Unification News for April and May 2000

Stranger in an Even Stranger Land: Report on an Anti-Cult Conference

Dan Fefferman
April, 2000
Washington, DC

In my capacity as director of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, I decided to attend the annual conference of the Leo J. Ryan Foundation in Stamford Connecticut. Headquartered in Bridgeport, the LJRF makes no bones about its ties to the now-defunct Cult Awareness Network, which was put out of business by a lawsuit that tied it to an illegal deprogramming conspiracy. LJRF even bills itself as the renewed "Cult Awareness Community." Its current president is Priscilla Cole, who formerly ran the Cult Awareness Network, and several other CAN stalwarts can be found on its rolls.

Of course, it’s no coincidence that the group—named for the Congressman who was gunned down in the Jonestown massacre in 1978—has its headquarters in the town where the Unification Church is well known for its role in bailing out the financially troubled University of Bridgeport. LJRF’s executive director is Julia Bronder, an embittered former UB employee and UC critic.

Human Rights, but for Whom?

The title of the LJRF conference was "Human Rights and the New Millennium." This too may be no coincidence. Our own International Coalition for Religious Freedom (ICRF) sponsored a series of international conferences in 1988 entitled, "Religious Freedom and the New Millennium." Indeed a common thread running through the LJRF presentations was that "freedom of thought" is an even more fundamental human right than freedom of speech or religion. And since cultists can’t—by definition—have freedom of thought… Well, more on that later.

I have to admit that the conference was well run and well conceived to support its organizers’ purposes. I did feel a little out of place at times, especially with people who assumed I was an anti-cultist like themselves. One former UC member was so happy to see me, until I informed her that I was "still in." Another guy angrily accused me of being a private investigator hired by Scientology to harass participants and spy on them. Talk about bad vibes! But the majority of the organizers and participants I met were courteous, if cool, once they learned who I was. Below are some highlights. While many other groups other than the UC were dealt with, I’ve concentrated on what relates specifically to our work.

Accolades from the Adversary

Not to brag, but several speakers made reference to ICRF. They mentioned our four conferences and the cities in which they were held—Washington, Tokyo, Berlin, and Sao Paulo. They grudgingly praised our web site (www.religiousfreedom.com), and the "impressive array" of speakers whose papers we have posted there. A featured luncheon speaker, Prof. Stephen Kent of the University of Calgary, used the ICRF as a primary example of the way in which American new religious movements (NRM’s) are able to influence the American government and academic community. He admitted that ICRF has become an influential participant in the international human rights debate. Another speaker bemoaned the fact that ICRF had been able to get current and former congressmen, government officials, leading academics, and prestigious human rights leaders to join with us.

A special breakout session was devoted to the Maryland Task Force on Cult Activities which we’ve reported on previously in Unification News. The panelists—anti-cultists Ron Loomis, Denny Gulick, and Franz Wilson—declared the Task Force’s Final Report as a victory for their side. These men and other anti-cult activists on the Task Force were later given a special award for their efforts to create and influence the Task Force. The speakers acknowledged ICRF’s opposition to the Task Force, but naturally downplayed our effectiveness in blocking the anti-cultists’ aims. For example, they did not mention the fact that the state’s official task force on "Cult Activities" decided not even to use the word "cult" in its final report. Nor did they mention that one of its members, panelist Franz Wilson, interrupted UC member Alex Colvin’s testimony during a formal task force meeting and threatened him with violence.

Panelist Ron Loomis of the American Family Foundation avowed that the panel’s "agenda" was that "you should go back and attempt a similar effort in your state." But he warned about getting too much press in the beginning. "The best way to do it is locally," said Loomis, because national campaigns attract too much attention from NRMs and civil liberties groups. "Politicians are chicken," he complained. (In Maryland the legislation creating the Task Force was pushed through with almost no opposition voices raised, because our side did not find out about it until it had already passed the lower house and was on a fast track to pass the Maryland Senate. Four previous efforts by anti-cultists to pass similar legislation had failed when both sides were heard.)

Washington Times Targeted

The Washington Times and the WT Foundation were also major targets of LJRF speakers. One session was devoted exclusively to "Following the Money Trail in the Moon Movement." Led by Rev. Fred Miller, the session complained about the continued success of the Washington Times and its influence in conservative political circles. Miller seemed particularly upset by the success of the WTF’s American Century Awards. He named several high level political leaders who honored True Father Moon on that occasion. Miller was visibly disappointed by Jerry Falwell’s presence.

Another focus was George W. Bush. Several speakers mentioned him, believing that Rev. Moon must be a major financial supporter of Gov. Bush, if not directly then through his father. They are hoping to find evidence that UC money is ending up in Bush’s campaign treasury. They also bemoaned the fact that New Yorker seems to be a highly successful financial enterprise and that it has become a Ramada franchisee. Miller even reported on a meeting between himself and Ramada officials in which he sought unsuccessfully to influence them to end the relationship.

The anti-cult movement had been seriously discredited in the 1980s because of its association with deprogramming. It lost several major court cases, and also lost credibility among its mainstream funding sources. Now, however, it appears to have found a new "Sugar Daddy." Bob Minton is a reputed multimillionaire whose primary hobby in life is fighting against "cults." His main passion is attacking Scientology. However, he is also rumored to be a major funding source for the LJRF. Minton was a keynote speaker at this year’s conference, although he seems to have few credentials other than the green kind. He publicly announced that he had purchased 2,000 copies of former deprogrammer (now exit counselor) Steve Hassan’s new book, "Breaking the Bonds," which retails for 24.95. If you do the math, that’s a nice little contribution, and it doesn’t count any other donations to Steve’s new "Freedom of Mind Foundation" non-profit group.

No Hassle with Hassan

Speaking of Steve Hassan, I had several conversations with Steve during the conference. I’ve also been corresponding with him through e-mail. Notice the distinction I made in the above paragraph between "deprogramming" and "exit counseling?" Steve is adamant about making this distinction because deprogramming involves force and exit counseling does not. I think he has a point. I asked if he would be willing to put his opposition to forced deprogramming in writing to the Japanese Christian churches who—sometimes using his earlier books on "mind control" as their justification—are reportedly involved in forced kidnapping of hundreds our UC members. He agreed to do so. The letter says, in part:

"[An anti-cultist minister in Japan] told me this morning that sometimes, albeit infrequently, a family might hold their adult child against his/her will, and then a minister might be invited to speak with them. In my opinion, no minister should get involved in something like this as a matter of policy--even if the cult member requests a meeting in writing…

"I want this letter to stand as a public record that I think that any approach to help cult members should be one of love, compassion, and positive communication, not force. Otherwise, kidnapping or involuntary detention will invariably be traumatic… In fact, there was always another way that would have been less traumatic."

In return for his writing the above-mentioned letter, Steve asked me to clarify to the world community of Unificationists that he is not involved in holding people against their will. I think Steve is sincere in this, although he is certainly wrong in many of the things he says about the UC, Rev. Moon, "mind control," and NRM’s in general. Steve is a former deprogrammer, not a current one. What he does now is called "exit counseling," or in his current parlance "strategic interaction" to "break the bonds of mind control."

Now some of you will ask, "But isn’t what Steve does still really faith-breaking based on religious intolerance?" And I’d have to say yes. He gets paid by people who disapprove of other people’s religion (usually family members) to talk them out of it. And he also writes books and speaks out wherever he can trying to convince people of the need for the service he provides. But technically speaking it shouldn’t be called deprogramming unless force is involved. I’m hoping that since Steve wants UC members to avoid speaking in the present tense about things he did in the past (namely deprogramming), he’ll do the same and stop speaking about things we did in the past as if they were going on today. Watch this space.

Perhaps the most disturbing presentation of the LJRF conference was made by Jim Seigelman and Flo Conway, authors of the book "Snapping," which was instrumental in forming the anti-cult movement’s ideological basis in the late 1970s. Their presentation was entitled "Church vs. State," and it called for a new interpretation of the First Amendment that recognizes "freedom of thought" as the most basic human right, even more basic than freedom of speech or freedom of religion. (Another featured speaker, Stephen Kent of the University of Calgary eerily entitled his presentation "Human Rights vs. Religious Freedom.") Keep in mind that Conway and Seigleman and their cohorts, including exit counselor Steve Hassan, clearly argue that members of the minority religions they call "cults" do NOT have freedom of thought, because the cults have robbed them of it.

Seigelman actually called religion "the Achilles heel of American democracy." And Conway stated that "freedom of thought must be added to the first amendment." The both supported what they call a "judicial initiative" that will establish a "right to freedom of thought" in the same way that a "right to privacy" or a "right to have an abortion" has been established.

But if you unpack the Owellian newspeak, this type of "freedom of thought" simply stands the First Amendment on its head. Instead of "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or abridging the free exercise thereof," Conway and Seigleman appear to say that "The Courts shall interpret the law so that anyone who joins an unpopular religion shall be declared incapable of exercising freedom of thought." The legal and political implications of such a doctrine are staggering.

At its closing banquet, the LJRF gave Conway and Seigelman its highest honor, the Leo J. Ryan Award. The first person they thanked and credited as a pioneer in "this work" was not other than the father of deprogramming himself, Ted Patrick.

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