Deprogrammer shepherds lost lambs

Counselor helps cults' followers gain self-control

The Arizona Republic/July 30, 1988
By Kim Sue Lia Perkins

When Debbie Christiansen told her pastor she had been raped by one of the church's staff members, he told her to shut up and not tell a soul.

"He told me to keep my mouth shut and if I told anybody, I would be kicked out of the church. I did what the pastor said because the way it was, if you weren't in the church, you were going to hell."

To hear Christensen tell it, leaving that close-knit religious community has caused her to suffer the same delayed-stress syndrome that many Vietnam veterans continue to struggle with today.

"I'm starting to shake now, just talking about it," the 21-year-old said as she related her experiences of four years age in La Puerta (or, The Door), in El Paso, Texas. The Door, which was established in Prescott, also known as Potter's House, Victory Chapel and "a few other names," Christensen noted.

Efforts to reach officials at The Door in Prescott and La Puerta in El Paso were unsuccessful.

Rick Ross, a Phoenix resident and one of the nation's few religious-cult deprogrammers who operates like a crisis intervention counselor, has seen hundreds of people like Christensen. They join groups that do not fit the simple definition of religious cult, but can be defined as groups in which individuals submit complete control of their lives to the organization.

"It's a form of psychological and emotional control," Ross maintains.

Take john, for instance. He was lovelorn, an alcoholic and a drug abuser, Ross said. Once, while hallucinating on LSD, the 19-year-old had a vision of Jesus Christ.

Not long after, John joined a radical religious group that used God instead of drugs to control his mind.

Religious cults prey on teen-agers, who often hunger for solutions to the pains of growing up. For them as well as adults, a cult may offer an escape from a divorce, low self-esteem, addictive behavior or daily living.

Christensen had twice flunked her freshman year in high-school, was addicted to drugs and was a drug dealer. When two classmates who belonged to The Door told her they could help her kick her habit, she gave it a try.

"They helped me get off drugs, but look at all the other stuff they brought into my life. After awhile, I turned against my family. The pastor would tell me that my mom and everybody really needed to be saved or she was going to hell. I would tell my mom to her face (that) she was going to hell and she needed Jesus."

It did not matter that her mother was a Southern Baptist, Christensen explained; if she did not belong to The Door, she would burn in eternity.

"I was in it for two years and I rally messed up in the head when I got out. It's like they totally brainwash you. They use scare tactics. They scare you into what they call salvation," she said. "I'm just now starting to repair the damage with my family."

Family members may not be aware that a relative is becoming involved in a cult, or if they know of a relative's religious dabblings, they pass it off as a phase, Ross said.

"Usually, parents don't know this is going on until their kids are drowning in it," Ross said.

That happened to Sid Wells. The Valley resident said his son, John, was 18 when he became involved in a group called Cornerstone, in Australia.

"I think that he had some kind of an unlucky love affair here in the United States and then had another one over in Australia," Wells speculated.

"I think all cults are dangerous. I think all extremes are dangerous. Too much booze is bad. It's kind of an addiction to religion."

When his son came home for Christmas vacation, Wells hired Ross.

"He tried his darndest to talk him out of it, but it didn't work. It ended up, the group sent him a ticket back to Australia and he went back."

Cults, Ross believes, exists to create escape from reality in the name of Christ, but they also can be a guise for profit.

"They have a statement of why they exist. They say they exist because they are fulfilling a divine mission, but you can see the cash flow and question their financial mission," he said.

"There is no question that many of the so-called religious cults are collecting hundreds of millions of dollars a year."

Deprogramming takes time

Ross, who prefers to call himself an "exit-counselor" rather than a deprogrammer, claims a success rate of 80 percent. The longer people have been involved in a cult, however, the harder it is to change their minds about it, he said.

Also, he said, he has to be able to create an environment that will give him the time to challenge the cult member's reasoning.

"Most of the time, if I'm going to be successful, I need someone to block out three days to a week."

He said his clients often are referred to him by psychologists, though Ross is quick to point out that he is not a psychologist.

"One thing I recognize is the limits and parameters of my work," Ross said. "That's why I always work with psychologists. I do not do anything in the mental-health field."

His operation is really quite simple:

He gets a call from a family wanting to get someone out of a religious cult. He spends time with the family, finding out what he can about the person's history and the family's dynamics.

Ross also contacts a psychologist in the city in which the family resides because, if the intervention is successful, he said, the person will need professional help to foster emotional stability.

Next, a meeting with family, friends and Ross is set up without the knowledge of the cult member. "The person comes in and we sit down and talk," Ross said. "This might be the first time the family has articulated their feelings."

The family tries to persuade the cult member to accept counseling, Ross said. "The person usually says yes, but the question is how long will they stay with me?"

Commonly, the person begins what might be called the Great Scriptures Challenge. The cult member begins citing chapter and verse from the Bible, using the interpretation of the religious group. Ross counters with chapter and verse, but using the interpretation of mainline Christianity.

He sets up appointments with local mainline pastors and priests, and he and the cult member visit the clergy to expose the person to a variety of viewpoints, Ross said.

Sometimes the two will visit university professors to discuss the biblical vs. Scientific explanations of creation.

"I try to get (cult members) to realize their commitment is in a vacuum," Ross said. "They are seeing the world in black and white - no shades of gray. They are seeing the world as me vs. Them. One of the methods used by these groups is, anything to do with your former life is wicked, horrible, awful."

Child, spouse abuse

"I've dealt with groups that say the parents are spiritually dead, or tell their members to break away from their family. In a lot of groups I've dealt with, I've found child abuse and wife abuse," Ross continued.

"They fell they can beat the devil out of someone."

That is just what a Phoenix grandmother, who asked not to be identified, claims her daughter and son-in-law, who belong to a "fanatical, born-again" church in Globe, are doing to her grandchildren.

"The kids are not allowed to say anything because he is beating the devil out of them," she said.

Her eldest grandson related that her son-in-law, the boy's stepfather, warned the youth not to tell his grandparents what went on in the house or he would kill him, she said.

Christensen, who dropped out of school when she joined The Door, said she did not witness child abuse while she was a group member, but that the church openly promoted spanking children.

How she was treated by the pastor after the rape, she said, provided the impetus to want to get out, but the group wasn't ready to let her go.

Her father, who lives in Phoenix, wired her money to fly to the Valley.

"I ran away and came here to live with my dad, and they found me at my workplace. They came to my workplace and started to harass me, telling me I had to come back to the church. I quit my job the next day because they'll harass you to death."

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