ATTLEBORO -- The fringe religious sect now at the center of national attention bears all the characteristics of a " destructive" group similar to larger more famous " cults" such as the Branch Davidians or Heaven's Gate, experts in the field say.
"The Attleboro group is a microcosm of these larger groups," said Robert Pardon, a former pastor who is an expert on religion and cults who has studied the activities of the Robidoux and Daneau families.
Pardon and other religious experts do not like to use the term cult. Instead they say the sect is under a form of mind control of a "high-control destructive" group that suppresses individual thought and freedom.
"It appears they are a group that does not allow the individual to make distinctive moral personal decisions apart from the leader," said Dr. Robert Thornburg, dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. Pardon, who has interviewed current and former members of the sect led by Roland Robidoux, said the group started out as a benign Bible study group.
But over time, Pardon said, the group began to become more under the influence of Robidoux, who interpreted Scripture, and later his son Jacques, whom he "ordained" in 1997.
Pardon said Jacques Robidoux's elevation to a "defacto leader with dad" marked a turning point in the sect's history.
"They were Bible-based, but they got into hearing revelations from God," said Pardon, who has studied the thousands of pages of journals the sect kept and were seized by police.
Pardon is one of the founders of the New England Institute of Religious Research and was appointed as the guardian for the 13 children seized from the sect last November.
"The reason why they were writing it all down, writing journals, is that they believed they were writing Scripture,"Pardon said.
Like many other destructive religious groups, the leaders claimed to have a "direct pipeline to God," which enabled them to make decisions with no accountability, Pardon said.
"You had a system with no checks and balances," Pardon said. "With no checks and balances it was shifting sands. Ultimately it got to the point where Samuel paid the price."
The deaths of Samuel Robidoux, the 10-month-old son of Jacques and Karen Robidoux, and his infant cousin Jeremiah Corneau, are now the focus of a criminal investigation into the sect's activities.
Authorities say Samuel died sometime in April 1999 because he stopped nursing and was not fed. Investigators have journals which detail the infant's demise because of a " vision" by his father. Jeremiah died during birth last August, but authorities say he would have lived if there had been medical assistance available.
The sect does not believe in conventional medical science even to the point of not wearing glasses despite the near-sightedness of some of its members.
Pardon says the sect was "weaning themselves from the system" and was moving further away from mainstream society. The children were home schooled and Robidoux started to only take cash transactions in his chimney sweep business, Pardon and law enforcement officials say.
Prosecutors say children born to sect members were initially born in hospitals, then with the help of midwives before relying only on the prayer of family members.
The families eventually planned to move to Maine, which held special significance for the sect, Pardon said.
"It was prophesized that they were going to live in Jerusalem. Maine was the Promised Land. Maine was Jerusalem. They called it Zion," Pardon said. "
They believed they were in God's presence in Maine, and that's where they were going to reside. "It got to the point that during a trip to Maine one of the cars ran out of gas. They all got out and stood around with their hands on it because they believed God would fill the tank,"one law-enforcement source said.
Authorities believe the two infants were buried in Baxter State Park in central Maine last fall, although no bodies have been recovered in several searches of land in Baxter, as well as land surrounding the sect's Seekonk and Attleboro homes.
Unlike many other destructive groups, Pardon said, the Robidoux and Daneau clans did not try to spread their beliefs or recruit members.
"They are not con artists," said Judith Barba, an associate of Pardon's, " but people who sincerely believe they are right. They believe they are going to be vindicated."
Pardon went so far as to say the group believes they are chosen by God. "It would be documented that they would be God's people," Pardon said the group believes.
Thornburg says the sect might have some sort of "apocalyptic control vision" in which "they seem to know something about the future that we don't know."
The strong mind control, Thornburg said, is evident by the fact no one in the sect has broken their silence despite the jailing of some of the members and now the forced protective custody of pregnant member Rebecca Corneau.
"No one's cracked even under that kind of pressure, legal and media pressure, they've had. You've got to believe that there's something there in the form of mind control," Thornburg said.
Pardon and Barba say that's exactly what has occurred in the sect. By all accounts, people who knew members of the sect years ago are astonished by the behavior of people they once knew and associated with.
"They are not evil people," Barba added. "They did not decide to wake up one day and kill somebody. They are just misguided."
Pardon briefly interviewed sect members Michelle Mingo and David Corneau in jail and maintains that both lost a little of their "cult personae" and began to cry.
However, when he saw them again in juvenile court during the hearings in which they ultimately lost their children they maintained their "cult identity" and spouted cult doctrine.
Law-enforcement sources say that members called before the grand jury won't swear an oath or even identify themselves.
Pardon and Barba said none of the parents in the sect chose to defend themselves even when faced with losing their children.
"Unfortunately," Pardon said, "the parents chose not to cooperate. They didn't even say a word."
Pardon and Barba, who prepared a 20-page report on the sect for Judge Kenneth P. Nasif, say the sect members do not feel guilty about what happened to Samuel Robidoux or about losing their children.
The New England Institute for Religious Research also provides counseling for people who leave destructive religious groups.
Dennis Mingo, the former sect member who left the group before the two infants died, said he found it difficult to leave despite the radical turn the group began to make.
Mingo said the radicalism of the group made him leave, but he found the decision difficult because it meant leaving his wife Michelle and their children.
"Groups create tremendous dependencies," Pardon said. "You often hear people say `I'll never get involved in something like that' or `why didn't that person just leave?' It's just like battered women's syndrome."
Pardon often repeats a quote about people who end up falling under the influence of religious-based control groups.
"Nobody ever decides to join a group, they just delay leaving," he said. Anyone can become susceptible to becoming part of a group or sect, most of which start out benign and then become more controlling and difficult to leave.
"Nobody wakes up one day and decides I want to be a member of a cult one day and a destructive one to boot," Pardon said.
Adds Barba, "Teens and college students are very easily drawn to these kinds of groups because they are very idealistic at that stage in their lives."
By controlling thoughts, appearances and other aspects of individuality and daily life, leaders make it difficult for people to leave because of emotional bonds which form within the group and faith in God.
The most important and difficult part of counseling a person who is recovering from the experience of being in a cult or sect is trust, they say.
"They don't know how to trust. Even more, they don't know how to trust themselves," Pardon said.
Recovering people have a great deal of anger to deal with because they are angry at themselves for ever becoming part of a sect, angry at the sect members and angry at God, Pardon said.
Moreover, it is not easy for former members to gain entry into mainstream society because of the feelings of loneliness they have, they said.
"They are afraid to tell anybody else about what they were involved in," Barba said.
"They are afraid of being identified because the media has defined them as a cult," added Pardon.
It is easier for recovering people to talk to each other in support groups because even different groups have shared beliefs.
"It's all the same process for all these groups. It's just different clothing," Pardon said.
Pardon and Barba said they do not "deprogram" people but work with individuals on adjusting to life outside the group where once all decisions and all aspects of their lives had been made for them.
Faith in God is an added dimension that is manipulated by a group's leader or leadership, making it more difficult for members to leave.
"God is infused in this," Pardon said. "It's not like leaving the Kiwanis."
In therapy, people are treated on two levels. One is counseling on how the person was manipulated and the other is to "dismantle the theological framework" they attained in the group, Pardon said.
"Both take time and you work at the person's own pace," Pardon said. " Generally it takes a couple of years."
Cult experts and a former sect member recommend two books on recovering from mind controlling groups, both by cult expert Steve Hassan in Cambridge.
The books are "Combating Cult Mind Control" and the recently published " Releasing the Bonds."