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What Should We Do About Cults: An Italian Perspective

Cultic Studies Journal, 2001, Vol. 18, 13-31

What Should We Do About Cults? An Italian Perspective

Dr. Raffaella Di Marzio

Group of Research and Information about Sects, Branch of Rome, Italy

Abstract

This paper is a revised version of a paper prepared in response to a program on this subject organized by AFF (American Family Foundation) at its annual conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, May 14 -16, 1999.  The paper examines the cult situation in Italy, explores various approaches on what we should do about the cult problem, and offers suggestions about a possible common research agenda for critics and sympathizers of cultic groups.  The essay attempts to provide a balanced response to an international problem that raises a serious human rights question: How do we protect individuals and societies from manipulative and destructive influences in religious and other groups without violating fundamental rights and freedoms that are basic to modern pluralistic societies?

This paper will examine first the cult situation in Italy, including certain official responses, in order to give some context to the discussion.  Next, Italian legal issues will be explored, followed by a summary of certain key documents put forth by the Catholic Church in Italy.  The paper then presents the author's views on what should be done about cults.  The paper concludes by offering some suggestions concerning a common research agenda.

The Cult Situation in Italy

GRIS (Gruppo di Ricerca ed Informazione sulle Sette - Group of Research and Information about Sects) is a cultural and religious association that requested and obtained the approval of its Statute by the CEI (the Italian Bishops Conference) on September 25, 1990.  It is now operating in many Italian dioceses.  Catholics  founded it, but the organization is open to anyone who can provide scientifically serious contributions regarding New Religious Movements.  GRIS publishes a scholarly quarterly journal, Religioni e Sette nel Mondo (Religion and Cults in the World), and a newsletter, Movimenti Religiosi Alternativi (Alternative Religious Movements).  The main office is in Bologna, but volunteers work in branches throughout Italy.  I am a teacher in a Senior High School who volunteers with the Rome branch. I set up a support and counseling center in Rome, for all those directly or indirectly troubled by experiences associated with belonging to a cult.

The Rome branch of GRIS[1] was constituted on Dec. 16th, 1997, and in 1998 got the approval of His Eminence Card. Camillo Ruini. The Rome Branch of GRIS is operating in the field of research and information about cults and new religions with a spirit of respect and dialogue, but firm in the assertion of the truth, and in the exposure of any violation of personal rights committed by any sort of organizations hiding behind the term “religion.” As the freedom to follow one’s religion is an inalienable right of every human being, all GRIS members are committed to the defense of this right against possible exploitation. Whenever possible, members of GRIS try to develop a dialogue with people belonging to the various religious movements and cults. GRIS studies and promotes various forms of pastoral, social, and cultural intervention in this field.

In this document, I use the English word, "cult," to translate the Italian "sette."   This is not quite accurate, for in English usage "cult" can sometimes refer to nonreligious groups.  "New Religious Movement" is another term that has been used to designate the phenomenon under study.  For the purposes of this article, the three terms may be treated as synonyms, although the reader should keep the definitional ambiguity in mind.

CESNUR 's research published in the Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy[2] (May 2001) indicates that there are at least 616 religious and spiritual groups active in Italy (including the Catholic Church, Jewish Community, and so on). Among Italian citizens there are about 1.200.000 members of religious minorities, who seem to be evenly distributed throughout the country. Members of new religious movements number about 700.000.  If one includes, however, those who sympathize with or are curious about these new movements, then one could estimate that a larger number of persons are involved in major or minor ways with these new movements.  The groups with the highest membership are the Jehovah's Witnesses (about 400,000 adherents), Scientology (about 80.000 adherents), and Soka Gakkai (about 21.000 adherents).

Italy has not been affected by tragic episodes involving cults (such as the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack in the Tokyo subway).  But there have been a number of cases involving homicide, suicide, and various crimes committed by members of various new groups.  These cases have stimulated judicial investigations, a few of which are going on now.  Despite these episodes and the recent tragedy of the Solar Temple in Europe, Italian public opinion has not shown significant interest in this phenomenon, in part because of the massive and constant flow of information coming from CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions).[3] CESNUR tends to minimize these episodes, viewing them as marginal and sociologically and numerically insignificant.

Given the public apathy about this issue, it was rather extraordinary that on April 29, 1998 the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs sent to the Commission for Constitutional Affairs of the Camera dei Deputati (the lower house of the Italian Parliament) a report by the General Direction of Preventive Police dated February 1998. The report is entitled "Sette religiose e nuovi movimenti magici in Italia" ("Cults and New Magical Movements in Italy")[4]. In Italy, The General Direction of Preventive Police coordinates the police intelligence activities. The Interior Ministry appears to believe that there is a necessity to warn the public about certain phenomena involving "violence justified by faith."  Police in other countries of Europe, America, and Japan have been unprepared for certain crimes related to cultic groups.  In its Introduction, this report considers the "possible dangers and law-enforcement implications of the activities of some movements" and affirms that if a group has a hostile or indifferent attitude toward the principals on which civil order is founded, then the significance of its actions for law-enforcement should be considered.

According to the report, such law-enforcement concerns may manifest in many ways:

  1. The use of “subliminal mechanisms of influence and so-called ‘brainwashing’ or other methods that limit the liberty and self-determination of the individual."  Regarding this issue, the report affirms that there is much testimony and many investigations conducted by police departments that attest to the fact that certain movements use techniques that short-circuit the defenses of individuals, "leading them into an uncritical state of blind obedience."[5]  Note 13 of the report describes the process or the various stages of thought reform. These are: “isolation, indoctrination, and maintenance.”
  1. "The interest seems to be more on the material wealth of the leaders than the spiritual enrichment of the members […] it comes from the aggressive solicitation of contributions and the sale of goods […] or various services (usually seductive psychotherapeutic services or ‘self-improvement courses’).  This section refers to cases in which someone uses the religious character of his group as a pretext for accumulating money, taking advantage of financial exemptions.  If the profession of faith is "an instrument for realizing a profit, abusing the credulity of others," then there are grounds for carrying out official judicial or tax inquiries. It is, however, difficult to proceed against would-be, swindling "gurus" because of the reluctance of members to lodge a complaint.
  1. "Hiding immoral behavior or illicit conduct behind an appearance that seems sometimes to be beyond reproach."  In this case the report affirms that if a group of persons of the same faith takes part in “criminal commercial activities,” this can be pursued because  “… crimes connected to manifestations of the cult are treated as crimes common to all the effects …”
  1. "The propagation of doctrines characterized by strongly irrational elements that may cloud the thinking of members and push them toward deviant behaviors that endanger public safety."  This group of concerns, according to the report, arouses more worry, along with Satanist gangs.  Groups that seek to "save the world" are less likely to dirty themselves with criminal actions because they desire to win favor with the public.  Other groups, however, "whose members, believing themselves the elect or the only ones worthy of `salvation,' then to make their separation from others more radical, in order to avoid `contamination,'” they may organize with "a greater probability of antisocial acts."

At this point the report raises the possibility that "some fanatic, belonging to one or the other type of group […] may decide to commit a striking act in order to send a message to all of humanity."  This danger was especially felt in Italy and in Rome, the city in which the Jubilee year of 2000 had a particular religious significance and importance superior to any other city in the world.

  1. "The search for objectives different from those that are declared, if not quite of subversive or destabilizing plans, then concealed under ‘religious pretexts.’[6]

Another important event occurred on November 12,1998 when twenty Italian senators posed some questions in Parliament (Senate of the Republic) about the Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.  They asked the President of the Council of Ministers and the Ministers of the Interior, the Coordination of Civil Safety, and Finances “whether the overall picture of the activities of the Congregation, the strict compliance imposed on the followers with rules which contrast with Italian law, the confidential nature of organizational, disciplinary and financial data, and the prevailing obedience to internal rules in contrast to the rights of the human person, family ties and duties towards society can constitute what in law is called a secret association” and “whether, therefore, whatever the articles of association may say, the Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses can be called a religious confession or, rather, a cult.”[7]

The Point of View of Italian Law

I shall make a few brief comments on the abolition of the crime of plagio by the Italian Constitutional Court[8], which established the constitutional illegitimacy of Art. 603 of the Penal Code. This decision eliminated the crime of plagio from those provided for under our penal code.  The jurisprudence tended to construe it as “the creation of a psychological domination, induced by suggestion…with a consequent redirection of the will, and, according to some, the creation of a situation where the person was deprived of mental competence."[9]

In order to avoid misunderstandings concerning this decision, often quoted in relation to crimes involving so-called "brainwashing," I have decided to make things clearer, using the acts of the 1990 Conference on "Socially accepted persuasion, plagio and brainwashing."  Dr Pietro Sarteschi quotes part of the decision: "A detailed examination of the various and contrasting interpretations given to Art. 603 of the Penal Code in doctrine and jurisprudence, clearly shows the lack of precision and definition of the law, the impossibility of giving it an objective, coherent, and rational content, and hence the absolutely arbitrary nature of its concrete application. It has rightly been compared to an unanchored mine floating through our legal system, which can be applied to any fact implying dependence of one human being on another, without there being any certain parameter for ascertaining the intensity of such influence.”[10]

These words clearly show that the abolition of the crime of plagio was not due to the idea that the psychological conditioning (of various kinds and intensity) does not exist, an issue for specialists and certainly not for the Constitutional Court, but to the fact that this crime, as it was established, permitted ambiguities and arbitrary interpretations. The then President of the Constitutional Court, Dr Leonetto Amadei, attended the Conference and presided over its first day. Defending the decision, he stated: "The Constitutional Court has decided that, in order to protect that ultimate good which is personal freedom, the incriminating law must establish the criminal deed with definite contours, so the judge can express his judgment on the basis of a correspondence between the deed and the law…This law, as described, was rightly held by the Court to be imprecise and indefinite, so much so that it was not possible to attribute to it an objective, coherent and rational content, with the consequence that its concrete application would be arbitrary.”[11]

Now, the problem arises of how to protect from a penal point of view the integrity of the psychological person from certain forms of aggressive conduct. This means that it is necessary to define a crime with features of definition and comprehensibility not only for judges, but for citizens as well.  In the Italian penal code the crime of circonvenzione d’incapace (approximately, "abuse of incompetent persons") still exists. Unlike plagio, this is held to be a crime against property through fraud, just like swindles and so on. This crime calls for "various and diverse manners of forcing oneself upon another person's will and obtaining his consent in order to make a person perform an act which involves a harmful juridical effect for himself or for others.”[12]

So, in Italy a gap has been opened in protection of the personality against abusive dynamics, a gap that should be filled. The fact that the crime plagio was abolished does not in any way cancel the issues surrounding such a crime or the processes of psychological conditioning, which certainly take place beyond any reasonable doubt in many fields of interpersonal relations, including the particular kind of psychological relationship between a follower and his charismatic leader.

The Catholic Church Examines NRMs

The phenomenon of joining New Religious Movements (NRMs) and various other cults has been subject for some years now to investigations by Church authorities, who have issued some interesting and meaningful pastoral documents.  I will make reference to two particular documents: The Phenomenon of Cults or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge and the pastoral memorandum, The Church’s Pastoral Commitment in Facing New Religious Movements and Cults. The latter document is particularly balanced and complete, and it will be a sort of “guideline” to us. It illustrates the position of the whole Italian Episcopal Conference and not that of a single Bishop.

In the challenge launched by these movements, the Church has seen a manifestation of the "sign of the times," which is knocking at the door of the whole church community. The need for religiosity, which per se cannot but please the faithful and their ministers, is to be carefully analyzed so that some pseudo-religious group or charismatic leader does not take advantage of it for morally and humanly unacceptable purposes.

An aspect that must not be underestimated in the process of affiliation with a cult group is the fact that the recruiting mechanisms are not always transparent.  In fact, there are groups that attract people by using healing techniques involving "miracles," by offering free foreign language courses or biblical studies at home, by running exhibitions and conferences on peace and human rights, by offering ecological and healthy lifestyles, and by offering training courses aimed at helping to find a job, etc. In these cases, the people approaching these groups are totally unaware of the real purposes the groups pursue. The interim report also illustrates some recruiting techniques:

Some recruiting and training techniques and some indoctrination procedures used by many sects and cults, are often very sophisticated and are at the base of their success. In most cases cults, by means of these techniques, lure individuals who, in the first place are unaware of the fact that such an approach is often a trick and, in the second place, are unaware of the nature of the plot aimed at converting them and of the training methods (social and psychological manipulation) they will undergo. Cults impose their particular way of thinking, of feeling and behaving, unlike the Church’s approach which implies aware and responsible consent."[13]

The Pastoral memorandum being examined includes also psychological movements when discussing the complex issue of the reasons leading to affiliation with cults: "At times disciples of a cult are bound by forms of emotional and psychological coercion, control, and vigilance, up to the point at which their personal freedom is limited. These are cases in which success is imposed and guarded."  Without generalizing (each group has characteristics different from those of another group and not all groups use these mental control techniques), it is advisable to emphasize that the pastoral approach envisages that these guidelines be followed up by an analysis of the group being dealt with and of the person involved. The person’s own characteristics greatly influence his or her eventual conditioning by the group and its leader.  Even though it is true that any environment conditions an individual to some extent, it is also true that conditioning assumes specific characteristics in NRMs. Some experts have defined it as "thought reform," "mind control," or "brainwashing."[14]

These issues were already discussed in the Interim Report, where “recruiting and training techniques and indoctrination procedures” are discussed. After affirming that young people and the elderly are "easy prey" to these techniques and methods, which are often a combination of affection and disappointment, it lists a number of elements such as love-bombing, flattery, distribution of money, “…need of unconditioned abandonment into the arms of the founder and leader; isolation: the control of the rational process of thought, the elimination of any external information or influence…which could break the influence…canceling of those met during their past life…conscience alteration methods leading to knowledge disturbance…closed logical systems…keeping recruits always busy…great concentration on the leader”[15] and so on.

In the light of this dismal situation, the pastoral memorandum in the part calling believers to assume a balanced approach towards NRMs, "Beyond Irenics and Sectarianism," states:

There are sound reasons to affirm that cults and new religious movements are generally closed to dialogue and concentrate on announcing their message by means of propaganda exerting psychological pressure. They tend to take control of their interlocutor until uncritical and total acceptance is obtained and in some cases moral subjugation is reached.[16]

These "methods" are to be contrasted with the respectful methods used to obtain the convinced and responsible acceptance of the believer, who does not renounce his intelligence and critical powers in embracing a faith, whichever it may be, and who has the right and the duty to pose all the questions he may have and "to justify his faith" before nonbelievers.  According to the Catholic Bishops, "the phenomenon needs to be faced with the spirit of faithfulness to the truth and with Christian charity: this is the main effort to be made and our pastoral considerations pursue this end."[17] 

Despite those denying the existence of the problem, even in the Church, the pastoral memorandum, on the contrary, states, faithful to its spirit and honesty:

It must also be stated that the "sectarian spirit," i.e., the intolerant behavior united to aggressive proselytism, is not necessarily the constitutive element of a "cult" and is not sufficient to characterize it. A spirit of this kind can also be found in groups of believers belonging to churches or church communities.[18]

This issue was already noted in the Interim Report where it says:

These Christian groups with sectarian spirit can evolve thanks to the enrichment of their cultural background and by establishing contacts with other Christians, hence assuming a more "ecclesiastical" behavior.[19] 

Should the group in question continue with its sectarian and intolerant behavior and eventually come to border on heresy, it may come to assume over time all the negative characteristics outlined above. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has occurred in the past and still occurs today. These groups are generally called "pseudo-Catholic cults” or “Fringe Catholic Movements,” and many local Bishops have already issued official statements on the phenomenon. This situation requires that the Catholic community commit itself to seeking the necessary means to prevent it.

The Church's commitment to express its opinion clearly to those who freely choose to abandon the Church communion does not exempt us from respecting those who freely decide to leave the Church and embrace another form of "spirituality" or join an NRM.

The criteria set by the Vatican II Council for religious freedom hold true also for cults and NRMs:

as long as freedom of conscience is not violated within them ... However, those spreading these new religious forms are called upon to respect other’s freedom of conscience and to be open to a sincere dialogue".[20] 

According to this document, it is clear that freedom of religion is not to be understood as an "absolute" value, but it must be proportional to and assessed on the basis of other’s "freedom of religion" and must not violate the inalienable rights and the dignity of other human beings.

Furthermore, detailed initiatives to face the problems posed by new religious forms are illustrated, for example, the creation of specialized diocesan groups studying the phenomenon according to their areas of competence and making suggestions on how to face them.  A note indicates two already existing specialized centers “for the study of the phenomenon and for stepping up community awareness such as the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) and the Group or Research and Information on Sects (GRIS)”.[21]

What Should be Done?

In order to adequately confront the phenomenon of membership in various kinds of cults it is necessary to provide a range of interventions that involve diverse organizations and subjects in the educational, religious, and cultural fields. In my opinion, the actions that should be undertaken may be grouped in three categories:

  1. Inform in order to prevent
  2. Research in order to understand
  3. Intervene in order to help.

Inform in Order to Prevent

Our experience teaches us that prevention is the only effective means for limiting the damage associated with cults, particularly to the young.  When one affiliates with a group that uses techniques of psychological manipulation, the negative effect on the personality of the follower may be truly grave.  Here are three types of action that should be followed in order to prevent such harm:

  • Inform people, particularly in the schools. The challenge here is to know how to inform without offending minority faiths that are not dangerous to its members.  The information to be communicated should come from public institutions.  The State must carry the load; this work should issue from the Minister of Public Instruction, not from individual teachers or groups.  Public institutions should institute special commissions in this field in order to find fair and effective means of informing.  It is essential to educate youth without, however, discriminating against anybody.  The information to be communicated should not deal with the validity of group doctrines (which is a matter of opinion in a pluralistic society).
  • Inform through the mass media, forsaking sensationalized methods of "making news."  Sensationalism does not furnish the public with fair and rational information about the dangers of the cult phenomenon; it merely grabs attention with a striking event or crime, but is soon forgotten.  When one watches television programs on collective suicides, for example, the viewer is led to think, "These people are crazy!  Such a thing could never happen to me."  It is very unfortunate that the radio, television, and journalistic information that reaches people of all ages tends to be so extreme.  Coverage should, instead, be oriented, not around the reporting of crimes or other striking events, but toward teaching, as is done in other scientific fields.
  • Inform those who are employed in the legal system (judges, attorneys, law-enforcement professionals), particularly those who may work on cases related to children, legal claims against a group or leader, or criminal investigations of groups or their members or leaders.  It is very unfortunate that the great majority of judges and attorneys in our country have no information about the cult problem, about the psychological mechanisms that can damage people, etc.  Judicial decisions concerning cults are made in total ignorance of this complex phenomenon.
  • Inform teachers and other professionals in the educational field through psychology and sociology courses that deal with religious faith as a unifying aspect of personality.  These courses should teach how to distinguish authentic religious feeling, which contributes to the harmonious development of the personality, from deviant forms of religious experience that may be destructive to the individual, the family, and society.  Such teaching should promote tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others while recognizing that some religious practices and beliefs may be dangerous.
  • Inform though newspapers and specialized periodicals, scientific and popular, in order to make the message comprehensible to everybody, not just specialists.  This is lacking today.  Experts read the journals that deal with this phenomenon, while newspapers approach the problem in a simplistic and sensationalized way.  It is necessary to develop means of communicating a balanced and accurate view in publications aimed at the masses.

Research in Order to Understand

Universities should study this problem.  They should work with helping organizations, which come into contact with people in difficulty, as well as the controversial groups.

Only correctly formulated hypotheses can lead to research that is valid and useful.  Unfortunately, in this field the research hypotheses are too often poorly formulated or too theoretical and abstract to be of practical use.

Another problem is that the subject samples of research in this field tend to be inadequate (e.g., only ex-members, only current members).  Perhaps researchers should try to study current and former members of one group with a battery of instruments (tests, surveys, etc.).  Naturally, in this case it is very important to use well-validated and appropriate instruments.

Much research in this field seems to focus only on superficial aspects of the group's functioning, rather than the mechanisms that influence a person's joining or leaving a group.  This research, which sometimes seems like an apologetic for controversial groups, may be published in books or presented at conferences, but it does nothing to help people or prevent damage to families or society.  The funding sources of such research should be disclosed to the public, whether it is conducted in universities or in independent research centers.

Intervene in Order to Help

In order to help people effectively, it is necessary to create specialized, multidisciplinary centers; isolated initiatives by individuals or therapists working alone simply won't suffice.  I believe that such centers should include the following:

  • Former members of groups and family members of people who have been or are involved in cults.
  • Mental health professionals (psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, counselors) with specialized knowledge about the techniques of psychological control that may be found in cults.  In particular, where little children are concerned, it is necessary to have psychologists familiar with the developmental issues of children, as well as cults.
  • Family therapists with a special expertise in treating families troubled over the group involvement of a family member.
  • Scholars familiar with the various doctrines embraced by cults.  I believe that it is not possible to effectively help people influenced by groups without understanding the doctrines of the group in question.  This is because each cult makes different promises and is founded on different truths.  In order to help members or former members, it is necessary to learn the specific language of his or her group. Ignoring this linguistic issue would be analogous to speaking Chinese to a Mexican when neither person knows the other's language.  Therapy rests on accurate communication and empathy.  Without finding the proper linguistic channel, one cannot communicate or demonstrate empathy, so the intervention will be ineffective.  Naturally, it is the therapist's responsibility to learn the new language, not the client's.
  • Experts on the legal aspects of the cult problem who can work with professionals employed by the courts to resolve concrete cases.

The centers that I propose would help the following kinds of persons:

  • Whoever may have been contacted by a group or suspects that a relative may be affiliating with a group could request information that would increase his or her knowledge of the group and/or help prevent a potentially harmful affiliation.
  • Families worried about a loved one involved in a group.  These people need, first of all, to learn about the group in question.  They also need help in responding respectfully to their loved one's affiliation so as to avoid fragmenting their families.  Experience teaches us that if relatives become adequately informed, they are better able to deal with the new and stressful family situation without succumbing to aggression or violent discussions, which can rupture family bonds.  This is especially important when children or young children are involved.  When a loved one joins a group that is not destructive, informed and supportive relatives are better able to learn to live in peace with their relative's new beliefs. On the other hand, if the youngster gets involved with a destructive group, the family will be less likely to remain passive if the leader's demands tend to isolate the member from his or her family.  Thus, a prepared and supportive family can be an antidote against cults that may be inclined to degenerate toward destructive forms of influence.  If members maintain contact with their loved ones outside the group, they will be less likely to submit passively to the four forms of control elaborated upon by Hassan (behavior, information, thought, and emotional control -- B.I.T.E.).
  • Persons who are having difficulty leaving a group or who have left and need help in recovering the balance and individuality that were damaged by the group experience.

In conclusion, I must unfortunately lament the fact that in Italy such a center does not exist.  A few individuals associated with GRIS will talk to people seeking help and information. A few psychologists and psychiatrists help people affected by the cult phenomenon, but they work in isolation.  Centers specializing in helping ex-members do not exist.  In summary, many who seek help and contact us by phone or fax, unfortunately, receive no help.

Multidisciplinary Research Agenda on Cults:  Goals and Issues

I believe it is advisable to state in advance of what I will say below that those who wish to participate in a common effort to study objectively all the questions involved in the diffusion of new cults must keep this important point in mind, at minimum as a theoretical possibility: some groups may perpetrate various types of abuses on members by taking advantage of their psychological suggestibility in regard to the leader or the group itself.  I do not believe it is possible to initiate a common research agenda unless the so-called “cult sympathizers” overcome their knee-jerk tendency to "veto" this question.  I think they should accept the reality of the facts that clearly demonstrate how abuses of persons may sometimes be not only physical, nor only tied to trickery and deceit, but also psychological, even if of different intensity and nature from case to case.

So-called “cult critics,” on their part, should overcome the tendency to criticize all cults all the time.  They should keep in mind and accept the reality that there are groups that are absolutely innocuous and not deserving of the epithet "cult."  Cult critics should avoid overemphasizing the reach of "mind control," even in those groups where it may be effectively carried out.  It is very difficult for a leader to exercise total control over a person's mind so as to reduce him to a state of total dependence and to annihilate totally his personality.  Mind control may be exercised on different levels, and the same type of mind control will not obtain the same effect on all persons because the dispositions of individuals also play an important role.

If either party doesn't overcome its extreme and prejudicial positions, I do not believe that a real dialogue will be possible, and this will certainly be unfortunate for affected persons and religious liberty.  It will, however, play to the advantage of destructive groups and will leave undeterred those people who will continue to harm victims.

Some Goals for a Common Research Agenda on Cults

I believe that there are several common goals, which do not strictly concern scientific matters, but which to me appear to be based on common values on which the purely scientific goals of research ultimately rest.  I mean to say that if one does not consent to these general goals, it seems to me that it is not possible to acknowledge the objectives that guide scientific research.  The world of cults and of spirituality, in fact, cannot be studied as one studies another phenomenon (e.g., sociological research on customs, or sickness, or the free time of a certain population, etc.).  The phenomenon of cult affiliation and the problems to which it is connected involve other important questions that are philosophical, moral, or legal.

Therefore, it seems to me that all of the scholars and associations involved in this issue must agree first of all on the following general goals:

  1. Defend people, especially the most defenseless (as a result of cultural background, age, social conditions) from the abuses that certain cults inflict on them.
  2. Safeguard authentic religious experience and the forms of spirituality that respect Man and promote humanistic values in society. The sociology and the psychology of religion should furnish society with appropriate cultural tools so that the rights of minority religions will not be violated.
  3. Defend the individual's right to exercise religious choice without being in any way discriminated against because he belongs to a minority religion.  The individual will be protected in society, in the world of work, and even in his family if the latter seeks not to hamper his free choice.  This is particularly applicable to children and young people.

Some Issues for a Common Research Agenda on Cults

I would like to enumerate several issues that I believe may be shared with scholars of diverse orientations.

The Necessity for an Open and Public Debate.  It is important that we don't always organize unidirectional conferences in which members of each party (cult critics and cult sympathizers) close themselves in their own positions and aim to demonstrate only their own theses.  It often happens in such conferences that each party continues to talk without confronting the other.  Thus, each runs along his own street, but the two streets remain parallel and never meet each other.  I know from experience that in these partisan camps, attendance at an opposite kind of conference will be greeted with disfavor, putting aside or even sanctioning the one who goes. I believe that the time has arrived to put an end to mutual accusations and to focus only on the fundamental questions. Moreover, in the specialized journals it is necessary, as already is happening to some degree, to invite articles from the opposite point of view so that readers may make their own judgments.  All of this should also be shared with the general public so that even those unattached to this subject may be able to inform themselves and make their own judgments.  Nobody should have a monopoly on information in this field, which concerns itself with human rights.  In a similar way, political aspects of the problem should be addressed outside the partisan debate and should be based on all available information.

The Need for Research.  All of us should agree that the field of research is vast and that the last word has not been written with regard to the question of the existence of so-called "mind control" and other questions.  Both parties should come together in mixed groups in the various nations (composed of experts with diverse opinions) in order to lay out research plans with hypotheses formulated in scientifically correct ways, open to whatever results may come from the research that proceeds from these plans.

I offer the following reflections on future research:

  • If one wishes to investigate the existence of so-called "mind control," one should plan research on members (current and/or ex-members) from diverse groups (whether known to be dangerous or definitely innocuous), asking the same questions of all subjects.  One could hypothesize, for example, that with regard to a question such as, "List one or more aspects of your group that you would like to make better," the answers would be very diverse if given by somebody who was strongly conditioned (and unable to exercise his critical faculties) or by somebody who, even though affiliated with a group, remains free to formulate a critical judgment on it.  Naturally, the problem with such a test would be to make sure that the diversity of responses is not due to factors other than the influence of the type of group to which the person belongs (e.g., idiosyncratic personality factors).  However, using an appropriate sample and examining a large enough number of persons could overcome this problem.  This type of research should be able to find finally what are, if there are, criteria for distinguishing between dangerous and innocuous cults.  In this regard, I believe that one of these criteria might be whether the potentially controversial group refuses to undergo scientific study. Naturally, we can all understand the initial hesitation of a group when confronted with a request for information and cooperation.  Nobody likes to be investigated, but I believe that if researchers conduct themselves respectfully the initial reluctance of the group will change, otherwise one might begin to think that the group is interested in hiding something. Participant observation will always be a valid means of investigation, but the results will always be considered with suspicion because it is now clear that some groups will only show to scholars those events that put the group in a good light.
  • Another possible area of research is to examine the well being of people after leaving a cult.  In this case one should examine members who have left a particular group, choosing a wide field of subjects, among which should be those who believe themselves to have been damaged and those who have obtained a benefit from affiliation.  All subjects should be given the same personality tests, the items of which should aim to measure how the subject views his past experience currently, whether the past experience influences the current experience, and the way in which this influence happens.

The Necessity to Overcome Difficulties.  I believe that conducting such research involves many difficulties[22], including the following:

  • Scholars do not agree on the hypotheses to test and the methods of investigation.
  • The responses of members who subject themselves to scientific study may be conditioned, at least in some measure, by pressures exerted by the group leader.
  • Some groups will refuse to be studied.
  • It is difficult to obtain public financing that would ensure the objectivity of the research.
  • Personal interests of the researchers may influence the scientific research.

Researchers will encounter these and many other difficulties.  I believe, however, that all researchers of good faith will be able to overcome the difficulties.  In the current phase, in which it seems that dialogue is taking the place of monologue, I consider it very important that all be aware of the true significance of the word "dialogue."  The term does not mean only letting those with diverse views speak.  This is not enough.  It is necessary, instead, to discuss what others say according to its merits and to enter into the depths of the question, modifying one's own position when one sees clearly that there is an objective basis for doing so.  Critics and sympathizers of cults must be willing to modify, even if only in part, their own opinions.

Dr. Raffaella Di Marzio is a member of GRIS Rome. She set up a support and counseling centre in Rome for all those troubled, directly or indirectly, by experiences associated with belonging to a cult. She has published articles on several fringe Catholic movements, and is a contributor to CESNUR’s Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy. Dr. Di Marzio has two degrees, one in Psychology (University "La Sapienza" of Rome, 1981) and one in Educational Science (Pontifical Salesian University, 1981). She also has the Superior Diploma in Religious Science from the Institute for Religious Studies Ecclesia Mater, linked to the faculty of theology of Pontifical Lateran University.  She has been a teacher in a Senior High School in Rome since 1981.

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 18, 2001, page


[1]Contact Raffaella Di Marzio for further information and help at the URL: www.grisroma.it and www.dimarzio.it/srs.  Email: rdm@dimarzio.it.

[2] CESNUR, Enciclopedia delle Religioni in Italia, Editrice Elle Di Ci, Leumann (Torino), 2001

[3] CESNUR is an international network of associations specialized in NRMs, and it is completely independent from any religious group, movement, body, or association.

[4] Rapporto della Direzione Centrale Polizia di Prevenzione - Dipartimento Della Pubblica Sicurezza - Ministero dell’Interno: "Alcune Considerazioni a proposito di 'Sette religiose e Nuovi Movimenti Magici’, 1998.

[5]Ibid, p.10 -15

[6]Ibid, p.10 -15  

[7] This document is at URL http://www.grisroma.it/inglese/Questions_Tdg.htm

[8] Decision of April 9th, 1981, n. 96, published in the Gazzetta Ufficiale n. 158 of June 8th, 1981

[9] Mario Di Fiorino, editor, La persuasione socialmente accettata, il plagio e il lavaggio del cervello, vol.1, Psichiatria e Territorio, Forte dei Marmi, 1990, p.31-32

[10] Ibid. p.17

[11]Ibid. p. 24

[12] Ibid. p. 40

[13] Cfr. Secretariat for the Union of Christians- Secretariat for non –Christians - Secretariat for non – Believers - Pontifical Council for Culture, Interim Report The Phenomenon of Cults or New Religious Movements, May 7, 1986, n. 2.2.

[14] Cfr. Dr. Benjamin Zablocki,  The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 1(1), 96-121.   

[15] Cfr. Secretariat for the Union of Christians- Secretariat for non –Christians - Secretariat for non – Believers - Pontifical Council for Culture, Interim Report The Phenomenon of Cults or New Religious Movements, May 7, 1986, n. 2.2.

[16]Secretariat for Ecumenism and Dialogue of the CEI, Pastoral memorandum The Church’s pastoral commitment in facing new religious movements and cults, May 30, 1993, n. 12.

[17]Ibid.

[18]Ibid. n. 13.

[19] Secretariat for the Union of Christians- Secretariat for non –Christians - Secretariat for non – Believers - Pontifical Council for Culture, Ibid. n. 1.1.

[20] Cf. Vatican II Ecumenical Council, Declaration on religious freedom Dignitatis Humanae, n. 2-8.

[21] In Italy there is also another Association named A.R.I.S.- Veneto (Association for Research and Information about Sects [Cults]). It is a no-profit and non-religious association.

[22] Michael Langone, The Two "Camps" of Cultic Studies: Time for a Dialogue, Cults & Society, Vol.1, N. 1, 2001.