups or movements have proven to be little more than urban myths.

The Amish can be seen as a "cult" or exclusive sect, but they have existed in America peacefully since the 1700s. The followers of Ellen White now known as Seventh Day Adventists, formerly called the "Millerites," are a group that arguably may have started as a personality-driven "cult," but ultimately became a respected religion.

We have to ask - Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Scientology… thoughts?

Scientology seems to play a pivotal role in the supposed Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes pairing and romance. Mr. Cruise, like many people in groups often called "cults," cannot easily tolerate an outside frame of reference. He lives in a kind of traveling Scientology bubble with his entourage of sycophants and assistants. It's doubtful that he could have a serious personal relationship with an unbeliever.

Cruise is Scientology's most important living asset and they wouldn't want it any other way. It would be a "mission impossible" for someone to become his spouse without accepting Scientology. Tom Cruise arguably lost his last link to the other side when he replaced his publicist Pat Kingsley with his Scientologist sister. If he doesn't want an unbeliever as a publicist, why would anyone think he wants one for a wife?

Scientology appears to be popular with the celebrity set. What do you attribute this to?

There may be around 100,000 members of the church worldwide and it's likely that less than 1% of the membership could be called "celebrities." But Scientology specifically and systematically targets celebrities, which is consistent with the teachings of its founder L. Ron Hubbard. That is why they have so-called "Celebrity Centers," to attract and cater to celebs. Tom Cruise often brings people to the LA Celebrity Center.

There is something of a Hollywood network of Scientologists within the entertainment industry. Perhaps there is the perception that becoming involved with Scientology is potentially professionally advantageous. Other than that though the same things that hook most people in groups called "cults" works the same for celebrities. It's often like a game of "bait and switch." What you see at first is not necessarily what you get. Scientology actually sells its revelation through courses. So you don't know what it's completely about until you finish the training and reach the higher levels.

You hear a lot of talk about OT in Scientology. What is OT?

Scientology says that "Operating Thetan" (OT) is roughly its equivalent to the religious concept of a human soul. But there are other more cryptic meanings that connect the word to a belief in preexistence and alien beings from outer space. Scientology is after all the creation of L. Ron Hubbard who was first a Sci-fi writer before becoming a religious prophet.

Scientology zealously guards its OT secrets and has used copyright and trade secret law to keep former members from posting this information on the Internet. However, a woman in Holland has successfully beaten them legally and anyone can read Scientology's secret OT teachings by simply going to a website called "Operation Clambake."

What about Kabbalah? Radar Magazine recently ran a scathing expose on the Bergs, pretty much exposing them as taking an ancient form of Jewish mysticism and distorting it for personal gain. Do you agree with this assessment?

I cooperated with Radar on that series and have been tracking the Kabbalah Centre since 1997. In my opinion the Bergs are more about marketing than mysticism. And the Kabbalah Centre is run much like the Berg family business even though it is a nonprofit tax-exempted religious charity. I have received many complaints about the Bergs from former devotees, families and the partners and spouses of those involved. These complaints run from relentless financial exploitation to estrangement from a spouse, family or friends that don't agree with and/or question the Bergs and their teachings. Madonna more than anyone is responsible for the fantastic growth of the Kabbalah Centre in recent years. And though she may also be a victim of undue influence, Madonna has enabled the Bergs to reach a wider audience and potentially harm an increasing number of people.

Why do you think people buy into this stuff?

Adherents buy into the Kabbalah Centre because they don't know initially what it's all about. Some are probably swept up by the cache of Madonna, Demi Moore, and Ashton Kutcher, which makes the Bergs appear credible. Add to this that the Kabbalah Centre offers easy enlightenment with an amulet or holy water to address almost any need or problem. Groups like this sell simple solutions to complex problems in a world that is becoming increasingly frightening and overwhelming for many people.

Where are the devoted Jews? Why don't they protest?

The Bergs and the Kabbalah Centre have no meaningful credibility amongst the organized Jewish community. Berg has been ridiculed and dismissed by many leading rabbis and at times Jewish leaders have issued public warnings. But of course the Kabbalah Centre calls this "persecution" and encourages its members to see the controversy that has historically surrounded the Bergs as a jealous reaction to their accomplishments. And for people like Madonna, who seems to live within her own bubble much like Tom Cruise, such apologies are apparently convincing.

Is there anything redeeming about these "celebrity-studded" groups?

People such as Kirstie Alley say that Scientology got them off drugs. If this is true that's a good thing. Others claim that Hubbard's so-called "study technology" was helpful, though much of it comes across as common sense. Followers of the Kabbalah Centre say they are less negative and now look at life and people more positively as a result of that group's teachings. But both these groups seem relentless in their pursuit of money from those that become involved.

What group do you get the most serious complaints about?

Some of the most serious complaints I receive are about Landmark Education. Landmark has a long history of personal injury lawsuits; people have been hospitalized after breakdowns linked to their programs. Back in the 1970s singer/songwriter John Denver and TV sitcom star Valerie Harper extolled "est," which was the forerunner of Landmark Education launched by seminar guru Werner Erhard. In the 1990s Erhard supposedly sold out, though his brother now runs the private for-profit company that like Scientology essentially sells its revelations.

Even with all the complaints they are still successful?

Landmark Forum is bigger and making more money than ever before. It has 52 offices in 21 countries and boasts that 145,000 people participate in its programs annually. I was told that before 9/11 they occupied an entire floor of one of the World Trade Center towers. Now they have quite a large operation at West 33rd St. near Penn Station.

What other groups are on your watch list?

A new group that has hit the US in recent years and generated some very serious complaints is Dahn Hak led by a "Grand Master" Seung Huen Lee, who is from South Korea. Dahn Hak has a chain of exercise studios across the country including New York and is staffed largely by Lee’s often grossly underpaid devotees. They are now being sued for the wrongful death of a college professor from Queens, New York, who died suspiciously while at one of their retreats in Sedona, Arizona.

What about a group like Al Qaeda, how would you categorize them?

In my opinion Al Qaeda can easily be seen as personality-driven cult. And just like other cult followers, the devotees of Osama bin-Laden depend upon him to define their reality and make value judgments. This accounts for the bizarre fantasy world bin Laden's followers inhabit, a world where office workers somehow become military targets. Osama bin-Laden has as much to do with Islam as David Koresh did Christianity. He is another lunatic leader cast from the same mold as Jim Jones. The parents of some of his followers have described how he "brainwashed" their sons and led them to destruction.

Let's talk about your intervention work. Didn't you deprogram some Branch Davidians?

Years before the Davidian standoff I assisted families concerned about loved ones following Vernon Howell, who later took the name David Koresh. Two families retained me for intervention work. One before the standoff (during the summer of 1992) and another actually during the standoff. The second intervention was with a Davidian locked out from the compound because of the standoff. Both these interventions were successful.

So you were in Waco during the standoff. Did you consult the authorities? What do you think about what happened?

I was first interviewed by the BAFT and later by the FBI, though the FBI spun this somewhat differently after everything ended so badly. One academic scholar filed a report criticizing the FBI for relying on me too much, while the official Justice Department report says they didn't rely upon me at all. The truth lies somewhere in between.

The government did make mistakes. The ATF was apparently poorly prepared and too aggressive in serving its warrants. The FBI never really fully recognized the cult dynamic central to the standoff and instead saw it as a terrorist "hostage-rescue" situation, despite my advice and the input from others they consulted. But in the final analysis David Koresh caused the standoff and controlled its final outcome.

You've been involved in a few court cases as a result of your work. Can you give some examples of cases where you came out victorious?

Since 1995, I have been sued for slander/libel five times by various groups or organizations. Four of those lawsuits were dismissed without ever going to trial. The last one still remaining involves an Albany, New York based group called NXIVM and is still pending. But a federal judge rejected NXIVM's request for an injunction to remove material from the Ross Institute database and that decision was upheld all the way to the Supreme Court. The case has helped to set limits on copyright claims vs. the right to quote material in a critical review, even if that material is supposedly covered by a confidentiality agreement. Douglas Brooks, a Massachusetts attorney, and Tom Gleason, an Albany lawyer, represent me pro bono. And a Washington D.C. organization, Public Citizen, helped on the brief before the Supreme Court.

But my sweetest court victory to date came just recently regarding a lawsuit filed by Landmark Education for $1 million dollars claiming "product disparagement." Landmark actually has moved to dismiss its own lawsuit with prejudice (meaning it cannot be filed again) rather than face discovery. Peter Skolnik of the New Jersey law firm Lowenstein Sandler represents me pro bono.

Any cases where you came out on the losing end?

Without a doubt the Jason Scott case was initially a devastating court defeat. In the case, a young man was manipulated by Scientology attorneys in a lawsuit against me over a failed involuntary deprogramming that took place in 1990. In 1995, I was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, but Scott won an almost $3 million dollar civil judgment against me, which quickly led to personal bankruptcy. However, about a year later, Jason reconciled with his mother, the person who had hired me to deprogram him, and settled the judgment largely for more of my consultation time and $5,000.00. He told the Washington Post and CBS "60 Minutes" that Scientology had "used" him in a war against its perceived enemies.

Is that why you no longer do involuntary interventions?

I cannot afford to go through another Scott case, though I remain deeply sympathetic to the families that find themselves in similar situations. I restrict myself to voluntary interventions, unless working with a minor child under the direct supervision of a custodial parent.

How do voluntary interventions work?

Much like a drug or alcohol intervention, my work typically begins as a surprise planned by a family, spouse and/or those concerned. But the person who is the focus of such an effort may decide to subsequently leave, which is their choice. Three out of four don't leave and ultimately decide to end the situation that has drawn concern.

What is the rate of attrition for a cult?

One study concluded that most people involved in cults would leave after five years. But I know of many that stay for decades. And for those that give up years of their lives to some cult group this experience may come at considerable personal expense. Relationships may suffer or be broken beyond repair, family lost, not to mention financial costs and lost opportunities. Not a day goes by that I don't receive an email or phone call from a cult victim about the price that they have paid for their involvement and the difficulties they experience in recovery.

You have amassed quite a few critics over the years. What are some of the more inflammatory and/or amusing things that have been said about you?

Well, I maintain a "Hall of Flames" for the hate e-mail received. Recipients receive an award of one to four flames depending on how hot their comments are.

I have often been called an "anti-Christ" and a "tool of Satan." Interestingly I have been labeled both an "ADL stooge" and an "anti-Semite." And then there is the more colorful stuff. "A piece of subhuman excrement hosed into the sewers," is an old favorite of mine, but that doesn't include the more crude stuff that relies heavily upon four letter words. I consider it something of an honor that Scientology has a 17-page Internet introduction to my 196-page attached personal PDF on-line file.

Do you identify yourself with an organized religion? Do you consider yourself a religious person?

Yes. I am Jewish and affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), often called Reform Judaism, which has its headquarters in New York.

What advice would you give to a friend or family member of someone who appears to be becoming part of a "cult"?

Don't overreact. Don't be confrontational. You may be wrong.

First, carefully and discretely research the group in question and educate yourself. Then make an informed decision about how you can best respond. Before taking any action get a second, even a third opinion from people and/or professionals you trust. Don't jump to any conclusions before a process of due diligence. Keep all communication as open as possible and strengthen continuing goodwill with the person you are concerned.

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