Followers of Frauds

Rick Ross, an expert in the field of religious cults, talks about his efforts to expose them as the dangers they are

Play Magazine, Philadelphia/March 7, 2007
By Christian Menno

So check it out. We've got a neighborhood bar. And in this bar sits Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad and a couple other religious icons of the past.

Anyway, in walks David Koresh, Jim Jones, Tom Cruise and Marshall Applewhite (the leader of that Heaven's Gate crew who attempted to board a spaceship traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet, by taking their own lives in 1997).

So this new group of guys have never been to this bar. The owner doesn't want any troublemakers causing a ruckus, so he tells the bouncer to investigate the situation. Otherwise, as we know, the night could end with tragedy.

This bouncer is unique. He is an expert in determining whether or not people represent a group that causes harm. He does not evaluate based on beliefs -- only behavior. As is usually the case, most new religious factions are looked at as cults. Just the regulars at the bar. Bu over time, and through righteous actions, that stigma can fade away. It is when practices prove to be causing harm, that a problem arises. This pub tolerates any type of viewpoints or doctrines, now matter how outlandish they may seem.

However, this freedom is only granted to those groups that do not have a negative effect on other patrons. And if the bouncer decides that a customer is, in fact, causing harm through their group, he will kick them out to the street.

On this particular night, he is gonna be busy.

Okay -- so this scene may be taking the whole freedom of religion thing a bit lightly, but it is a topic that seems to call for a spot of levity, every now and then -- this is Play Magazine after all. But in the end, this is a serious issue, with serious people on the forefront of the debate.

The Man

If the bouncer at our bar was a real person, he would be Rick Ross.

Rick Ross is a consultant, a lecturer and an expert in the field of religious cults. He researches these groups, exposes them when necessary, testifies in cult-related trials, and tried to keep everyone properly informed.

Naturally, in dealing with such a volatile subject, Ross has to be careful. He is quick to point out that there are things like religions, philosophies and spiritual movements -- and then there are harmful cults.

"There are three things that experts largely agree upon, to define a destructive cult," he says. "One is the group has an absolute, authoritarian leader that largely defines the group. Two: That the group has a process of indoctrination that impairs critical thinking. Three: that the group does harm."

Ross has been on this quest against cults for years now. The process has been accelerated by the opening of the Ross Institute of New Jersey in 2003, a non-profit, tax exempted charity. His website, is the main contact for anyone interested or concerned about a specific group.

For Ross these efforts are universal, for the good of everyone. But his involvement began as something purely personal.

"Back in 1982, my grandmother was in a nursing home," says Ross. "I went to visit her and found out that particular religious group had infiltrated the paid, professional staff of the home in an effort to target the elderly. That stimulated my interest at first, in that group only, and subsequently I was appointed to a number of committees that dealt with many groups that had been called cults."

From there, Ross became a private consultant. He traveled around the country doing intervention work for people concerned about loved ones who had become involved with such organizations. He started to lecture at universities and began to be called as an expert witness in several cases, in twelve different states.

"What I focus on is the behavior of the group. If the group does not hurt people, they are of no concern of mine. Whether they believe in alien beings from outer space, or that the world is flat, or that Hillary Clinton is really a Martian, you know, I mean it doesn't matter. What matters is whether or not they hurt people."

As this line of work can become rather dicey, Ross has found himself having to play just as much defense, as he does offense, when trying to expose the more sinister of these movements.

In other words, he has become public enemy number one for any group with questionable practices, looking to expand. He has been sued numerous times, while every aspect of his past has been dredged up in the hopes of derailing his efforts. Ross is no angel, nor does he claim to be. His goal is only to bring the truth to light.

The problem is, this is how he makes a living. The mere fact that he has a financial stake in this endeavor can allow some people to doubt his motives or his findings. Ross, however, has become comfortable with the criticism and understand that it comes with the territory. In fact, when he sees a certain group trying to attack him in the press, it simply lets him know that he is doing his job properly.

"By attacking me personally, they're just trying to divert attention from the real focus, which is: Is this group hurting people?" He says. "They don't want to discuss that, so they'll try to shift the focus to me personally. I've been harassed and I've been sued five times by different groups that sought to have information removed from the Internet.

So what is it that attracts so many people into the open arms of these dangerous cults? And, more importantly why do they stay?

According to Ross, deception is the name of the game.

"First of all there's an element of bait and switch. This is that what the groups presents to potential recruits is not necessarily what it's all about. So once you navigate in, from the outer shell of the group, and become more involved, things change," he says. "The demands of the group change and you begin to find out more about what's really going on behind the facade. And that's largely by design. The group doesn't want to scare off any potential new recruits by confronting them with everything they're about and everything they expect from the initial contact."

"Having said that, you know, a lot of these groups offer a sense that they can be all things to all people -- they have the answers to everything in life. There's a certain comfort in that. People today are increasingly overwhelmed in a complex world and to have a group approach you and say 'we have all the answers and basically provide one-stop shopping for your life, is really convenient. It's appealing and it's comforting," says Ross.

And the leaders? Are they all power-hungry frauds, or do some take themselves seriously?

"Well I think in some cases you can see that a leader that has been called a cult leader is little more than a glorified conman," he says. "But there are situations where it's apparent that they do believe their own hype. How else can you explain someone like Marshall Appelewhite who not only led his followers to mass suicide, but killed himself as well?"

This has been glimpse into Ross' realm of study, but we want specifics, we want names. So PLAY has asked him to identify some groups that he considers to be harmful religious cults. Keep in mind, these are the views of Rick Ross, according to his findings. He continually implores anyone with questions of their own, about any such groups or movements, to research for themselves; to become informed; and to formulate their own opinions.

The Raelians

"I think that the most outlandish groups that I've dealt with -- that has been called a cult -- over the years would probably be the Raelians," Ross says. "This is a group located near Montreal. They apparently are planning to move to the US, though. Their leader Claude Vorilhon, calls himself Rael. He claims that he's been to outer space and that he's a channel for beings from outer space. This group most notably garnered attention when they claimed to have produced the first human clone, some years ago. It turned out to be nonsense."


Says Ross, "They claim big numbers, but in one census, no more than 50,000 Scientologists were said to live in the United States, and I'm skeptical that they have greater than 100,000 members worldwide. So Scientology claims millions, but in reality it's a fraction of that. But is that fraction well educated and affluent group of people? Well basically, yes. So there's a lot of money there."

"Very often the person involved with Scientology becomes estranged from their loved ones, and Scientology is likely to label that suppression, as they call it," he continues. "A person who criticizes Scientology risks being labeled as an SP -- a suppressive person. And there's a process, in Scientology, to disconnect yourself from SPs. So what this boils down to is I get complaints from these loved ones, saying that the person that they know and care about, that is into Scientology, has become increasingly isolated and estranged from them."

"Another serious problem with Scientology is that though Scientologists may see a doctor and take certain medications like insulin, high blood-pressure medication, they will have nothing whatsoever to do with any mental health professional," says Ross.

He goes on to outline the strange and tragic case of Lisa McPherson. She was a Scientologist from Florida who, after a car accident, had some kind of a psychological episode in which she was found shouting and removing her clothes in the street. She was physically unharmed, but was denied psychological care when Scientologists picked her up, and removed her from the hospital.

Nearly three weeks later, McPherson was dead. Apparently she received the Scientologist procedure called the Introspection Rundown, in which a mentally unstable individual is rehabbed through forms of isolation. Autopsy photos and the coroner's report show indications of extreme dehydration, bruises and hundreds of insect bites.

"There was a wrongful death suit filed against Scientology by her family," says Ross. "They settled shortly before they were supposed to go to court. So there are all these concerns and there are different levels of complaints about Scientology."

The Sterling Institute of Relationship

"Justin Sterling's real name is actually Artie Kasarjian," Ross says. "He is from Brooklyn. He is now a kind of seminar guru who has a weekend seminar. Now there are many, many of these weekend seminar guru groups. Sterling runs one that is supposedly devoted to relationships. It relies heavily on isolating people in an environment completely controlled by Sterling. There's an element of sleep deprivation, dietary control. People are completely consumed within this environment."

"Many relationships have been destroyed by Justin Sterling. There's just a lot of emotional and psychological wreckage left in his wake. I've been getting complaints about him for ten years."

Ross describes how participants in these seminars are made to sign a form that waives the rights to their image. Sterling videotapes all of his seminars, which are comprised of bizarre rituals and exercises, some containing nudity.

"So what that means is they may videotape you in a particularly embarrassing situation as these seminars are cathartic. People are opening up and confessing things and crying," says Ross. "It can be quite embarrassing later, to know that Sterling has these videotapes."

Just the facts

As said, Ross advises everyone to do their own research. According to him this is the key, to understanding these groups for yourself.

"Get on the Internet, and as they say 'Google them.' Find out who they are. Research them before you go to the first meeting, and find out who and what you're becoming involved with."

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