Cult figures

Experts ponder why people keep following the leader

Edmonton Sun/May 2, 1999
By Sally Johnston

Husbands prove their devotion to a small cult in Rocky Mountain House by delivering their wives to their leader for sex, says one of the province's top psychiatrists.

And the small town of 6,000, about 220 km southwest of Edmonton, is not the only Alberta community harbouring such a manipulative body.

"I believe there are between 300 and 500 cults operating in Alberta, some as small as two people," said Dr. Norman Costigan, who helped organize a cult awareness conference taking place in Edmonton this weekend.

The term cult, he said, can be applied to any manipulative group which exploits its members, causing psychological, financial and physical harm.

"They are all about power and control. In this case, sexual power," said Costigan, chief of psychiatry for the Red Deer-based David Thompson Health Region.

His startling claim is based on more than 20 years experience working with cult survivors.

It came as experts from the U.S. and Canada gathered for the two-day conference, Cults - Families in Crisis: The Need is Now, which continues today at the Coast Terrace Inn on Calgary Trail North.

Coming less than two week after the Littleton, Colorado school massacre, the meeting has a gruesome timeliness, agreed another organizer, Betty McCoy.

"I thought, 'Oh, no,' here we go again," said McCoy of the April 20 murder-suicide by two teens who shot dead 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.

Police are investigating whether the killers, believed to have been white supremacists, had accomplices.

McCoy helped set up the Edmonton Society Against Mind Abuse in 1985 after she and her now 46-year-old son became estranged when he joined a controversial international religious organization.

"I feel I have lost my son because he is alive and yet he is not alive," said McCoy of her son, who moved to Toronto with his group, severing links with his parents.

Contrary to common belief, not all cults are housed in the style of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh's compound in Waco, Texas.

Nor do they all end in mass suicides like Waco in 1993; the Order of the Solar Temple in Quebec, Switzerland and France between 1994 and 1997; and Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.

"Sometimes they will appear to be innocuous religious groups who start to worship a particular minister or leader," said Edmonton social worker Marianne Wright, a speaker at the conference.

"They may also portray themselves as self-help groups, therapy groups or even commercial ventures."

Ritualistic sexual abuse, pornography and satanism may be involved, said Wright.

She has dealt with cases where entire families are lured into a cult.

Whatever shape they take, cults share several menacing characteristics, experts say.

Members seem overzealous and unquestioning about their leader, who decides how they should think, act and feel.

Members are brainwashed into allowing many aspects of their lives to be controlled such as jobs, who they socialize with, where they live and disciplining children.

Making money is paramount and certain practices, such as collecting money for bogus charities, are justified as a means towards an exalted end.

Seductive charm and flattery are often used by cults to recruit new members.

"If someone offers you something that sounds too good to be true, it's probably some kind of a recruitment for a cult," said U.S. researcher Dr. Margaret Thaler Singer.

"Watch out if someone says they are going to teach you to communicate better, to improve your personality or that they are going to give you enlightenment.

"If they say they are a direct pipeline to God or that they are in contact with flying saucers, the answer should be, let me out of here," said Singer, also speaking at the conference.

She said an estimated 20 million Americans are involved to some extent in 5,000 or more cults.

Costigan said the leader of the Rocky Mountain House cult is "using very sophisticated techniques such as sleep deprivation, protein elimination and hypnosis," to control his dozen or so followers.

Like many cults, devotees are encouraged to live separately and continue working. But all their spare time is dedicated to the group and they are milked of cash.

A young woman who escaped the group recently fled to Costigan for help after learning of his extensive experience with cult members such as Moonies.

To recruit new members, cults often target businessmen's clubs, gyms, churches and college campuses.

Lonely and wealthy seniors are increasingly hooked.

Although the lonely and vulnerable are often trapped, many others get drawn into cults because they simply don't know what the group is really about.

Recruiters appear genuinely warm and friendly. They may even be friends and family.

"Her approach was almost syrupy," said a 46-year-old Edmonton woman who was drawn into the cult-like clutches of an Ontario neighbour in 1992.

"But she was very persistent and I eventually figured I should give her a chance," said the woman, who said she fled to Alberta to escape the neighbour's influence and requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

The woman said she was invited to take part in a form of healing therapy called Reiki to ease her depression.

But over the next three years the sessions "got weirder and weirder," said the victim, who planned to attend the conference.

"When we started out I would be on the couch and she would wave her hands over me and do some massage. But by the end she had all this New Age stuff set up in her basement. She started talking about telepathy and reincarnation and would do these incantations.

"I was frightened because I wasn't a believer but I wasn't a disbeliever either. I was in a hypnotic state."

The woman said the sessions ended after a terrifying exorcism of her body which left her with memory loss and severe psychological problems.

But Irving Hexham, professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, hotly disputes some claims of anti-cult activists.

"Many of the groups that get labelled as cults are new religious organizations. But that doesn't necessarily make them dangerous," said Hexham.

Church of Scientology spokesman Al Buttnor travelled to Edmonton from Toronto to attend the conference.

"Conferences like this breed intolerance of religious freedom," said Buttnor, adding his church has been unfairly dubbed a cult.

"When you have unscientific ideas being bandied around and if you don't have people exposed to the other side, that's as much brain-washing or information management as so-called cults are accused of."

Cultivating awareness

The Edmonton Police Service has already received about 30 complaints and requests for information about cults this year.

"We don't actively investigate them unless there is criminal activity," said Det. Melvin Roth, the one-man 'cult desk' at the integrated intelligence unit.

"It is not illegal for a person to join a group of their own free will. That's their choice," he said, adding complaints usually come from families worried about a relative's involvement with an organization.

"If there is evidence of abuse, forcible confinement , sexual abuse or ritualistic abuse that would be something to prosecute.

"But in the 18 months I've been (on the cult beat) there's been no such prosecutions that I'm aware of."

Roth said he normally refers callers to cult experts such as the Edmonton Society Against Mind Abuse or counsellors.

Multi-level marketing groups are often a form of cult, said Roth.

"They recruit young people and control their minds.

"They put them on the road and then have them dissociate from their families and friends while they get them selling paper, pens, magazines and whatever."

The Edmonton Better Business Bureau works with local newspapers to prevent cult-like marketing groups from placing recruitment ads.

"The threat of these groups is ever present," said bureau president Ross Bradford.

Five years ago the bureau sponsored a cult-awareness video which was distributed to all Alberta high schools for use in life management courses.

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