The Results of the International Cultic Studies Association’s 2008 Questionnaire for Former Cult Members
The Reverend Richard L. Dowhower, DD
One of ICSA’s long-range goals is to create a network of churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions that are prepared to be resources for former cult members (and eventually for families of cult-involved persons) who seek a safe and supportive environment without hidden agendas. ICSA does not want religious organizations to take on added time demands. Instead, our goal is to use relevant existing programs (e.g., to help people find housing or child care), and to offer training to select persons at the religious organization so that they will better understand the needs of former cult members and know where to refer them for counseling and information. We don’t want to train these persons to counsel former members. We only want them to know enough to “do no harm” and to refer to the appropriate experts. Our ultimate goal is to have at least one cooperating church and synagogue in each metropolitan area in the United States and Canada, and eventually in other countries. We call this endeavor the “safe-haven project.”
To assess the feasibility of this project, we disseminated in 2008 a Web survey that inquired into the specific needs former cult members have upon leaving their groups and explored their openness to seeking assistance from religious organizations. We received survey responses from 265 people. We excluded 41 subjects from the analyses because of missing responses on a significant number of questions. As a result, 224 responses are included for this report.
The vast majority of respondents, 64%, were from the United States; of the other 12 nations, only the United Kingdom produced as much as 5% of the respondents.
Respondents identified themselves as (a) former members, 189 (84%); (b) family or friends, 127 (57%); and (c) professionals, 60 (27%). Obviously, many claimed more than one of these labels: Thirty-eight (37%) chose all three, while 78 (35%) chose two identifiers. Most former cult members referred to their own experiences, while professionals and family or friends referred to the needs of former cult members with whom they had contact.
Fifty-eight respondents (26%) most frequently cited eight groups as those they were affiliated with. Those groups, in order from highest to lowest frequency cited, are International Church of Christ, Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Children of God/The Family, Bob Meehan, World Wide Church of God, Unification Church, and ISKCON. The total of 224 subjects, however, listed approximately 135 groups that one or more belonged to (the ambiguity of some of the responses to this question makes precision difficult).
Of the former-member respondents, 99 people (52%) identified themselves as also a family member or friend of a person who was involved in a cultic group, while 50 (26.5%) of those subjects also were helping professionals.
Among former members, time in the group ranged from 1 month to 35 years, with 11.2 years as the mean. The time span from when they left their groups to when they responded to the survey ranged from 1 month to 37 years, with a mean time out of the group of 12.7 years.
Persons completing the survey were asked to report the religion in which the former member was raised. We learned that 67% were either Roman Catholic or Protestant, 4% were Jewish, and 11% identified their religion as “None.” In responses to the question about current religious practices, the Catholic-Protestant total dropped to 39%, and “None” rose to 38%.
Eighty respondents (42%) sought help from mainline religious organizations. Thirty-two persons (40%) found these services not at all helpful, 17 (21%) rated the services as helpful or very helpful, and 31 (39%) rated the services as somewhat helpful.
Question #14 is key to the purpose of this questionnaire—namely, to help the ICSA’s Religion Committee determine the need for the safe-haven project. This question reads, “If assistance at a mainstream religious organization, such as a church/synagogue, had been available to ex-member when he/she left the group, how likely would he/she have been to take advantage of it?”
Sixty-nine respondents (39%) indicated “likely” or “very likely”; 59 (33%) chose “very unlikely” or “unlikely”; and 51 (28.5%) selected “uncertain.”
Among those who didn’t seek help from a religious organization in the past, 46 people (45.1%) responded that they were unlikely or very unlikely to have taken advantage of such help even if it had been available. However, the data tell us that a significant group of former cult members would have wished to benefit from the services we are envisioning. Twenty-eight people (27.4%) who didn’t seek help in the past would have done so if help had been available, while 28 (27.5%) remain uncertain.
More interestingly, among those who sought help in the past, only 41 (53.3%) were reported as likely or very likely to have taken advantage of these services. According to the survey results, 13 people (16.9%) who sought help in the past would not be likely to seek the help described in the question, while 23 people (29.9%) remained uncertain. We would have expected to see that those people who previously sought help from a religious organization would have rated as likely or very likely the probability of their taking advantage of the services if available.
A possible explanation is that the experience of some of this group was not all positive when they sought help from religious organizations. Among the 13 people who responded that they were unlikely or very unlikely to take advantage of these services, 7 (53.8%) rated the past consultation as “not at all helpful” and 2 (15.4%) as “somewhat helpful.” Of the 23 people who were uncertain about using such services if available, 8 (34.8%) rated the past consultation as “not at all helpful” and 13 (56.5%) as “somewhat helpful.
In reading through the comments of the 13 persons who wouldn’t seek help and the 23 who were uncertain about whether they would seek such services at a congregation, I was painfully reminded of how often clergy and congregations are ill-prepared to understand and effectively respond to former members. These responses indicate how valuable a training process would be in this project, to adequately prepare local clergy and church members to effectively help former members, at a minimum by knowing where to refer them.
In response to the question “Who needed the help?”, 155 (82%) said the respondent himself/herself.
Participants were asked to rate the degree to which the former member or others who left the group with the former member needed each of the 19 services listed when they left. Means and standard deviations of the responses indicated the greatest needs were “Specialist on Cults,” “Information on Cults,” “Support Group,” “Therapist,” and “Spiritual Guidance.” Other needs identified were “Housing,” “Financial Guidance,” and “Educational Guidance.” Lowest on the priority list of desired services were “Child Care,” “Paperwork,” “Transportation,” “Clothing,” and “$ Incidentals.”
Nearly half of those former members who sought help from churches or synagogues rated the service they received as “not at all helpful.”
Nearly 70% of respondents were at least open to help from churches or synagogues, while 40% said they were likely or very likely to take advantage of such assistance.
Given prevalence estimates (Langone, no date), and given the level of dissatisfaction among those in this survey who sought help from religious organizations, it is reasonable to infer that each year tens of thousands of former group members who would be open to help from religious organizations do NOT receive such help.
Therefore, the results of this survey suggest that an outreach strategy to better prepare religious organizations to become safe havens for former group members is worth pursuing.
I am extremely grateful for the collaboration and the specific recommendations of Dr. Carmen Almendros, many of which appear in this summary report.
About the Author
Rev. Richard L. Dowhower, MDiv, is a retired pastor who has been engaged in education about cults in seminars, publications, the courts, and the media since the 1970s, when most professionals saw neither the right nor the reason to be concerned about them. In particular, Rev. Dowhower has worked hard to educate fellow pastors. His publications include The Dangers of Pseudo-Religious Cults, a Statement of Pastoral Concern for Parents and Youth by Catholic and Protestant Religious Leaders (1979), "Confronting the Cults," (1982), and the important and widely distributed ICSA pamphlet Cults: What Clergy Should Know. He received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Thiel College.
The education of military chaplains was one of Rev. Dowhower's special projects, including presentations to US Navy chaplains in Philadelphia, Groton-New London, and Newport. He has worked with campus pastors and college students at Bucknell, Dickinson, and Thiel colleges; Pennsylvania State University; and the University of Maryland—as well as with high school students in central Pennsylvania. Currently retired, He lives in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and is available at firstname.lastname@example.org