Lawyer Buys Rights to Anti-Cult Organization

Source: Los Angeles Times
Date: December 1, 1996

Scientologist member from L.A. owns name, other assets of bankrupt group that tried to 'deprogram' the church's members.

For 20 years, the Cult Awareness Network ran the nation's best-known hotline for parents who grew distraught when unconventional religious groups they neither trusted nor understood suddenly won the allegiance of their children.

From its offices here in a Chicago suburb, the network (known as CAN) answered more than 350 telephone inquiries a week, counseled relatives at conferences attended by thousands and gave news interviews.

As CAN's influence rose, so did the ire of its foes, who were furious at being depicted as dangerous cults. In particular, Church of Scientology members fought CAN with a barrage of lawsuits.

One suit, handled by Kendrick L. Moxon, a lawyer who has frequently represented the church, succeeded, and a jury ordered CAN to pay as much as $1.8 million. The group filed for bankruptcy.

Distaste for CAN

Last week its name, logo, post office box and telephone number were sold to the highest bidder: a Los Angeles lawyer named Steven L. Hayes, who is a Scientologist. Hayes says he is working with a group of people "united in their distaste for CAN" who plan to reopen the group so it "disseminates the truth about all religions."

"It kind of boggles the mind," said David Bardin, an attorney who has represented CAN in Washington. "People will still pick up the CAN name in a library book and call saying, 'My daughter has joined the Church of Scientology.' And your friendly CAN receptionist is someone who works for Scientology."

In an interview, Hayes said he represents a group of several people he cannot name without "permission." He said they put up money of their own and money "from this country and other places." Hayes said he is a Scientologist, not an employee of the Church of Scientology.

Hayes said his group intends to revamp CAN so that "religions that have been attacked in the past would have an opportunity to at least show what they believe the truth to be."

Literature of the Church of Scientology calls CAN "a hate group in the tradition of the KKK and the neo-Nazis." The Rev. Heber Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International, said in an interview: "I just don't think a hate organization has a right to operate in America with impunity, and obviously the courts feel the same way."

Next up for auction could be 270 boxes of CAN files that former staffers say are stuffed with confidential information about current and former cult members, efforts to extricate them and private testimonies of anguish and abuse. Moxon is actively trying to purchase these files, says Chicago attorney Philip R. Martino, the trustee handling the bankruptcy.

Martino said he won't sell the files until names and personal information are removed, a process that he estimates will cost about $50,000, to be paid by the buyer. People who were heavily involved with CAN may ask to have their names removed, he said.

CAN took telephone inquiries from around the world about hundreds of controversial groups. Every request for help was logged and filed.

CAN also gave some parents references to self-styled "deprogrammers," whom CAN maintained were skilled at extricating devotees from cults by systematically challenging cult teachings and undermining beliefs. But there were repeated cases of deprogrammers being convicted for using force or other criminal means to wrest their targets away from the cults.

The CAN board articulated a policy advocating only "legal methods" of deprogramming, but the stigma of associating with criminals left CAN vulnerable to its detractors.

The Scientology magazine Freedom last year devoted a special issue to CAN, headlined: "The serpent of hatred, intolerance, violence and death." A story called CAN's executive director, Cynthia Kisser, "the mother of the serpent" and purported to expose her past as a topless dancer, which she has denied.

Barrage of Lawsuits

Beginning in 1991, CAN and its local affiliates and staff were hit with a series of lawsuits filed by several dozen members of the Church of Scientology and others. In one week in 1992, Scientologists filed 12 suits against CAN, Kisser said.

Most of the suits were civil-rights claims, according to attorneys on both sides. People who identified themselves in the suits as Scientologists alleged that the group denied them membership or participation in CAN conferences.

Moxon, whose law firm filed many of the suits against CAN, said: "What would you do if you had a religious belief and somebody was intentionally trying to destroy your church and destroy your belief and destroy your family?"

Many of these lawsuits were dismissed, but CAN cannibalized its $300,000 annual budget to defend itself,Kisser said.

CAN struck back in 1994 with a countersuit against the Church of Scientology, 11 individual Scientologists and the Los Angeles law firm of Bowles & Moxon. The group's suit alleged that the Church of Scientology orchestrated the filing of 45 unfounded and frivolous suits in an attempt to drive CAN into bankruptcy.

CAN's suit was dismissed by the Cook County Circuit Court, but an appeal is pending in the Illinois Supreme Court.

The lawsuit that succeeded in driving CAN into bankruptcy involved an 18-year-old from Bellevue, Wash., named Jason Scott. In 1991, Scott's mother hired a "cult deprogrammer" and two assistants in an attempt to get him to renounce his membership in the Life Tabernacle Church, a Pentecostal group.

'Unfortunate' Actions

Scott alleged in the suit that he was kidnapped for five days at a beach house, handcuffed, gagged with tape and forced to watch videotapes about religious cults. Scott feigned conversion, and when his deprogrammers took him to a restaurant, he ran off and went to police. In late 1993, the county prosecutor brought charges against the deprogrammer, who was acquitted.

But the case lived on in civil court. The lawyer who took the case on Scott's behalf was Moxon. He has been sued by CAN for allegedly filing malicious lawsuits.

This time, Scott sued not only the deprogrammer and his two assistants, but also CAN. Scott maintained that the woman who referred his mother to the deprogrammer did so as a local CAN volunteer.

A jury found all the defendants liable and awarded Scott more than $4 million in damages. CAN was ordered to pay as much as $1.8 million; the group has appealed.

Paul Lawrence, an attorney for CAN, acknowledges that Scott suffered an "unfortunate" deprogramming attempt. But CAN "did not deserve to be swept up" in the case because the volunteer who referred Scott's mother to the deprogrammer did so without CAN's knowledge, he said.

In the meantime, CAN filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October 1995, hoping to develop a reorganization plan that would allow it to keep operating while pursuing the appeal. CAN's main creditor is Jason Scott. Moxon, Scott's lawyer, contested CAN's plan in bankruptcy court, and the judge refused to approve it. In an attempt to protect its assets, CAN filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last June, which meant that it transferred control of its assets to an independent trustee--Martino.

On June 22, Martino went to CAN offices and arranged to have all the locks changed. He told the staff to take only their personal belongings and leave.

Martino sold CAN's name and logo, telephone number and P.O. box, along with CAN's office furniture and computers (stripped of their hard drives) for $20,000. CAN tried to contest the sale, but dropped the attempt last week after the judge required the group to first post a $30,000 bond.

Martino said he put CAN's name-brand assets on the auction block only because Kisser herself asked to buy them. Her highest bid was $19,000.