Cult Fighters In Center Of Raging Storm

Source: Chicago Tribune
Date: March 20, 1988

by Wes Smith

Note: The Cult Awareness Network has been taken over by Scientologists. Do not seek help from CAN regarding coercive groups.

Behind an unmarked door, three women work in a two-room office in a Chicago suburb. Mail is retrieved from an anonymous post office box. The telephone is listed to another address.

In spite of the secretive nature of this place, the phone rings frequently, more than 2,000 times a year. The callers often speak with urgency.

  • A mother from a Southern state says her daughter has suddenly decided to quit medical school and leave the country to join a group "that knows the truth."
  • A Chicago secretary seeks information on a business management firm that she believes is linked to the Scientology movement.
  • A social worker in Ohio asks for literature on Satanism. A child under his care has exhibited signs of involvement.
  • A detective with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police asks for any information available on a suspicious-sounding "humanitarian group" that is trying to buy a large parcel of land in his area.

The callers have dialed 312-267-7777 - the number to the national headquarters of the Cult Awareness Network, a low-profile and nonprofit organization that gathers information on "destructive" cults, those that allegedly employ mind control techniques, coercion and unethical or illegal practices.

The nearly 10-year-old network serves as a warehouse of information for people who often fear what they might learn when they call, according to Cynthia Kisser, executive director. It has 50 affiliates in 25 states and its files contain profiles, membership lists and even tax returns of more than 1,000 cults and suspected cults.

Kisser said she regrets the melodrama of the network's undisclosed address, untraceable phone and unmarked door, but her small volunteer organization is not without its ardent detractors.

The Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon has accused the Cult Awareness Network of "spreading fear."

John T. Biermans, national spokesman for the Unification Church, said the Cult Awareness Network has unfairly labeled the church as a cult based on rumors and testimony from former church members.

"You wouldn't want your ex-wife telling people about you, would you? If you rely on these people for information, then you are missing something. To assume they have all the information is simply unfair," Biermans said.

The Unification Church has been joined by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Council of Churches in campaigning against the network's ongoing efforts to create a National Cult Awareness Week by congressional resolution.

The ACLU, the Unification Church and others believe the Cult Awareness Network treads on the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and speech, their spokesmen said.

But those who support the network say it provides a valuable service in tracking the activities of religious, political, self-help and commercial cults.

The Cult Awareness Network was formed from disparate groups around the nation following the Jonestown tragedy of Rev. Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana. Those groups, composed mostly of the families of cult members or former cult members themselves, now make up a national network with affiliates in Denmark, England, France, Germany, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.

"When Jonestown happened, the independent groups said it was the ultimate realization of the potential threat of dangerous cults," Kisser said.

Funded by donations - it operated on a $100,000 budget last year - the Cult Awareness Network serves as an information center for the families of cult members, law enforcement agencies, the news media and anyone else seeking information on cult activities, Kisser said.

The network does not, as members of the Unification Church and other critics charge, get involved in the abduction and deprogramming of cult members, nor is it anti-Christian, she said.

Kisser did acknowledge, however, that the network's list of experts on various cults does include individuals who have been involved in deprogramming and that families have sometimes learned of those services after being referred by the network.

"We don't recommend or encourage involvement in anything illegal and we do not do any deprogramming," Kisser said. "We are constantly accused by cults of victimizing families, but we simply refer people to appropriate organizations such as law enforcement, therapists, mental health counselors and so on."

Chicago Gang Crimes Detective Jerry Simandl, who specializes in crimes involving ritualistic groups, has spoken in seminars sponsored by the network and has investigated cases referred by the group.

"We have worked very closely with them in educating people on ritualistic criminal activity, and I have found them to be very dedicated people," he said of the Cult Awareness Network.

Criticism of the network has reached a fever pitch in Washington, D.C., in recent weeks as Cult Awareness supporters have lobbied congressmen to support its resolution recognizing the Nov. 18 anniversary of the 1978 Jonestown murder-suicide of 913 followers of Jim Jones and declaring a National Cult Awareness Week on Nov. 13-19, 1988.

The ACLU sent letters protesting the resolution to every congressman last week and several experts scheduled to speak at a Cult Awareness Network informational session for legislative aides this weekend received threats, Kisser said.

Barry W. Lynn, legislative counsel with the ACLU in Washington, has led that group's opposition. Lynn said the ACLU has found itself in interesting company in fighting the resolution.

"I've been getting calls from Scientologists, witches and the Unification Church - all seeking to derail this issue," he said.

The ACLU opposes the resolution on the grounds that Congress is forbidden by the Constitution from restricting religious freedoms, Lynn said.

"You cannot read this resolution and think this is anything but an official criticism about certain kinds of religious groups," Lynn said. "If the Cult Awareness Network wants to make adverse comments about people's religious beliefs that is fine, but they should not be enlisting Congress in the denunciation."

U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D., Calif.) sponsored the resolution in October to create the Cult Awareness Week in order to publicize the danger of cults and their increasing numbers, a spokesman said.

The date was selected to commemorate the Jonestown massacre in which Lantos' predecessor, Rep. Leo J. Ryan, was shot to death and 930 others - most of them members of Jones' People's Temple cult - also died from shooting or poisoning.

The resolution needs 268 signatures - half the membership of Congress - to win approval. So far only 40 signatures have been obtained. The effort has been thwarted by a deluge of protests to congressmen from organizations opposed to it, according to Kisser.

Network members have claimed that some of those opposing groups are "fronts" for cults. The Unification Church, in particular, has made many inroads into politics by hosting programs under names not linked to it, and it allots a large amount of money to candidates, Kisser said.

Last August, a lobbying group that persuaded some Chicago-area politicians and civic leaders to become active members was discovered, to the embarrassment of those politicians and civic leaders, to be an arm of the Unification Church.

That group, the American Constitution Committee, is an offshoot of CAUSA International, which was founded by Rev. Moon to fight communism and revive moral standards through church unity, according to Michael Jenkins, regional director of the American Constitution Committee.

Some of the letters sent to congressmen criticizing the Cult Awareness Network were written on the letterhead of a group called the "Voice of Freedom." Telephone callers condemning the resolution have identified themselves as members of the "Coalition for Religious Freedom." Both groups are suspected to be fronts for larger cults, Kisser said.

"They have sent letters with all kinds of outlandish statements claiming that the network is an 'anti-religious hate group' and that it has engaged in physical attacks against Roman Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians, Mormons and others," said Patricia Ryan, a Washington lobbyist and member of the Cult Awareness Network.

"I've been involved in politics since childhood, and I have never seen anything like this," she said. "It just goes to show there is a need for the network, especially if the cults are this afraid of us."

Ryan, 34, speaks from the heart when she talks about the dangers of cults. She is the daughter of the late Rep. Ryan, who was shot as he attempted to help a cult member escape.

Another family member, Shannon Ryan, 36, joined Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's cult in Oregon in 1980 before he was ordered out of the U.S. in 1985.

Shannon Ryan lives in San Diego but still follows the group's teachings, her sister said.

"I've been hit as much as anybody by dangerous cults, sort of a double-whammy," said Patricia Ryan, who has been described by members of the Unification Church as "a fanatic."

"When my father went to Guyana to help the families of his constituents, there was no source of information like the network," she said. "We are trying to make Congress aware that there is still a cult problem in this country."

Cults prey successfully on all kinds of people, not just the spiritually or emotionally weak, Kisser said.

"People don't realize how often they come into contact with cults in their daily lives," Kisser said. "There are so many cults now, they are less visible, but more prolific, like the threads in a tapestry."

Cult members are lured to the web under the pretense of learning more about the Bible, losing weight or helping humanity, and then fall prey to mind-control techniques, Kisser said.

"We are not a nation of lost sheep, but people are vulnerable. These techniques prey on our needs for approval, our need for food, or our sex drives."

Cults use those needs to establish control of their members, to wipe out their previous lives and make them dependent on the cult, she said. They employ methods learned in prisoner-of-war camps in World War II, in research done for Josef Stalin by Ivan Pavlov and techniques developed by the Chinese Communists in their thought-control schools, Kisser said.

"We don't see torture used to gain control anymore, it is now all soft music and velvet gloves - techniques that can be learned at the local library," she said. "Jim Jones had an excellent library on mind control at his Jonestown home."

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