Third in a series of four

When recruiting new members, manipulative religious movements seek the best and brightest, said Marcia Rudin, former director of the New York-based International Cult Education Program. Rudin, one of the founders of the anti-cult movement, researches fringe churches and mind abuse and seeks to spread the word.

“Most of the people I have met who were in cults were bright people, people with goals, the class cheerleaders,” said Rudin. “Cults don’t want dreggy people.”

That fits Connie Baker.

Baker, a 54-year-old Clackamas mental health therapist, entered a Portland nondenominational Bible church at age 19 and went to be a missionary in North Africa. “I gave my heart, blood and soul,” Baker said.

When she returned, the pastor, who was about her father’s age, took her back under his wing. Before she left for Africa, he’d paved her way and told her she was special. She was given leadership roles. But in 1990, the pastor, a married man, sexually abused her over a period of nine months. He told her he’d commit suicide if she told anyone. Church elders blamed Baker for the relationship and advised she move back home to Southern Oregon. Baker trusted them and departed quietly.

It took her decades to realize the extent of how she was exploited by the pastor and the elders.

“Where there is money and power there will be sexual abuse,” Baker said. “When a church has an image to uphold, it gets even messier. This is not just one person being naughty. It is a systemic collusion.”

In her practice, Baker specializes in victims of spiritual abuse. She’s busy. She’s also written a book to help others in the situation: “Traumatized by Religious Abuse: Courage, Hope and Freedom for Survivors,” published this year by Luminare Press in Eugene.

“One of the primary characteristics of someone who is being spiritually abused is confusion,” said Baker. “Mind control power comes from someone who is supposed to speak for God.”

Baker said society is still trying to understand religious abuse. She believes time will change that. Fifty years ago, she said, culture had no notion of sexual abuse, either.

Signs of religious health and sickness

The signs of health for a religious group, Baker explained, are flexibility, openness, consistency, balance of power and themes of freedom and grace. Signs of poor health include lack of accountability for pastors, denial of problems, secrets and exploitation of parishioners.

Baker said that the typical victim of an abusive religious group is not a mousy, cowering person, but people who are mid-level manager types, capable rule followers.

Baker is still a Christian believer and realizes that churches must have structures of power. She just asks that everyone be alert to how power can lead to abuse.

The International Cultic Studies Association, founded in 1979, says that each year 50,000 to 100,000 Americans enter cults, including abusive churches. The main target of the leaders are young adults, ages 18 to 25. Strong methods of recruitment and retention often include a push toward belonging and exclusivity.

“These groups promise relationships, they promise happiness,” Rudin said. “Often they’ll have a young girl approach a young boy or vice-versa. There is a promise of love, a promise of companionship.”

But abusive religious movements steadily close down the world of recruits. Choices are removed. Feedback is cut off.

Seeking belonging

Manipulative religious groups are mushrooming in part because some Americans perceive that their spiritual needs are being ignored by mainstream churches, experts say. Adding to the problem are decaying family structures, economic pressures and political and social conflict.

“It’s not just New York; it’s not just California,” said the fast-paced Rudin, a graduate of Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. “It’s everywhere. They tend to thrive in rural areas because property is cheap and people leave people alone there. There is a spirit of individualism and a pioneer spirit. Cults aren’t just in big cities.”

Rudin said intelligence and strength are no guard against recruitment because even the intelligent and the strong tend to want quick and easy answers to life’s greatest questions.

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,” she said. “You don’t get easy answers. There is no instant path to salvation. We have to teach people that they have to be patient.”

Rudin said that as fewer people are joining the Moonies or Hare Krishnas, abusive church groups have emerged, claiming to be a truer, purer form of Christianity. That, combined with disillusionment with traditional Christian churches, has left many people vulnerable to abuse.

Elders beware

Abusive religious movements are focusing more on elders. Leaders want access to retirement incomes, investment portfolios and paid-off mortgages. They promise older people good health, social change and a ticket to heaven. In return, the so-called “churches” get money.

Rudin has discovered a statement from a large fringe religious group that showed a plan to target older people. It exhorted those 50 and older to join and “set an example for youth.” Rudin says that as many as a million members of suspect religious groups are older than 50.

Jane, a 61-year-old Washington state woman who prefers to remain anonymous, spoke about a two-year involvement in Ramtha, a new age sect based on the teachings of J.Z. Knight, a Yelm, Washington, housewife who claims to be the spokeswoman of a 35,000-year-old warrior spirit. Jane said she became more concerned as her involvement deepened. It started out as an empowering movement, but later the group became obsessed with imminent natural and economic disaster. Some also believed that space aliens had established bases underground and were eating humans and conspiring with the U.S. government. Before her sons freed her, Jane had turned over $30,000 of her savings to Ramtha.

“We’re all susceptible,” said the late Anne Greek, a founder of the now-defunct Cult Resource Center in Portland, in an interview before her death. “I don’t think we’re ever going to be rid of these groups. Destructive religious sects are here to stay because they’re profitable. There are groups and people popping up all the time who want more power and more money.”

Catholics vulnerable

Catholics are recruited into manipulative religious groups more often than are members of any other faith group, experts say. Jews are second. The rich culture and liturgy of the two faiths are easily manipulated and can make Catholics and Jews easy prey to abusive leaders.

Recruiters can predict beliefs and behavior based on cultural patterns and can up their manipulation using that knowledge.

Though Catholics make up about 15% of the U.S. population, it is not uncommon for manipulative religious groups to be made up of 30-40% ex-Catholics. One quasi-evangelical group investigated by local religious abuse expert Kent Burtner was almost half former Catholics.

“We have a lot of Catholics come to us. They like us because we are freer, with not so much ritual,” said one leader of a group that had been reported to Portland’s Cult Resource Center.

On the other hand, many abusive groups try to mimic parts of Catholicism, says Burtner, a former Dominican friar who attends St. James Parish in Molalla and St. Therese Parish in Northeast Portland. For many cradle Catholics, a religious group that on the surface resembles Catholicism cannot help but gain an appearance of authenticity.

But abusive religious groups eventually add on to their copied message by insisting that they have spiritual answers that no one else has. Unlike legitimate religions, they tell recruits to stop thinking and turn over their intellects. The agenda is hidden.

Whereas many Protestant denominations are skeptical of authority, Catholics have a long tradition of heeding the words of leaders. Catholics also have a sense that faith is carried out in community, not alone. Abusive leaders can turn this noble impulse into a trap, exerting considerable peer pressure and devising elaborate internal policing, said Burtner.

Catholics also have a sophisticated sense of self-sacrifice, a notion that manipulative leaders seize without fail. “In almost all of these groups the commitment is easy to make,” said the late Adrian Greek, who helped found Portland’s Cult Resource Center. “But then the groups turn up the volume and it gets bizarre and the people tell the recruits, ‘This good stuff doesn’t come easy,’ and ‘You are going to have to suffer.’ It hooks into that Catholic notion that good things come hard.”

Know your faith

Catholics and other Christians who have a deep and active knowledge of their faith are less likely to be taken in by religious con artists, said Ronald Enroth, a sociologist from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, Enroth has studied what he calls “fringe churches” for decades and has authored several books on manipulation by such groups.

Former Catholics may be susceptible to abusive sects, but those who go to Mass each Sunday and have a personal relationship with Jesus and with other parishioners are not likely to get taken in, said Enroth. “It’s people with a nominal religious background who can be the hardest hit,” he explained.

Enroth tells Catholics headed for college: “It’s so important that you have a knowledge of your faith. Your heritage is so important. When you hit those campuses, you are going to need that background.”

NEXT ISSUE: Relevancy, caring the best antidotes to abusive spiritual groups