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Cults and Children The Abuse of the Young

Cultic Studies Journal, 1984, Volume 1, Number 2, pages 143-155

Cults and Children: The Abuse of the Young

Arnold Markowitz, C.S.W. and David A. Halperin, M.D.

Cult affiliation affects three groups of individuals: the cult member, his immediate family (parents and siblings), and the children reared during the period of cult affiliation. While the role that the mental health professional adopts regarding the cult member and his family requires a complex balancing of therapeutic concern and individual rights, his role vis-à-vis the minor within the cult context is much more clearly defined. This paper presents issues of neglect (benign and malign) and other problems inherent in working with parents who, under the guise of religiosity, actively abuse their children. While the hecatomb of Jonestown is unlikely to be repeated, the therapist has a responsibility to assist children in making full use of the opportunities for growth and life that are available to them.

The relationship of cults to children and the possibility of the abuse of the young present an area of deep concern and extraordinary complexity. One obvious starting point in consideration of the broad spectrum of complexities is the hecatomb of the People’s Temple at Jonestown. Approximately one-third of the people who ided at Jonestown were either children or adolescents (Rudin, 1982). Indeed, the funneling of foster care funds for child support provided a major source of income for the People’s Temple (Wooden, 1981). Within the People’s Temple, members were systematically encouraged to give custody of their children to other members of the Temple or to the Rev. Jim Jones. The final apocalypse of the People’s Temple was precipitated by the efforts of the Stoen family to recover their son from Jones (who claimed paternity). Moreover, during its existence, the People's Temple resorted to horrific methods of deprivation and abuse ostensibly aimed at disciplining children (Wooden, 1981).

The relationship of “new religions” and children does not necessarily present itself in such dramatic or life-threatening terms. Nevertheless, parental concerns may frequently arise, particularly when a former spouse has developed an interest in an exotic spiritual group.

Furthermore, Jonestown was not a uniquely abusive environment, as a recent report describing conditions at the Northeast Kingdom of God Community Church indicates (Newsweek, 11/29/82, p. 52). This report notes the death of three infants due to an absence of regular medical care and reliance on paramedics.

This paper is an attempt to focus on the very broad spectrum of potential and actual abuse, neglect, and mistreatment in which children, in the name of faith, may be deprived of life, limb, or the potential expression of their uniqueness and creativity.

Our experience in working with present and former cult members indicates that there is a relationship between child abuse, cult doctrine, and the presence of common psychodynamic features among cult members. The latter are: (a) a primary use of the splitting defense mechanism, which is encouraged by the cult group; (b) the narcissism of the cult child’s parents and, when the child misbehaves, their resulting extreme narcissistic injury and projective identification; and (c) the dependency crisis cult members experience and its resultant interference with their functioning as parents.

The structure of destructive cult groups predisposes these organizations toward abusive practices in general and potentiates their propensity toward child abuse in particular. Rudin has documented the existence of abusive practices and maltreatment of cult members in her paper, “Women, Elderly, and Children in Religious Cults” (1984). In the present discussion, we seek to identify the psychological factors that transform the cult members’ altruistic intentions into severe and harmful discipline of their children. Although splitting, narcissism, and dependency issues do not offer an exhaustive explanation for child abuse within destructive cult groups, they represent, in our opinion, three dominant psychological factors, which may be intensified by sociological and organizational variables.

Environmental Factors Contributing to Abuse and Neglect

The child whose parents are members of a cult is effectively hostage to the cult leader’s often idiosyncratic ideas of childrearing. In a recent consultation, a grandmother described how she was forced to threaten legal proceedings in order to see her grandson, who had been consigned by his mother (the patient’s daughter) to a crèche in a Far Western state, because the group’s leader had suddenly decided that all children should be raised separately from their parents. When the grandmother finally saw her grandson, he appeared to be suffering from marasmus as a result of his apparent abandonment to an institution. As a result of his grandmother’s efforts, more appropriate child care arrangements were instituted. Although the child’s parents were superficially reasonable and concerned, they were unable to take effective action to protect their child. Their relationship with the “guru” is reminiscent of those parents of ancient Carthage who sacrificed their children to appease the great god Beal Moloch (Moore, 1961).

While child abuse need not be a necessary consequence of familial affiliation with a cult, the very character of the cult organization and lifestyle provides significant predisposing factors. As West and Singer (1980) have noted, the preeminent characteristic of a cult is a totalitarian control over the members’ lives by a leader claiming a special relationship with God or some suprahistorical force. Within the cult, there is the development of a deep emotional dependence, a prohibition of critical analysis and independent thinking, the creation of exploitative working conditions that often leave members with little time for family-centered activities, and the development of communities characterized by exclusivity and isolation. Within such a context, there is little to restrain the cult leader from instituting his most whimsical ideas on childrearing.

Within the totalitarian context of the cult, there is a primacy of ideology over biology. The following excerpt explicitly depicts the context in which children may be seen as a disposable superfluity:

If you are not thinking of the Supreme or of me, if you are thinking of somebody else, some other human being, then unless it is absolutely a mundane thought about telling that person something totally unimportant, that is your destruction. If you think of someone even with softness or tenderness, be careful: danger is approaching you … (Sri Chinmoy, 1978).

One can only imagine what the childrearing experience must be like within a group where any human concern is seen as so completely secondary.

Types of Childrearing Practices

The question is appropriately raised: What is the abuse of the young? Obviously, mistreatment, neglect, and abuse may encompass a whole spectrum of behavior, including physical harm, sexual abuse, the creation of systems in which children are simply placed within institutional settings allowing for little or no contact with their parents or within settings in which intellectual stimulus is limited in order to foster acceptance of the group’s beliefs. Obviously, as mental health professionals, our concerns will be intensified in dealing with those situations in which discipline practices include incarcerating children in a box, as opposed to the occurrence of early morning awakening for a required three hours ! meditation. In the broadest sense, however, child abuse is not to be given moral sanction because it is done under the cover of religious or ideological practice.

The diversity of cultic groups necessitates the creation of a typology of cult childrearing practices, if the mental health professional is to advance his appreciation of the problem beyond the purely anecdotal. Three broad categories of cults and childrearing practices appear: (a) the Neo-oriental; (b) the Neo-Christian; and (c) the Bible cult. To be sure, not all groups that belong within these categories necessarily engage in abusive practices, but certain patterns appear to reflect the dictates of group ideology.

Within the Neo-oriental groups, such as 3HO, Hare Krishna, or Rajneesh, there appears to be a reliance on excessive meditation. In our opinion, requiring children who are only two years old to rise at 3 a.m. for a ritual of one to two hours of early morning meditation is of questionable value to the child’s development. Indeed, sleep deprivation is an almost predictable consequence of this regimen.

Neo-oriental groups demonstrate other tendencies in regard to children. Play activities are very limited. Diets reflect idiosyncratic and often obsessive restrictions. Education may be limited because of rigid role definitions for girls and the presumption of female intellectual inferiority, as in the Krishna Movement. And contact with the biological family is often restricted as a matter of policy.

A second broad category of cultic groups is the Neo-Christian. Groups such as the Unification Church, Children of God, church of Armageddon or Love Israel, The Way, and the People's Temple, while ostensibly Christian sects, have such significant differences in theology, ideology, and the character of leadership that Neo-Christian is an appropriate description. Childrearing within most of these groups often occurs within a communal setting. However, the very totality of parental absorption within cult work may well make it difficult for parents to involve themselves in rearing their children. Moreover, frequent and unpredictable parental absences/trips for group missions may preclude their playing a significant role in their child’s growth and development.

A third broad category is the Bible cult groups. Within these groups, there often appears to be an excessive reliance on the presumed Biblical methods of childrearing. And, in their excessive preoccupation with sin, severe and even fatal child abuse may occur. These groups take for their model Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, rather than Solomon’s decision to recognize the primacy of a child’s life over any ideological claims.

Despite differences in emphasis among these categories, all three types of cults downplay the need for appropriate medical care, advocate idiosyncratic diets, follow sexist educational practices, and belittle the role of biological parents.

Psychodynamic Aspects of Cultic Child Abuse

Cult as Family

A fundamental factor contributing to cultic child abuse is the denigration of the biological parent. This practice is a reflection of the group’s considering itself a new and superior family unit. The leader often arrogates to himself titles such as Father or Mother. Within a cult, the biological family is replaced by an undifferentiated mass of siblings in which both parents and children compete for the group’s and/or the cult leader’s approval (Heldman, Note 1). Indeed, much of the harshness of childrearing practices and the rigidity to which children are subjected is a reflection of the profound regression experienced by the adults within the cult. Such regression causes them to see themselves not as successful parents, but rather as figures requiring constant structure in order to function (Morris, Note 2). It is in this context that the cult leader functions as the primal Father that Freud (1913) described in his Totem and Taboo, the primal father who keeps his authority by maintaining peace among an otherwise undifferentiated horde of siblings.

The cult leader’s authority also reflects the cult’s capacity for extreme regression and exaggeration of certain defenses, such as projection and isolation. As a consequence, cults tend to see the world in absolutist terms of Good (the cult) and Evil (the non-cult world). Moreover, within this absolutist framework, any deviant behavior on the child’s part is seen as both a reflection and representation of the dark, satanic outside and must be punished accordingly.

Hierarchical Structure

The structure of a destructive cult group is organized around a superordinate hierarchy, with the authoritarian leader exercising autocratic power over the members’ lives. The disciples, who are submissive, dependent, and powerless in relation to the leadership, exercise control over their children by demanding submission to themselves. In so doing, they identify with the idealized leader who insists on strict obedience. Hence, the flow of power travels downward from the leader to cult parents to the child, with little opportunity for parental empathy or understanding for the child. Unfortunately for these children, empathy is necessary for the healthy emotional growth of children (Kohut 1977).

Motivations for the Use of Force

According to Lystad (1979), the literature and research on the motivations that underlie the use of physical force reveals three factors:

  1. a desire to control the behavior of another person;
  2. a need to ventilate hostility and aggressive impulses; and
  3. a combination of these two factors

In cultic groups, control of the members’ behavior is the mainstay of the group’s existence. Behavior and beliefs are prescribed by the leader. Discipline is rigid and often primitive. Punishment is common for members who stray from the group’s discipline or who express doubts about the cult’s beliefs. These punishments, for children as well as adults, range from increased working hours to solitary confinement in cellars, empty rooms, and boxes resembling coffins. In some groups underground burial in deep walls is symbolic of the death of the old sinful personality, which is left behind in the subsequent resurrection of the repentant member’s rebirth as a new and submissive disciple.

Control of one’s hostility is crucial in these groups, where anger is often viewed as “negative energy” that attracts danger and reveals one’s evil tendencies. Eastern-type groups focus on the negative-energy theory, while pseudo-religious, apocalyptic cults emphasize evil forces. Eastern meditation devotees are encouraged to meditate in order to suppress anger and negative thoughts, while trusting the guru to direct them to a state of enlightenment.


The training and indoctrination techniques of  destructive cult groups are quite intense and often take place in isolated environments closed off to contact with the outside world. Information and activity are controlled by the group. The intensity of life within the closed system of these cult groups, which exercise extreme control, creates a great deal of anxiety, competition, and even hostility among the members. The cult directs this hostility toward the world outside, which is viewed as “satanic” by the pseudo-religious cult groups, or as “insane” by counterfeit psychological therapy cult groups. In this regard we can clearly see the use of splitting defenses in the cultists’ absolutist views of themselves as all good and non-members as evil. They use splitting defenses to sustain totalitarian environments. This is related to the effort to sever old ties, to split off and isolate affects, which are part of the individuals’ earlier emotional experiences built up through repetitive contacts with significant others. The integration of these experiences constitutes a part of the self which needs to be dismantled by cult indoctrination to create an obedient subject who will follow the autocratic leader. Lifton (1961) referred to this process as the “assault on identity,” which he recognized as a necessary step in the thought reform process. He noted the need to undermine the subject’s sense of identity before he or she can accept the new belief system offered by the indoctrinators. Lifton further observed that these victims were susceptible to destructive and aggressive impulses arising from within themselves. A case vignette illustrates this process:

Case Vignette

The Smiths, a young couple treated at the Cult Clinic, exemplify this process. After they were initiated into alternative health care practices by a small-time, self-styled guru, the couple and their infant daughter came under the total control of their healer, who was revered as father and spiritual leader. Over the course of three years, the Smith’s indoctrination led them to give their guru the lion’s share of the money they each earned from working two jobs. In addition, they allowed the guru to discipline their daughter by using abusive practices, such as scalding her with hot water. They tolerated Mrs. Smith’s sexual submission. And ultimately, both Mr. and Mrs. Smith submitted to violence and beatings, with the ostensible purpose of helping them grow emotionally and spiritually. Mr. and Mrs. Smith do not have a history of psychopathology although Mr. Smith does have a dependent personality. Both have post-graduate college educations. Reflecting upon this period of her life dismayed Mrs. Smith, for her behavior during this period resulted from an assault on her identity.

Prior to their involvement with the guru, who is a grandiose and unstable person, the Smiths had become isolated from their family and friends. This occurred after the couple moved to another state, where Mr. Smith became ill and required surgery for a benign intestinal tumor. Living in a new community on disability benefits did not afford the couple an opportunity to entertain old friends or co-workers. Contact with their families was limited in a conscious attempt to escape from Mr. Smith’s intrusive and enmeshed parents. Furthermore, Mrs. Smith’s failing capacity to care for her infant daughter and sick husband diminished her confidence in handling the older generation. Unwittingly, then, the Smiths created the type of environment Lifton (1961) outlined as necessary for conducting thought reform. They were isolated, away from an emotional support network, had little information about alternatives for assistance, and became anxious and depressed over what seemed to be their personal apocalyptic future. In short, the Smiths had produced a closed family system lacking feedback which could change the system.

The befriending of the guru provided the sacred science – a totalitarian doctrine which mobilized their desire to dismantle old beliefs. It enabled them to sever emotional ties by intensifying the use of splitting, which helped them to see themselves as engaged in a just cause. Specifically, they viewed traditional medicine as dangerous because of its reliance on “toxic” chemicals. Similarly, all regularly available food, except for organically grown honey and some vegetables, contained for them these “poisonous toxins,” leaving the Smiths very little to eat and eliminating a nutritious diet for their daughter. They viewed society as dangerous because it deprives them of good health. Their paranoia about food poisons increased their alienation from society. The guru exacerbated this because he required total submission to his superior knowledge and physical strength.

The Smiths were helped to break the yoke of their submission when child abuse and neglect charges were filed by a local hospital, where their daughter was diagnosed as a failure-to-thrive child, malnourished, and with a serious untreated burn from the child abuse. This action was initiated by the grandparents who had consulted the Cult Clinic. Subsequent treatment of Mr. and Mrs. Smith involved an integrative understanding of their individual psychodynamic issues, family systems factors, and the totalitarian environment they lived in. Understanding the latter has been most helpful in assuaging Mrs. Smith’s guilt, which had inhibited her progress in treatment.

Examples of Harm

While under the control of the cult leader, the abusive parent’s repulsion and guilt are relieved by the leader, who has taken over the follower’s superego functions. Hence, it is in the interest of the leader to foster abuse in order to cement the follower’s submission by inducing him or her to escape his or her conscience by seeking absolution that can only come from the leader, who now functions as the devotee’s conscience.

The impulsivity and aggression of cult members who are parents is reminiscent of the impulsive and aggressive tendencies (Zalba, 1966) found in parents who were child abusers. A recent example of this is the case of a young father who paddled his two year old son for two hours because the boy would not submit to the parent’s demand that the youngster apologize to a playmate. The beating took place in the presence of the boy’s mother, while several other members of the group looked on. The beating, ostensibly administered without anger, caused a breakdown of the buttocks tissue, bleeding, shock, and death.

In less aggressive incidents, when splitting and isolation of affect leave the cultist emotionally indifferent to pain and medical needs of other cult members, including their own children, there have been multiple deaths. In one group, the Faith Assembly, located in Warsaw, Indiane, medical neglect resulted in the deaths of 26 people, many of them minor children (FAIF, 1983). This typifies the type of group that believes in a doctrine of confession in which one prays, or “confesses,” for a healing from God. Unfortunately, these incidents are not so uncommon. Christianity Today (March 4, 1983) reported that in the Love Israel group little medical care is provided to children or adults. Illness is believed to be caused by a lack of faith. Furthermore, the children tend to be malnourished because food is regarded as a sacrament and because it is assumed that God will take care of the body. The same publication reported on the conviction of four members of the River of Life Tabernacle in Montana for beating a five year old boy to death with electrical cords and a stick.

In cases of age-appropriate assertive or oppositional behavior (usually identified with children between the ages of 18 and 36 months), the parents, fearing the disapprobation of the group, will join their cultist peers in projecting evil possession onto the child, who must submit to the group’s rules. The cult’s purported ideological purpose supersedes all individuals, leaving a narrow margin for the normal developmental changes of differentiation and the establishment of an autonomous self. In such cases, the group’s condemnation of the parent sfor failure to produce an obedient child is viewed as an inability to submit to God’s will and is perceived by the parents as a blow to their narcissistic needs.

Appeal to Narcissism

A common feature of totalitarian cult groups is their elitism and appeal to the members’ narcissism. Often they are exhorted to sacrifice the emotional and financial aspects of their family lives for the promise that they will be central figures in the spiritual world of the afterlife. This message was emphasized by Sun Myung Moon, in a speech he gave to his followers one month before a mass wedding ceremony where Moon married over 4000 disciples. Moon chose the marital partners, many of whom met for the first time only days before the wedding. On June 20, 1982, he made the following statements:

For the sake of the higher goal, the world, the universe if you sacrifice your family, family becomes the savior family.

The Korean couples, leaving all their children behind, the blessed wives went out on pioneering missions throughout the country. They sent their children to orphanages to live with families who were reluctant to keep them. It was almost like Moses’ mother leaving her child in Pharaoh’s place. (The children) knew that their parents were righteous enough to put their mission ahead of everything, sacrificing all for the sake of the mission.

Hence, it is common for parents to leave even the youngest child in poorly run nurseries or to see their children at infrequent intervals, while traveling and fund-raising for the cult.

A New York hospital requested consultation from one of the authors on how to educate the parents of the children they were treating in the outpatient pediatric department. These children were viewed as depressed, poorly cared for, and emotionally neglected. The mothers, members of the Moon group, were unable to give clear medical or developmental histories because of their frequent and prolonged fund-raising or recruiting in other cities. However, these same parents believe they wil be leaders in the new world once Moon is recognized as the new Messiah. One of our clients, a former member of this group, believed he would be the leader of his own country, if Moon turns out to be the true Messiah. Here we can see the leader’s grandiosity and the appeal to the members’ narcissism: They will be kings in the new life.


The very immensity of the uclt tak, i.e., to usher in the New Age, creates a diffusion of task orientation and enhances the authority of the cult leader (Halperin, 1983). Within this context, the members feel adrift and totally dependent upon the cult leader. Thus, even to question “Father” is to question his omniscience, which is to question the very basis of the group’s existence. It is not surprising, then, that questions over childrearing decisions arise but are never articulated during the period of cult membership. Moreover, oftentimes the immensity of the group’s task makes questions of child abuse pall into insignificance. Nor is it surprising that individuals who may have been drawn into cult affiliation because of their sense of inadequacy and their need to establish dependent relationships may welcome an environment in which both the answers to the questions all parents feel and the structure to deal with children are provided. In a similar sense, the reliance upon the group’s medical approaches may reflect both the cult leader’s and cult member’s inability to tolerate any objective system, e.g., medical science, which does not acknowledge either the cult leader’s omnipotence or omniscience.

Children as Impediments to Personal Growth

As has been noted, the cult task is often defined as ushering in the New Age. In the creation of this “new world”, the “new family” not surprisingly plays a preeminent role. Thus, any deviation by a child is experienced as frustrating the task of creation and as a fundamental challenge to the group’s assumptions. It is in this context that deviance is perceived as deserving the control and the abuse which will transform the unenlightened child into an exemplar of group practice, rather in the model of the military officer who was apocryphally reported as having said “to save My Lai we had to destroy her.” These issues deserve examination in the context of the therapeutic and legal questions that arise in working with children whose families are (were) cult members.

The cult leader’s grandiosity appeals to members who are taught to be obsessed with their personal salvation. There is no clearer example of this than the very colorful Indian-born guru who brought his group to the Northwestern United States from India. According to one former disciple, this guru tells his followers that “all your energy is needed for your personal growth (enlightenment) so you should not share your energy with even a child or even your partner. It should be used for youself” (Flother, 1982). We have heard of cases where women abandon their children when the mothers go to live in the guru’s ashram.

Hence, children are rejected as an unwanted burden – unwanted emotionally, spiritually, and financially. These factors predispose the cult members’ children to the risk of neglect and maltreatment. In 1973, Gelles noted the increased risk of abuse for children who were unwanted by their parents. This finding gives research support to the greater risk children face when their parents are members of a cult group that views the offspring as a hindrance to the parents’ salvation.

Furthermore, these children are an imposition upon their emotionally fragile, dependent parents. Research has shown that members of some cult groups tend to be orally dependent personalities (Deutsch, 1980). This is similar to Lifton’s description of those exposed to totalitarian doctrine as “adults placed in the position of an infant. Placed in a regressive stance each felt himself deprived of his power, mastery and selfhood of adult existence.” These characteristics tend to lead toward a path of child abuse, for the cultist parent is regressed and unable to cope with the parenting demands  and needs of children. In addition, the cult member is relatively powerless, except for his or her ability to demand submission from a child. In the same way that an unemployed, disenfranchised parent in society may be prone toward abuse, the cult member, deprived on his or her adult selfhood, is prone toward abusive practices.

Reference Notes

  1. Heldman, P. Personal communication, 1983.
  2. Morris, M. Personal communication, 1982.


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Freud, S. (1913). Totem and Taboo. London: Hogarth.

Gelles, R. Child abuse as pathology: A sociological critique and reformulation. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 43, 611-621.

Halperin, D. (1983). Group processes in cult recruitment and affiliation. In D. Halperin (Ed.) Psychodynamic perspectives on religion, sect and cult. Boston: John Wright, 1983.

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Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

Lystad, M. H. (1979). Violence at home: A review of the literature. In J. G. Howells (Ed.), Advances in family therapy. New York: International Universities Press.

Moon, Sun Myung. (1982, June 20). Belvedere speech to new couples.

Moore, W. (1961). Roman Africa in color. Paris: Phaidon.

Newsweek (1983, Nov. 29). The Kingdom at Island Pond.

P.A.I.F. Newsletter, 1983.

Rudin, M. (1981, April 17). As the cults recruit, the little children suffer. New York Daily News.

Sri Chinmoy. (1978) Writings.

West, L. J., & Singer, M. (1980). Cults, quacks and non-professional psychotherapies. In H. Kaplan, A. Freedman, & B. Sadock (Eds.) Comprehensive textbook of psychiatry, III. Baltimore: Williams and Williams.

Wooden, K. (1981). The children of Jonestown. New York: McGraw-Hill

Zalba, S. (1966). The abused child: I. A survey of the problem. Social Work, 2, 3-16.

* * * * *

Arnold Markowitz, C.S.W., is Director of the Cult Hotline and Clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City.

David A. Halperin, M.D., author of Religion, Sect, and Cult (Boston: John Wright, 1983), is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine of the City University of New York and a Consulting Psychiatrist to the Cult Hotline and Clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services and the Cult Information and Treatment Program of the Westchester Jewish Community Services.