The Words of the Fefferman Family

Confronting Unification Church Critics at the ICSA Conference

Dan Fefferman
July 15, 2010
President of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom

Attending an anti-cult conference isn't the way most Unificationists would choose to spend the July 4th weekend. But that's what I did earlier this month, together with my Japanese colleagues, Shunsuke Uotani, an official of the Universal Peace Federation in Japan, and Toru Goto, a leader of the victims of forced conversion in Japan. Throughout my work with the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, I've been going to these meetings each year for about a decade -- mainly in order to keep an eye on our movement's opponents and to get a sense of what they may be planning against us. In the process, I've also come to understand that the "cultic studies" movement is not at all monolithic. It includes a wide spectrum of psychologists, academics, and activists, ranging from vehemently anti-Unification Church deprogrammers to fair-minded professors.

In most of my previous expeditions into the world of anti-cultism, I had ventured into these meetings as a lone reconnaissance officer behind enemy lines. However, I never hid my identity as a Unificationist, and soon came to learn that some folks were interested in real communication, not just venting their hostility against the "Moon cult." The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) in particular has provided a number of opportunities for constructive dialogue.

At the same time, this conference has regularly featured sessions led by the anti-Unification Church lawyers' group in Japan, known as the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales. The reaction of these anti-Unification Church speakers when I introduced myself was sometimes amusing. One anti-Unification Church university professor simply responded, "Your kidding, right?" when I told him I was a current member. Another participant, a long-haired, Japanese ex-Unification Church member who is now a chain-smoking Christian pastor ministering mainly to other ex-Unification Church members, said: "Right now I am having mixed emotions toward you!"

Toru Goto Stands Up for Freedom

During the last two ICSA meetings, I was not the only current Unification Church member in attendance. Last year I was joined by Richard Bach, an attorney and a second-generation Unificationist, of the United States and Sam Nagasaka, a victim of forced conversion, of Japan. This year, Japan sent Mr. Goto and Mr. Uotani. This most recent ICSA meeting in Fort, Lee New Jersey from July 2-3 yielded some promising results.

Mr. Goto's presence there was significant, their anti-Unification Church lawyers and their allies in Japan long have denied that deprogramming exists. By their lights, the violent confinement of Unification Church members in prison condos for months or years at a time is just a friendly conversation between friends and family. When their victims (i.e. "clients" with tort claims, in legalese) renounce their affiliation with the Unification Church, they are urged to sign formal statements averring that force or coercion were ever a factor. Mr. Toru Goto is an anomaly. Unlike his brother and sister-in-law, he held out against their coercion for more than 12 years and very nearly died of starvation. Standing tall and proud at the ICSA conference, his very presence was living proof that kidnapping and confinement of Unification Church members persists in Japan.

From Mr. Goto's viewpoint, the highlight came during the Friday session by the anti-Unification Church lawyers' group, entitled "How the Government, Lawyers, Citizens and Victims are Trying to Tackle the Issues Concerning Controversial Groups, Especially the Unification Church, in Japan." Most of the session dealt with the "spiritual sales" issue, but one presenter, "anti-cult activist" Eiko Suzuki, mentioned our campaign against kidnapping and confinement. He expressed the opinion that the main reason for this activity is to distract people from the church's "illegal" behavior in fundraising and recruiting. He even showed a slide of our pamphlet with Mr. Goto's picture on the front. At that point I interrupted to add that Mr. Goto was actually right there in the room. Mr. Suzuki then politely introduced Mr. Goto, which resulted in a lot of people speaking to him afterward. During the question period, I gave a brief rebuttal to Mr. Suzuki's claim. "If you want to claim the moral high ground," I declared, "you need to speak out against kidnapping and confinement."

Deprogramming Topic Proposed for ICSA 2012

Mr. Goto's impression of the session was conveyed by email this way: "Although the Japanese Lawyers at the ICSA conference take a rhetorical stand against deprogramming, they have collaborated with deprogrammers when ex-members filed lawsuits against the Unification Church. They surely know about the cruel practice of deprogramming. I can't help but be outraged at their disingenuous attitude. I also felt like they were horrified by the fact that I was standing in front of them."

After the session, Mr. Goto, Mr. Uotani, and I spoke with ex-UCer and former deprogrammer Steven Hassan, whose book Combating Cult Mind Control (translated into Japanese) Mr. Goto was required to read during his 12-year confinement. Since Mr. Hassan has renounced deprogramming himself, he expressed dismay to hear that his book is still being used to justify kidnapping and confinement. In 2000, he wrote that: "Any approach to help cult members should be one of love, compassion, and positive communication, not force… There is always another way [than kidnapping and confinement] that would have been less traumatic." Mr. Hassan told our delegation that he is willing to write a public letter to make it clear that his book should not be used to justify holding people against their will. We will be following up with him on this.

Mr. Uotani and Mr. Goto also met a number of the conference organizers and speakers. Notable among these were Dr. Michael Langone, president of ICSA, and Mr. Michael Kropveld, head of Infocult/Infosect--the American and Canadian co-sponsors of the conference. We proposed to hold a session on deprogramming in Japan during the next conference. They took our materials and agreed to consider the idea. We will make a formal proposal soon.

Also during the conference, Dr. Eileen Barker, a professor at the London School of Economics, one of the world's leading experts on new religious movements, gave a talk entitled "What's the Difference? Brainwashing, Mind Control, Influence, Education and/or Enlightenment?" Dr. Barker reported on her extensive research on the Unification Church and refuted the idea of "mind control" and "brainwashing," pointing out that Unification Church members appear to be quite free to decide whether or not to join the group, as well as whether to leave it once they join. Dr. Barker is currently researching second generation issues in the Unification Church in preparation for the new edition of her ground-breaking study, The Making of a Moonie.

One more hopeful sign during the ICSA meeting was a three-part series entitled: "How to Bring about Change in Controversial Groups: Overview and Examples." These sessions featured a fascinating dialog between Anutama Dasa of ISKON (Hare Krishna) and Michael Kropveld of Infocult/Infosect, covering recent reforms in the Krishna movement. Such models hold promise for similar dialogues between ICSA and the Unification Church.

The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that "to everything there is a season… a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace." Has the time arrived for us to make peace with the anti-cult movement? This question cannot be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." We need to continue fighting for our rights when they are violated, as is the case currently in Japan, where members are still being kidnapped and forced to renounce their faith while the police and prosecutors turn a blind eye. At the same time, as our conversation with Steve Hassan shows, both we and our former enemies have matured during the last two-three decades. Even if it is not yet a time for peace, we can always take Jesus' advice to "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." 

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