Last in a series

In its 1986 report “Sects or New Religious Movements: Pastoral Challenge,” the Vatican criticized Western culture for the spread of abusive religious movements. Alarmed by the proliferation of such groups in traditionally Catholic regions like Latin America, the 27-page Vatican report blamed depersonalizing structures “produced in the West” that de-stabilize society, erode the integrity of individuals, and injure the credibility of mainline religions. The worries endure in the 21st century.

For example, Catholic officials in Puerto Rico estimate that more than a quarter of the island’s 3 million Catholics have joined hardline, independent Christian denominations and have been offered easy, deceptive answers to the woes of life.

As an antidote to destructive sects, the Vatican called for more caring and relevant parishes and support for people with special needs. It also suggested diversified ministry and lay leadership opportunities.

The problem noted by the Vatican is alive in some ways on the West Coast of the United States and the cure also might apply here, said Bill Dinges, a professor of religion at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Dinges has studied unchurched Catholics in the Pacific Northwest.

“The West Coast has more movements and tends to have more people who are religiously unaffiliated,” said Dinges. “There is more sect activity in contrast to the deep South, for example. There are regional differences.”

Relationships a preventative

The rise of manipulative sects led Dinges to ask on behalf of the Catholic Church: why are the faithful emigrating?

New religious movements spread fast because members form affective interpersonal bonds, Dinges said. The intimate groups with simple answers give recruits a quick shot of acceptance that is not so easily won in larger mainline churches.

Catholicism cannot keep its faithful from joining abusive sects by making mere “cosmetic alterations,” said Dinges. He suggests that Catholic parishes offer lay people more genuinely key roles and more intimate communal life.

If those things happen more, fewer Catholics will leave the church, said Mary Ann Woodman, a longtime lay minister who served at Our Lady of the Mountain Parish in Ashland.

The best setting for Catholics to bond with their church is in a small faith group that shares stories and prayer, Woodman said. If large parishes divide into groups for prayer and faith sharing, Catholics won’t get lost in the crowds.

“We need to have what I call pocket communities,” said Woodman. “That’s where people will feel the church.”

Currently, the Archdiocese of Portland is promoting small communities of Catholics across the board.

The problem will endure

Regardless of the steps the church takes, Oregon Catholics, especially those with mild commitment, are likely to keep encountering abusive religious movements. Spiritual con artists thrive in this region of loose religious affiliations and will keep using religion in their quest for money and influence.

“The messiah business is good these days,” said Ronald Enroth, a California sociologist who has studied manipulative religious movements for decades.

Even when the abusive groups collapse under their own weight, a few zealous members usually go out and start new versions.

“I liken it to the story of the man who cut the head off the dragon but the dragon grew seven more heads in its place,” said the late Adrian Greek, co-founder of Portland’s Cult Resource Center. “It’s more important to know the signs than the names. The names change.”

Stay rational

For Oregonians, especially Catholics, the task is to preserve a rational mind, experts say. The more questions one can ask, the more one can reveal the deception of manipulative leaders and recruiters.

Kent Burtner, a local expert on abusive sects who attends St. James Parish in Molalla and St. Therese Parish in Northeast Portland, noted that about 10% of church members who become dissatisfied with a spiritually abusive leader stay to fight and persuade. The rest leave. “The worst thing for a narcissistic leader is footsteps walking out the door,” Burtner told the group.

But escape from spiritual abuse is hard to do alone. Family and friends need to punch through walls of illusion and get information to the trapped member. A caring family, support group, employer or church has a good chance of helping the recruit see the truth of his or her affiliation.

Starting with youngsters seems to be imperative. Youths need to know how to sniff out a con and maintain their grip on reality.

“We need to help children recognize that down inside each one of us is a wonderful alarm system,” said Adrian Greek, interviewed before his death in 2018. “I happen to think it must be God given. When things aren’t quite going well around them, this alarm system goes off in them. When it goes off they need to pay attention to that and then seek their support system.”

If a loved one does enter a mind-controlling group, those concerned should be tenacious in their efforts to maintain communication, experts say.

Breaking the trance

In the audience at a recent meeting of the Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education in Portland, a young man who said he left an abusive church 18 months prior asked the speakers if he would ever get to the point of forgiveness. Burtner advised that victims not worry about the spiritual state of the manipulative pastor, but instead be lovingly available to others who want to leave the group.

Another man in the audience said sadly, “I have thought for hours about how I can free my friends. They are still enslaved.”

Burtner responded, “They know you are not buying the program, which is good, but they also know you care. People do come up for air and you’ll be there when they want to leave.”

If there is evidence of physical abuse or financial misdeeds, it’s time to call the police, said Burtner.

“Once the trance is broken,” he concluded, “you are on your way out.”

Faith communities can help survivors of spiritual abuse by being patient and gentle, writes Michael Langone, executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association since 1981.

Those who recently left an abusive group will feel confused, ambivalent, indecisive, afraid and emotionally volatile, Langone explains.

A good listening ear will be helpful to the survivor as will encouragement to ask a lot of questions, Langone writes. Last, he suggests laughter, which probably has been in short supply.