Parents Form Group to 'Save Children' From Cults

St. Petersburg Times/November 24, 1979

About 40 persons were crowded into the living of the neat home in a plush, waterfront subdivision near here.

For six months, they had been meeting secretly, recruiting new members by word-of-mouth. Now it was time to let the community know. So last week they invited Crossroads to attend their meeting, with the proviso that the names of individuals not be used.

Their name: Save Our Children Organization (SOCO, pronounced Sock-o).

Their purpose: To alert the public to what they say are the dangers of religious cults and to help families affected by such groups.

Their method: To coordinate local efforts with a nationwide underground of concerned persons, who have seen the lives of young adults severely altered by certain religious groups.

SOCO'S MEMBERSHIP includes about 50 individuals of all ages and economic strata. They come from throughout the Suncoast and as far away as Orlando. Most of them are relatives of young adults who are, or have been, members of cults. Two members of SOCO are former members of cults, and two claim to have been harassed by a cult.

The meeting had several matters of business:

  • Approval of a letter to the University of South Florida (USF), protesting the apparent disinterest of authorities in the on-campus recruiting activities of various religious groups.

  • Plants for an all-night vigil to commemorate the deaths a year ago of the 276 children who were among the 900 victims of the bizarre murder/suicide pact at Jonestown, Guyana. (The vigil, held last weekend on the steps of the Hillsborough County Courthouse, attracted about 80 participants.)

  • Plans to sell "Adventure 80" coupon books (offering discounts at Bay area attractions and restaurants) to raise funds for distribution of materials to those interested in knowing more about cults.

  • A report on the formation of a national anti-cult organization.

The letter to USF was signed by all SOCO members. It asked the university to curb the activities of several groups, listing five that they believe should be investigated.

"MOST STUDENTS who are captured by the cults," the letter said, "discontinue their education, give up all their worldly possessions, break ties with their families and devote their entire lives (to) working for the cult and its leader. This creates untold heartache and trauma for the families involved."

The letter suggested that the university may be violating its charter by permitting such recruiting on campus.

Phyllis Marshall, director of the USF University Center, said Tuesday that she had not yet had time to discuss the letter with the vice president for student affairs and the student advisory board. She added that she doubts there has been any violation of university rules in relation to religious groups on campus, but she noted that members of the Unification Church (Moonies) were asked to leave the campus last year after they were found to have violated certain rules. Mrs. Marshall said that any student who feels offended by overzealous recruiting by a religious group can complain to campus authorities.

In the discussion about the vigil, a member reported that few Americans realize that so many of the victims were children and that about 200 of them were never identified and are buried in a common grave.

"Jonestown was what really woke us up," explained the hostess, who is a cofounder and president of SOCO. Until that startling event, she said, she and her husband had been concerned, but not desperately so, about their daughter's involvement in a cult.

THEY ALSO discovered that for parents, there are very few avenues to pursue. "The professionals - psychiatrists and psychologists - are no help," she said. "They don't recognize the problem or acknowledge it. The authorities are no help. All they said is, 'What laws have been broken?' Even friends won't listen to you. They don't believe it could happen to their children and think something must be wrong with yours."

The only avenue left, these parents decided, was deprogramming. Their efforts to locate a deprogrammer led them into a world they had never known existed. They became involved in the underground network that puts parents in touch with person who have become known as "professional deprogrammers."

That experience led to the discovery that dozens of Tampa Bay area families have taken the same route. Others, unable to afford deprogramming (it can cost up to $5,000) or unwilling to try that venture, have worked alone. A Tampa couple decided to invite several of the parents in the area to meet with them. SOCO is the result.

The organization meets once each month, with new members at almost every meeting. Newcomers are screened, since the group fears infiltration by cultists. The membership includes persons reporting involvement with about eight religious groups.

Two weeks ago, SOCO learned of a meeting planned in Chicago at which a national organization would be formed. By telephone, that group raised $165 to send a member to that meeting.

Her report occupied a major portion of the session attended by Crossroads. The new organization is to be known as the National Citizens Freedom Foundation (NCFF), she said. It has received tax-exempt status as a nonprofit, charitable foundation with permission to solicit funds for research into the activities of cults, she said.

NCFF will publish a monthly newsletter, plus information on cults - their methods of operation, leadership and bases of operation, the SOCO delegate reported. Some of the larger member organizations are raising $3,600 each to get the work started, she said.

NCFF and its affiliated groups will also offer witnesses for investigations of cults and will develop bureaus to provide speakers for civic groups, church organizations and private clubs.

The SOCO group decided that it should make a speakers bureau a part of its activity as well. One woman said she already has accepted several invitations to speak about a son who joined a cult.

The group decided that members who are asked to speak should ask for donations, to pay for printed materials on the activities of cults operating in the Tamp Bay area.

"We have to be careful," one member cautioned, "that we do nothing to injure any genuine religious groups. We have to emphasize that we are not against any religious, as long as it does not take a child and rob him of his mind, put him into involuntary servitude and take him away from his family."

"In fact," the delegate to the NCFF meeting added, "we were advised not to even mention the word religion in our talks. We should talk about the mental-health aspects of cults - tell them about the techniques used by cults. You can define a cult, but let the audience make up their own minds about what specific group may be a cult."

She listed the characteristics that should be stressed in explaining the difference between bona fide religious groups and cults. Cults, she said:

  • Recruiting new members by "love-bombing" (offering feigned friendship) and high-pressure evangelism.

  • Indoctrinate new members by using isolation, hunger, fatigue and fear.

  • Retain members by threats, repetitious activities and denying them privacy, either physical or mental.

  • Focus their theology on the infallibility of the leader, who often claims to have experienced new revelations from God that become excuses for bizarre behavior or isolation from the rest of society.

  • The result, she said, is that the members cannot function outside the group.

"A lot of religious groups are overzealous," another member joined in. "They make demands on their members, encourage large donations and that sort of thing. The big difference is that cults use mind control and isolate members from friends and family."

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