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Mediating to Settle Conflicts in Cultic Groups Some Useful Methodologies

ICSA Today, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2015, 12-15

Mediating to Settle Conflicts in Cultic Groups: Some Useful Methodologies

Raffaella Di Marzio

The purpose of this presentation is to discuss some useful mediation methodologies to settle conflicts among religious/spiritual groups, families, and society. This paper draws on nearly eighteen years of experience in this field and gives an overall evaluation of my experience in attempting to mediate among both conflicting groups and individuals.

First I will share some of my experience with the mediation process in three different contexts. Second, I will speak about studies by the scholars Kelman, Burton, and Doob, whose work has dealt with conflict-resolution theory, controlled communication, and face-to-face communication. Finally, I will comment about whether these studies can be applied to the context of a cult-related conflict in which parents and children, members and former members, and religious movements and groups that support victims (or groups that are critical of cults) are involved.

My Experience

I started to work as a volunteer with a Catholic association in 1993. From 2000 to the present, I have been involved in a support and counseling center in Rome, Italy, the Counseling Online Center (, for those troubled directly or indirectly by experiences associated with new religious movements (NRMs) or cults.1

At the beginning of this process, I received requests for information and help only from families, members of religious groups, former members going through a crisis, or journalists and law-enforcement authorities. Over time, I began to receive requests for information and help from people affiliated with religious and spiritual movements when these people became the target of attacks from various sources.

Role Played by Groups That Support Victims

In Italy, many volunteers driven by altruism and a sincere wish to help others keep cult-victim support associations alive. The volunteers’ role is to reassure people, to offer help to those who are recovering, and to help former members reestablish social relationships.

However, the effectiveness of these organizations is often limited by methodological errors.  I wish to elucidate those errors to improve the level of care these volunteer organizations can provide. The errors are

  • unreliability of data concerning the extent of the cult phenomenon;
  • inadequate volunteer training;
  • oversimplification;
  • use of unilateral sources; and
  • brainwashing of the “brainwashed.”

The length of this paper does not allow a thorough discussion of each mistake, so I will address the one I think is the most important: oversimplification.


Oversimplification means simplifying something so much that the result is a distorted impression. An example is when professionals do not deal with the problem of the individual and his family in the complex context of the individual’s personality and family dynamics. Instead, they extrapolate the situation and deal with it as if it were a problem of its own, as if it is possible to understand the person’s entry into or departure from the so-called cult without taking into account the person as a whole and his interpersonal relationships. With such oversimplification, no one attempts to understand what may have failed to work in the groups of reference for that individual before his affiliation with a cultic group, or what it was that he may not have found in his family or in the church he belonged to that may have encouraged him to seek fulfillment elsewhere.

Oversimplification also overlooks the fact that situations and conflicts may have different and overlapping causes. For example, it is unlikely that a relationship problem can be attributed to a single cause, especially a cause external to the person affected. Not recognizing the role of the individual’s previous life, relationships, and family can result in attributing all problems to the new group of reference—that is, the cult—in which the individual seems to have found what had been missing before. The term cult has become a stereotype useful for others to use to lash out against groups and associations that in some cases may be entirely harmless. It is a term used by the media, which, instead of practicing journalism, often carry out a form of what I would call media terrorism. Oversimplification may seem to make complex problems easier to solve, but in fact the conflicts are not solved; they are only avoided.

Mediation: A Complex Solution for a Complex Problem

I believe that a complex problem requires a complex solution. This solution, in my view, could be the mediation process because it works through the efforts of all the people involved. Over the past 18 years, I have had experience attempting to mediate among both conflicting groups and people in three different contexts: (a) parents with children engaged in cults; (b) families with members engaged in new religious movements (NRMs); and (c) NRMs and victim-support groups.

Parents With Children Engaged in Cults

Settling cult-related conflict through mediation is not possible if one of the parties involved (e.g., the child or the parent) does not want to speak about the problem. Mediation is only possible if all parties to the conflict are willing to participate in dialogue.

The success of this strategy depends on many different factors, and often I am not able to know how the mediation affected the family or the individual. I can only know the outcome when families give their feedback, whether more or less positive.

Families with Members Engaged in New Religious Movements

When a family asked for help because of their relative’s affiliation with an NRM, it was very important to attempt to contact the movement. In this type of situation, I also have to seek assistance because, as the result of aggressive campaigns by cult critics, NRMs do not usually trust people involved in cult-victim assistance. The Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in Italy is the only organization I was able to contact in this scenario because the NRM trusted it. CESNUR was able to become a “second mediator,” and the respective NRM also was able to give CESNUR some useful information.

In some cases, receiving correct and reliable information about an NRM through CESNUR has allowed me to solve a conflict in a few days—for example, instances in which parents were afraid their child had been brainwashed by a dangerous cult when, to the contrary, the child had never really joined a religious group. In other instances, when affiliation had occurred, it was possible for me to arrange meetings between the NRM’s leaders and the worried parents to help all the parties to better understand the situation and to cope with it successfully.

NRMs and Victim-Support Groups

During the past 5 years, some members of NRMs have found my website on the Internet and have contacted me, asking for help. They were frightened because they had become the target of attacks in the media, on the Internet, and in books written by former members. They told me that, before contacting me, they had tried to contact other people or associations active in this field that were involved in supporting victims or criticizing cults. These NRM members reported that those people or associations had refused to listen to them or had increased their attacks. Why? Because the critics and former members identified the targeted group as a cult that fit the stereotype of a “criminal organization that brainwashes its members.” In contrast, I chose to listen to these “brainwashed” people, and I understood that they were not brainwashed at all.

Such cases have afforded me the opportunity to compare the recollections and experiences of people who are still affiliated with the group with the recollections of hostile former members of the same group. I found this opportunity, which was afforded to me by chance, very stimulating because it opened up new horizons of awareness and enriched my research.  Comparing the experiences current members described with those of hostile former members has made me aware that we must carefully verify the information we receive (from any side). Moreover, I have realized that opposition to cultic groups that is based on stereotypes and not carefully researched can cause great suffering to people who do not really represent a threat.

Unfortunately, my attempt to mediate, to start a dialogue between the two fighting camps noted above, was not successful in this particular situation. It is important to note that in this instance, as in some cases in general, the mediation failed because the particular group that was supporting victims refused to cooperate and to speak with the NRM’s members who, in contrast, were available and willing to speak.

The only action I could take was to try to disseminate accurate information about these religious groups on my own website and in the media. My last attempt in this direction, I am sorry to say, has resulted in extreme anticult movements in Italy attacking me and interfering with my work.

Kelman, Burton, and Doob’s Studies on Conflict Management and Resolution

Studies by Kelman (1972), Burton (1969), and Doob (1970), especially Kelman’s problem-solving workshop experiences (Kelman, 1972; Kelman and Fisher, 2003), help to explain what I have experienced firsthand in my 18 years of conflict-mediation work. I stress the importance of Burton’s exercises in controlled communication (Burton, 1969) and of Doob’s Fermeda Workshops (1970). These scholars brought together representatives of nations or national ethnic communities involved in an active conflict for face-to-face communication in a relatively isolated setting, and both men found that face-to-face communication among conflicting parties may contribute to conflict management and resolution.

Kelman’s Problem-Solving Workshop in Conflict Resolution

Kelman (1972) and his colleagues (Kelman & Fisher, 2003) use an approach to conflict resolution anchored in social-psychological principles. This approach brings together, in the particular region in which the conflict takes place, politically involved members of conflicting parties for direct communication facilitated by a panel of social scientists with expertise in group process and in international conflicts.

The ultimate goal of interactive problem solving is to promote change in individuals through face-to-face interaction in small groups as a vehicle for change in the larger conflict system. The problem-solving workshop is a microprocess intended to contribute to the macroprocess of conflict resolution. According to Kelman (Kelman & Fisher, 2003), participants’ behavior in the group may reflect the nature of the relationship between their communities and the self-perpetuating pattern of interaction that they have adopted.

Conflict Resolution in the Context of Cult Conflict

I believe that we also could achieve in cult conflicts the main goals of Burton, Doob, and Kelman's workshops. Obviously, the workshop experiences described above and the conflicts we face are different. Real life is not a workshop. Moreover, Kelman was studying international conflict, a very different field from that of cult conflicts. Nevertheless, based on my personal experience, there are at least two very useful ideas we could apply to cult conflicts: face-to-face communication, and the mediator figure.

Face-to-Face Communication

The most important principle of Kelman, Burton, and Doob, face-to face communication, can, as the three authors say, give people the following opportunities:

  • To move away from a rigid reiteration of a stereotyped position, and from efforts to justify their own preexisting opinion.

Such a rigid position is a frequent problem in conflicts between parents and children affiliated with cultic groups. Parents, after they ask cult critics for help, are often convinced that their children have been brainwashed by a cult, and it is difficult to reassure them otherwise, even if it appears that the children have freely chosen their affiliation.

  • To absorb new information to enable them to understand the perceptions and intentions of the other side, achieve new insights into the nature of the conflict, and learn a new conceptual framework for the analysis of conflict, which may be applicable to their own situations.

Applying these ideas to cult conflict, I would stress that it is vital to have reliable information about the religious group. With accurate information, parents may be able to revise perception distorted by a long history of conflict associated with the group, which is often exacerbated by anticult and media propaganda. Then the parties to the conflict can engage in a process of creative problem solving.

By applying these ideas, people involved in cult-related conflicts can learn to communicate with each other in new ways to create the conditions for effective problem solving.  As Burton says, I think we should learn “To see the conflict as a problem to be solved and not as a contest to be won.” (Burton, 1969, p. 157).

I would point out here that, although there are many innocent groups, there are also nasty groups that control and damage people profoundly, even if their intentions are not malicious. Sometimes parental concerns are warranted, and the cult members are the ones more prone to act according to stereotypes and inaccurate information coming from the group they joined. It is vital, then, that helpers approach each case with a mind that is open to a range of possibilities regarding the potential or actual harmfulness of the group.

Mediator Figure

To help people, we must facilitate a behavioral change: We must encourage them to move from the roles of antagonists, in which neither party dares to yield a point, to the roles of collaborators searching for a positive-sum solution to a common problem. I have experienced this process in my own life and in my attempt to help people involved in cult-related conflicts: parents, children, members, former members, and leaders of the groups or movements involved. In this context, a mediator figure can facilitate face-to-face communication.

The mediator involved in the process of conflict resolution is the key figure. The mediator can encourage people in a conflict to ask leading questions and also can suggest tentative hypotheses to explain the nature of the conflict. The mediator should not try to force or attack either party to the conflict. The main characteristic involved should be respect, without any discrimination.


Mediating in cult-related conflict situations is a difficult task. I have concluded, through 18 years of experience, that there is no simple way to face this type of conflict.

I have also realized that associations that provide help to cult victims have a great responsibility because the media and law-enforcement authorities who investigate controversial groups refer to these associations as sources of information. Associations that support victims may not be sufficiently aware of the harm that false information, a mistake in an intervention, or bad advice can cause to people, families, and society. For this reason, we have a moral obligation to broaden our understanding, to improve the results of our action without causing discrimination or creating new victims.


[1] I prefer the term new religious movements (NRMs) instead of cult, a word that, in the Italian language, has a very negative evaluation. Cult is often used as a label against minority religions. As I use the term, NRMs are nonconventional or alternative religions, or faith, spiritual, or esoteric movements, groups, or communities; they also are new movements within established religions or high-demand groups that exhibit what have been termed sectarian or cultic characteristics. Some of these groups are considered (and in some cases are) controversial. These groups are often called cults because they are perceived as dangerous organizations that abuse their members in some way. I will use the word cult when I refer to my past experience with worried parents who asked me for help. According to those parents, their adult children were involved in dangerous organizations, which they named cults. I respect their perception of the group as a cult. However, for the reasons mentioned, I prefer the term NRM for it applies to a wider variety of groups than does the term cult.


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About the Author

Raffaella Di Marzio, a PhD candidate in Psychology of Religion at Pontifical Salesian University in Rome, in 2001 set up a Centre of Information on Cults, New Religious Movements, Cult-Watching, and Anticult Groups: Spiritualità Religioni e Settarismi. She has BA degrees in Psychology, Educational Science, History of Religions, and Religious Science.

She has been a Catholic religion teacher in a senior high school in Rome since 1981, and also has been Professor of Psychology of Religion at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences “Auxilium” in Rome and is regularly invited to lecture at pontifical and state universities. She is the secretary of the Executive Committee of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB); a member of the managing board of SIPR (Italian Society of Psychology of Religion), the Editorial Board of Psychology of Religion ejournal (PRej), and the International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR). She is ICSA Today’s news co-correspondent for Italy. She has published extensively in this field and is in demand as an expert for TV, radio shows, conferences, and lectures.;