Cults in Court

Cultic Studies Journal, 1991, Volume 8, Number 1, pages 61-79

Cults in Court

Sara Van Hoey

San Francisco, California


Harms associated with cultic groups have been addressed through various forms of self-help, conservatorship, habeas corpus proceedings, consumer protection legislation, and litigation. First Amendment concerns loom large in such remedies. This paper reviews three important instances of litigation: Molko v. Holy Spirit Association, Geroge v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology. These and other cases indicate that self-proclaimed religious organizations are heading towards a time of greater accountability. Juries tend to be sympathetic toward plaintiffs, though courts seem unwilling to enforce judgments so large they threaten a group's existence.

Cults in America are widely misunderstood by the general public. Many have become mainstream and have gained a measure of wealth, respectability and security, if not downright social legitimacy. [1] Cults occasionally surface in the news: recently, Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant sparked a bitter controversy when its members dug multiple ground shelters under acres of Montana landscape to prepare for "the end of the world." The Los Angeles Times published a six-part expose of L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology in June, 1990 in the wake of recent cases against that organization.

In the past, news coverage of the cult phenomenon often was limited to discoveries of grossly aberrant, sensational or criminal activities, such as the People's Temple massacre in Guyana. Much was written in the late seventies and early eighties about the dangers posed to society by groups that abuse mind control techniques under the guise of religion, but public attention in the late eighties shifted to other issues, particularly drug abuse and AIDS.

The cult problem, however, is ongoing and ever-growing, and remains a threat to America's young people. One anti-cult organization estimates that there are more than 2,500 cults and other "destructive totalist" organizations now active in the United States, and these groups control approximately six million members. [2]

Combating the cults presents its own problems. Those seeking to hold cults accountable for their actions against individual members inevitably clash with the cults' assertion of their fundamental right to religious liberty. The courts have tackled these competing interests in several recent cases with results that may give hope to critics of cult groups. But the battles are far from over.

Cults [3] are coordinated programs that systematically apply undue influence and behavior control techniques to produce in members substantial modification of fundamental modes of thought, world view and conduct. Margaret Singer, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco and an expert on the impact of cultic influences on individual personality, defined cults as:

Groups with religious, political, psychologic, and other ideologies at their core, which almost universally offer as their central theme a special, new psychologic awareness handed down by an indisputable and arbitrary authority that uses the technique of thought reform. [4]

Ford Greene, a California attorney who has taken on the Moonies and defended deprogrammers, [5] offers a definition tailored from his experience:

A cult is an organization of people, often masquerading in the guise of religion, members of which are unconditionally and indiscriminately obedient to the commands of a single leader who claims to have an exclusive connection with God or some other supra-human source o moral authority. [6]

The courts rely on Webster's Dictionary and the standard definition of "brainwashing" as "the forcible indoctrination to induce someone to give up basic political, social or religious beliefs and attitudes and to

accept contrasting regimented ideas." [7] Greene's definition is more specific:

Brainwashing is the application of specific and identifiable techniques that are intended to, and do, undermine an individual's ability to reason and impair his capacity to exercise an informed consent and replaces those functions with indiscriminate and unconditional obedience to the commands of a single leader. [8]

The term first appeared in reports of the effects of communist indoctrination. Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton describes eight basic characteristics of brainwashing in his study of Chinese totalitarian control: "Milieu Control, Mystical Manipulation, Demand for Purity, Cult of Confession, Sacred Science, Loading of Language, Doctrine Over Person, and Dispensing of Existence. [9] These elements are accepted by cult experts as being applicable to modern cults, and the Lifton model of brainwashing is currently used by attorneys pursuing cults in formulating statements of fact and educating the court. [10]

Techniques and Casualties

The technology of coercive influence programs recently has developed far beyond what was employed in the Soviet Union and China, in that the previous applications were for the purpose of extracting confessions or effecting political reorientation. [11] Experts claim the programs developed within the last 15 years differ significantly in the scope and sophistication of the influence tactics they employ. [12] These differences are of particular concern to individuals seeking remedies in tort for damages done to them by cults.

The newer programs attack a person's self-image, sense of reality and of existence, making the individual feel personally defective. "Alter the self or perish" is the motto. [13] Once fundamental coping mechanisms are tampered with or stripped away, psychosis can result.

Most people who have come away from a cult experience, family and friends of cult victims, and experts in behavioral science familiar with cultism agree that mind control techniques sustained even for short periods of time can cause damage to a person's social, physiological, and psychological well-being. If not nterrupted, drastic (and sometimes pathological) changes in personality occur and are potentially irreversible. Even if the encounter with such programs of manipulation is brief and exit from them successful, the experience can ruin lives. Apart from these dangers, experts suggest a real threat to society exists in the form of harm to the family relationship, espousal of illegal and harmful practices, and a potential for violence. [14]

Given the nature of the perceived harm posed by cult groups on the mind and body of individuals, and assuming that society has compelling interests favoring prevention or intervention, what courses of action are available? Possible remedies include conservatorship [15] and habeas corpus proceedings, [16] consumer protection legislation, [17] various forms of self-help, including deprogramming, [18] and litigation.

In resisting any restriction on their activities, cults and their attorneys claim that hysterical parents, intolerant of their children's choice of a religion, simply are trying to force their children to remain under their control. Writers defending cults attack the anti-cult movement as creating a "new bigotry" and a "cult scare" more offensive than the cults themselves. [19]

More importantly, cult sympathizers and their defense attorneys argue cult indoctrination practices are simple conversion, [20] and the brainwashing theory is a kind of witch hunt designed to eradicate

"out-of-the-mainstream faith groups." Indeed, the recent cases against cults are most alarming to cult sympathizers as a threat to religious pluralism and freedom, because damage awards in the millions threaten the wealth and perhaps even the very existence of the organizations. [21] The critics' strongest argument, one that requires careful consideration, is that the First Amendment guarantees these groups immunity from accountability. [22]

First Amendment Concerns

Legal scholar Richard Delgado's analysis of the potential impact of various forms of intervention (including legislation and court action) in cult-related matters on the free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment [23] has been cited by other cult experts and courts in their decisions. Delgado notes that while the "free exercise" clause of the First Amendment guarantees that Congress shall make no law prohibiting individuals from freely pursuing any religion they choose, not everything under the religion umbrella is protected, however. The law distinguishes between religious belief, which is absolutely protected, [24] and religiously motivated conduct, which is not. [25] In this country, an individual is free to choose his religion, [26] and society, particularly the government and the courts, must treat that belief as an inviolable matter of conscience. Hence, the courts refuse to address the truth or falsity of doctrines.

Religiously motivated conduct is subject to a balancing test in which the state's interest in regulating or forbidding activity is weighted against the severity of the burden it imposes on religion. The government must offer sufficient proof of an overriding interest. The religious group is subject to attack if the belief behind its conduct is found to be insincerely held or if the conduct is not central to the group's belief system. [27] Groups whose activities smack of economic priorities (including fund-raising and roselytizing) are particularly vulnerable to charges of insincerity.

The over-protection of individuals or groups who practice mind-control techniques in connection with religious practices may actually frustrate the fundamental values expressed in the First Amendment. Bending over backwards to protect religious liberty may develop into a simple license to perpetuate illusion, deception, and exploitation of the unsuspecting.

Delgado finds support from Thomas Jefferson for the theory that the religious liberty clause was originally intended to protect the freedom of the mind as well as other freedoms: "Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain." [28] Thus the Jeffersonian view of religious toleration did not contemplate protection of groups who use destructive persuasion to diminish the psychic autonomy of their members.

The Molko Case

Three of the most significant cases regarding ex-cult members and their families pursuing remedies in tort for damages have been decided in California in the last two years. These cases show that the legal arguments for restricting cult activities are having an impact on the courts.

In Molko v. Holy Spirit Assn., [29] plaintiffs Molko and Leal, within five months of each other, were induced to join the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (the Moonies) in

the usual fashion. While waiting at a bus station, each was approached by strangers who identified themselves simply as "socially conscious" people with no particular religious connections. [30] The strangers invited each of them to dinner at an "international community" gathering place or a "creative community project" [31] Both plaintiffs accepted the invitation, unaware that the strangers were Moonies, and subsequently agreed to spend the evening at a "farm" called Booneville, unaware that this was an indoctrination facility for the Unification Church.

In the following days, both plaintiffs were subjected to a tightly planned exercise/lecture/discussion regimen, and they were accompanied at all times by church members during breaks for meals and bathroom visits. Both occasionally asked if the group was "religious" (Leal even directly asked if they were Moonies) but the answer was no -- that is, until the second or third week of the indoctrination, by which time each member expressed anger and confusion at discovering the true nature of the group but agreed not to leave immediately.

After only one month, Molko was alienated from his parents, believing them to be "agents of Satan." Within three to four months of their involvement with the group, each plaintiff was subsequently abducted from a public place by their parents and professionally "deprogrammed." [32]

Molko and Leal sued for fraud arising from deceptive recruitment practices, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false imprisonment. Molko added his own claim for restitution of the $6,000

that he had donated to the church. The church cross-complained against the plaintiffs' deprogrammers for indemnification, on the theory that it was the abduction and deprogramming of the plaintiffs that caused their mental harm.

The trial court granted the church's motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs' claims but dismissed the church's civil rights claims against the deprogrammers. The court of appeal affirmed the summary judgment on all of the plaintiffs' claims. In ruling on the fraud issue, the court held that the declarations of expert witnesses, including Singer, were in conflict with the plaintiffs' own statements and, as the sole basis of the plaintiffs' theories, flunked constitutional scrutiny. The appellate court also reversed the dismissal of the church's cross-complaint.

The California Supreme Court upheld the appellate court decision to allow the church summary judgment with regard to the false imprisonment claim. However, the supreme court reversed the appellate court's decision to allow summary judgment for the church on the remaining claims - fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and restitution [33] -- ruling six to one that Molko and Leal had a right to a jury trial.

The California decision was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. [34] For the first time a major court, without having to face the "brainwashing" issue as a cause of action, has accepted the premise that religious indoctrination can cause potential converts to lose the free exercise of their will and, in consequence, can sue for damages. [35] This represents a major coup for future plaintiffs in similar actions, particularly in light of the court's analysis of the First Amendment issues and its reliance on the work of Lifton, Delgado, Schein and Singer in making important distinctions within that analysis.

Fraud and Deceit

The state supreme court found that the existence of differing views as to the effectiveness of brainwashing raised a factual question that should have gone to the jury. Both plaintiffs declared they had been unwittingly subjected to mind control techniques after they had been fraudulently subjected to Moonie indoctrination and before the Moonies disclosed their true identity. The church conceded misrepresentations were made with intent to induce Molko and Leal's participation (Molko and Leal described "Heavenly Deception" as a Moonie belief that it is acceptable to lie to a potential convert in this way; the church denied any such policy.) Molko and Leal contended that, in light of the alleged brainwashing, there was a triable issue of fact as to whether reliance on those misrepresentations was justified.

The plaintiffs further contended they did not question the truth or falsity of the church's beliefs, nor their sincerity; rather, they challenged the fraudulent conduct in implementing those beliefs. The court agreed the validity of belief was not in question but rather the practice of "deceiving nonmembers into subjecting themselves, without their knowledge or consent, to coercive persuasion." [36]

The court determined the burden of such liability on the church's religious conduct was not substantial. The appellate court disagreed, relying on Katz v. Superior Court, [37] which also involved allegations of brainwashing against the Unification Church. [38] The supreme court distinguished Katz and held that the present burden on the church members' free exercise of religion did not compare to the circumstances in Katz: "At most, it potentially closes one questionable avenue for bringing new members into the [c]hurch. [39]

The court then justified even this "marginal burden" on the church's free exercise of religion "by the compelling state interest in protecting individuals and families from the substantial threat to public safety, peace and order posed by the fraudulent induction of unconsenting individuals into an atmosphere of coercive persuasion." [40] The court asserted the consequences of such coercion on some individuals is the development of "serious and sometimes irreversible physical and psychiatric disorders, up to and including schizophrenia, self-mutilation and suicide." [41] The court found no less drastic alternative available (such as criminalizing brainwashing, obtaining signed informed consent of potential converts, or authorization involuntary deprogramming).

Finally, the court concluded its thorough First Amendment analysis by finding that traditional sanctioning of tort liability for fraudulent recruitment, as in this case, satisfies the requirement that the state's secular goals are advanced without discrimination between religions.

Having found the fraud theory constitutionally permissible, the court then examined whether under that theory the church's conduct also gave rise to an action for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiffs' claims rested on more than just threats of divine retribution or other protected religious speech. The court examined whether the church's conduct in fraudulently inducing the plaintiffs into an atmosphere of coercive persuasion was "extreme and outrageous" enough to support a cause of action.

The court found the church's "continued deceptions might well be seen as conduct breaching plaintiffs' trust in the integrity of those who were promising to make their lives more meaningful," which might constitute an abuse of the church's position of power to damage the plaintiffs. The court held that the issue of the extremity or outrageousness of the church's conduct must be left to the jury.

Leal sought to make the church liable for falsely imprisoning her by threatening divine retribution against herself and her family. The court found that false imprisonment may be effected by fraud or deceit but threats of divine retribution constituted protected religious speech and, absent actual physical restraint, there was no cause of action. Molko's restitution claim fared better. The court found there was a triable issue of fact "as to whether Molko lost his ability to make independent decisions as a result of being deceived into submitting to coercive persuasion." [41]

The Robin George Case

On May 14, 1990, the United States Supreme Court refused review of George v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, [43] a case that has been called "the most important single religious liberty case ever to reach it." [44] The California Supreme Court had refused to consider the case on November 30, 1989 and ordered the appellate decision to be depublished. While the case has lost its value as precedent, the judgment of what is now $5 million (including interest) against the Krishna organization still stands. To the chagrin of cult defenders and the Krishnas, this may mean the forced sale of some of its real property, including temples, monasteries, schools, and its world headquarters in Los Angeles.

At the age of 14, Robin George visited a Krishna temple in Laguna Beach with a friend and, after repeated visits, became a full member. The head of the temple convinced the girls their parents were demons, told them it was permissible to deceive non-believers such as their parents who were blind to the "truth," and persuaded them to run away from home to a Krishna hiding Place.

For over a year, Robin's parents tried to get the Krishnas to reveal Robin's whereabouts, but instead they moved her from temple to temple around the country and eventually to Canada while telling her parents they had no idea where she was. While Robin was in the cult, her father was diagnosed with a heart condition, a fact Robin's mother made clear to the Krishna leaders.

Upon learning from a friend of Robin's that she was being hidden in Canada, the Georges called the police, who threatened the Krishnas with criminal prosecution if they did not produce the girl. After the

Krishnas' attorney instructed Robin to lie to the police about the circumstances of her indoctrination, she fled and eventually returned home.

Less than four months later, Robin's father suffered a heart attack, followed by several strokes, and he died the following September. An expert at trial testified that two years of anxiety over his daughter

aggravated his heart condition and caused him an early death.

Robin and Marcia George became anti-cult activists. On the eve of a Citizens Freedom Foundation press conference at which the Georges were to speak, the Krishnas put out an "official statement" concerning Robin claiming she had run away from her parents because of "cruelty, beatings, harsh treatment." [45]

In October 1977, Robin and Marcia George sued the Krishnas for false imprisonment of Robin, intentional infliction of emotional distress to both, libel to both, and Robin sued for the wrongful death of her father.

The jury returned a verdict in favor of the Georges on all causes of action and awarded them in excess of $32.5 million. The Georges accepted a remittitur reducing both punitive and compensatory damages to a total of $7.9 million.

The tort of false imprisonment derives from the crime of "unlawful violation of the personal liberty of another" [46] and this involves, with one exception, direct physical restraint or the threat of physical restraint. The exception is when false imprisonment is accomplished by fraud or deceit. [47]

The court of appeal found that Robin had not sufficiently established she had been falsely imprisoned in that 1) there was no proof offered of force or threat of force; 2) she was over 14 when enticed to leave home, an age the court found to be "capable of consenting to conduct that would otherwise be tortious" and 3) she resented no evidence of fraud as to herself.

Robin sought to distinguish the Molko court's finding on false imprisonment as based solely on protected religious speech, whereas her brainwashing theory involved more than simple threats of divine retribution. The court determined she had not proved her case, and went on to describe Molko as

a reaffirmation that physical force or the threat of it is a necessary element of a false imprisonment cause of action even in the context of a brainwashing claim. The plaintiff's divine retribution argument was a last-ditch attempt to satisfy the threat requirement (emphasis added). [48]

Molko's attorney, Ford Greene, sees this view as in line with the Molko decision, which established that the brainwashing theory itself does not require a showing of force or threat of force as a necessary element of a thought reform regime. [49] However, the claim of false imprisonment must be supported by such evidence.

In Molko, the allegations of fraudulent inducement to join the Moonies had been an essential element of the emotional distress claim. Here, there was no misrepresentation or concealment of the cult's identity from Robin, so there was no fraudulent inducement to join the cult or expose herself to coercive persuasion. The court found Robin had not been subjected to anymore outrageous behavior than a member of any cloistered religious group.

The evidence was sufficient, however, to support liability for this claim as to the mother, "since the Krishnas recklessly disregarded the probability that their conduct would cause the daughter's parents emotional suffering." [50] The essence of actionable conduct here was a conspiracy to assist Robin in hiding from her parents. Robin's mother's claim was based on that assistance and not, as the defendants maintained, on the activities that led to Robin's conversion, which the court held to be constitutionally protected religious activities. [51]

The Wollersheim Case

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in the case of Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology, [52] a decision that upheld a damage award for the ex-Scientology member seeking relief but which contained language that may provide difficulties in future lawsuits by ex-cult members.

Larry Wollersheim was a manic-depressive for most of his life, an important fact of which the Church of Scientology was aware. From 1972 through 1979 he became heavily involved in Scientology and underwent rigorous encounter sessions known as "auditing" [53] aboard a ship owned by the group. When he tried to escape, he was forcibly restrained and made to continue the sessions in spite of his feeling that he "was dying and losing (his) mind." One psychiatric expert witness in the trial noted that his was one of several events underlying and causing Wollersheims's mental illness. Scientology also pressured him to "disconnect" from his family.

Convinced that auditing was causing him psychiatric problems, Wollersheim decided to risk becoming a target of Scientology's "freeloader debt" and "fair game" campaigns, which are aimed at discouraging defectors, [54] Risk became reality when Wollersheim left the group: Scientologists initiated a campaign to ruin his photography business. Wollersheim went bankrupt and ended up in psychiatric care.

In his complaint, Wollersheim alleged fraud, and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional injury. [55] The trial court summarily decided Scientology is a religion and auditing is a religious practice. [56] After hearing the evidence, the trial judge dismissed the fraud count but allowed both emotional injury counts to go to the jury, which awarded the plaintiff $30 million in damages.

The appellate court upheld the finding of intentional infliction of emotional injury but reversed the finding of negligent infliction of emotional distress. Further, it found the trial court correctly ruled that Wollersheim's claims were subject to the discovery exception to the statute of limitations. [57] The court then reduced the damage award to $2.5 million, finding $30 million excessive considering the evidence at trail that the Church of Scientology's net worth is $16 million. Wollersheim claimed that the group's true net worth is closer to $250 million but he failed to prove it at trial.

The court found the Church of Scientology's conduct met every requirement of an intentional infliction of emotional distress tort. As to the church's defense that such conduct was protected by the First Amendment, the court had no trouble finding it was not. The court accepted the trial court's adjudication that Scientology is a religion for purposes of this case [58] but concluded that even if Wollersheim had freely participated in the activity, it would still not be protected religious conduct.

It was the element of coercion that lowered the value of auditing as a religious practice. Unlike the Molko case, the retribution complained of was not divine but in the here and now, and the state had a compelling interest in discouraging the deliberate economic ruin of one of its citizens.

Though the First Amendment analysis is sound, the language in the opinion is frequently disturbing. The court ventures to say that lawsuits that have a chilling effect on practices such as auditing ought not to be tolerated because, absent coercion, "the only harm which occurs is emotional injury to the psychologically weak." [59] The findings of Lifton, Schein, Singer, Delgado and other scholars in cult-related behavioral studies, and the testimonies of ex-cult members, would belie such an assumption. [60]

Greater Accountability

In light of the recent cases involving cults and the First Amendment, it appears self-proclaimed religious organizations are heading towards a time of greater accountability. Courts facing cases involving religious issues classically err on the side of religion for fear of impinging on First Amendment guarantees. The trend now appears to be toward greater restrictions of religious activities given strict adherence to constitutional analysis. The road for that analysis was paved in Molko. According to Green,"We have a trend toward compelling self-ascribed religious organizations to act responsibly and conform their conduct to the rules of society. The days of special privileges for unethical, if not illegal, abuse of religious liberty are coming to a close." [61]

It is clear from the huge damage awards in these most recent cases that juries are sympathetic to plaintiffs who claim to have suffered from cult involvement. It is equally clear the courts are unwilling to enforce judgments so large they threaten the very existence of the groups in question. Plaintiffs must adequately prove the true net worth of the defendant groups if they expect judgments to have a truly punishing effect, but this is most difficult to accomplish. Even so, if groups such as the Krishnas suffer multiple judgments like the one in the George case, they will not survive.


1. The Moonies - members of the Holy spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (Unification Church) headed by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon - and the Khrishnas - members of the International Society of Khrishna Consciousness - presently claim membership in the millions. Experts estimate actual Moonie membership is much lower with perhaps 8,000 members in the U.S. Moon's real estate holdings in the U.S. were worth $200 million in 1984. As to his political clout, see H. R. REP. OF THE SUBCOMM. ON INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS (Fraser Report), Oct. 31, 1978. Moon spent $42 million alone on his unsuccessful film, Inchon. He owns the second largest newspaper in the nation's capital, the Washington Times. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology claims a membership of almost 4 million in the U.S. and 6 million worldwide. In 1984 Hubbard's son estimated scientology's assets at $400 million. See Grafstein, Messianic Capitalism, THE NEW REPUBLIC, Feb 20, 1984, at 15.

2. These figures represent the Cult Awareness Network's best estimate, based upon figures from ex-members, mental health professionals who encounter confused victims of such groups, and the organizations themselves.

3. These include thought reform or intense indoctrination programs found in New Age or New Movement groups, aberrant religious sects, mass therapies and any other group or relationship possessing the several elements of cultism described here.

4. Singer, Group Psychodynamics, THE MERCK MANUAL OF DIAGNOSIS AND THERAPY (1987), ch. 136 at 1468.

5. See discussion of Molko v. Holy Spirit Assn., 46 Cal. 3d 1092 (1988), cert. denied, _U.S. _, 109 S. Ct. 2110, 104 L.Ed.2d 670 (1989), infra. See also People v. Brandyberry & Whelan, District Court, City and County of Denver, Colorado, Case No. 87-CR-2056.

6. Telephone interview with Ford Greene, July 20, 1990.

7. Molko v. Holy Spirit Assn., 46 Cal. 3d at 1094 headnote 5.

8. Telephone interview with Ford Greene, July 20, 1990.

9. Lifton, R.J., Thought Reform And The Psychology Of Totalism (1963), at ch. 22.

10. Telephone interview with Ford Greene, July 30, 1990.

11. Ofshe and Singer, Attacks on Peripheral versus Central Elements of Self and the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques, The Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 3, No.1 (1986), at 4.

12. Id.

13. Id. at 18.

14. For a discussion of findings regarding psychological and societal impact of cult activity, see generally West & Singer, Cults, Quacks, and Nonprofessional Psychotherapies, Comprehensive Textbook Of Psychiatry/111 (1970),& 56.16,at 3247; Singer & Ofshe, Thought Reform Programs and the Production of Psychiatric Casualties, Psychiatric Annals 20;4 (Apr. 1990); Delgado, Religious Totalism: Gentle and Ungentle Persuasion Under the First Amendment, 51 SO. CAL. LAW REV.1 (1977) F. Conway & J. Siegelman, Snapping: America's Epidemic Of Sudden Personality Change (1978); Glass, Kirsch & Parris, Psychiatric Disturbances Associated with Erhard Seminars Training, 1: A Report of Cases, 134 Am J. Psychiatry 11 (Nov. 1977); V. Bugliosi & C. Gentry, Helter Skelter (1974); V. Bugliosi & C. Gentry, The Trial Of Patty Hearst (1976).

15. See Katz v. Superior Court , 73 Cal. App. 3rd 952 (1977) (appeals court concluded California statute regarding conservatorships was constitutionally vague and its use in acquiring control over a person mentally disabled by brainwashing would deprive conservatee's rights to freedom of religion and association). The statute was amended during the appeal so that conservatorships are now harder to obtain; they are likewise difficult to obtain over adults in most other states.

16. These writs, used to free persons illegally detained or held by involuntary restraint, are broadly interpreted with respect to children and narrowly so with respect to adults.

17. Delgado proposes several, including a requirement that cult recruiters identify themselves at an early stage and outline to the candidate what life in the cult will involve, or a mandatory "cooling off period." wherein new recruits must take a break from the cult environs to consider the situation and seek advice. Delgado, supra n. 14, at 73.

18. See generally F. Conway & Siegelman, Snapping, Supra N. 14; S.Hassan, Combatting Cult Mind Control (1988); T. Patrick, Let Our Children Go!(1976).

19. See, e.g., D. Bromley & A. D. Shupe, Jr., Strange Gods (1981); J. Gordon Melton & L. Moore, The Cult Experience (1982).

20. See Streiker, Brainwashed or Converted?, The Christian Century, Aug. 2-9, 1989, at 721-23.

21. Even mainstream religious organizations rally to the defense of cult groups as the defense of First Amendment protections becomes a common cause (see n. 25, infra). See also Denniston, Krishna Crises Reaches Court, San Jose Mercury News, May 12, 1990, at 10C for discussion of cult sympathizer concerns.

22. Streiker, supra n. 20, at 723.

23. Delgado, supra n. 14.

24. Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215, 92 S. Ct 1526 (1972); Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303-04, 60 S. Ct. 900 (1940).

25. Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 402-03 (1963); People v. Woody, 61 Cal. 2d 716, 718 (1964)

26. See Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. (1890); and Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970). See also T. Keiser & J. Keiser, The Anatomy of Illusion (1987) at 91-2.

27. See Wisconsin V. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215, 92 S. Ct. 1526 (1972); Founding Church of Scientology v. U.S.,409 F.2d1146, cert denied, 396 U.S. 963 (1969); People v. Woody, 61 Cal. 2d 716,718 (1964); Leary v. U.S., 383 F. 2d 851 (1967); U.S. v.Kuch, 288 F. Supp. 439 (1968); Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944); Reynolds v. U.S. 98 V.S. 145 (1878).

28. Italics in original, italicized words deleted from original 1779 draft prior to adoption by Virginia General Assembly in 1786. Delgado at 48, citing T. Jefferson, A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 2 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson 545, 547 and 552 (1950).

29. 46 Cal.3d 1092 (1988), cert denied,_U.S._, 109 S.Ct. 2110, 104 L.Ed. 2d 670 (1989).

30. Id. at 1102 and 1105.

31. Id.

32. The term "deprogram" is used even though professionals who aid adult cult members in terminating their involvement with their groups prefer to be called "exit counselors." In the last 10 years, a distinction has developed between deprogrammers and exit counselors: deprogrammers traditionally work with families of minor children involved in cults to remove them -- often forcibly, and frequently with the knowledge and help of local courts or law enforcement officers -- from their cult settings to a secret and secure location where the counseling can be conducted without interruption. "Exit Counselors," for the most part, insist on the "voluntary" cooperation of the non-minor cult member, at least at the moment of introduction to the counselor. The counseling itself is conducted in much the same fashion, where information is offered to the subject to help him begin to make an informed decision and recover his ability to think critically and independently. "Involuntary" exit counseling is becoming a thing of the past, as counselors face expensive defenses to state charges of kidnapping and tort claims of violations of civil right brought by cult groups. Even though they frequently win these cases, the costs of suit prohibit the frequent risk of such encounters. David Molko later became a deprogrammer himself; all of the reputable, professional counselors were once cult members, and their experience lends them credibility with their clients.

33. As to the church's cross-complaint, its claim for violations of federal civil rights was allowed, and its claim for indemnity was dismissed. The court held that there were two possible sources of harm - the mind control suffered while in the group and the effects of the deprogrammings; thus, indemnification was not proper. Molko, 46 Cal. 3d at 1092.

34. May 22, 1989.

35. Brainwashing theories have been advanced in lower court cases with varying success. Compare Merone v. Holy Spirit Assn., 125 Misc. 2d 1061, 480 N.Y.S. 2D 706 (1984); Lewis v. Holy Spirit Assn., 589 f. Supp. 10 (1983); Peterson v. Sorlien, 299 N.W. 2d 123 (1980); Turner v. Unification Church, 602 F.2d 458 (1979); Katz v. Superior Court, 73 Cal. App.3d 952 (1977).

36. Molko, 46 Cal. 3d at 1117. It is important to note that the supreme court in Molko did not deal directly with a cause of action for brainwashing, as no such claim avoids summary judgment; rather the claim was for fraudulent inducement into allowing oneself to be brainwashed. The court left it up to the trier of fact to determine whether the brainwashing had damaged the plaintiffs.

37. 73 Cal. App. 3d 952 (1977).

38. See nn. 15 and 35, supra.

39. Molko, 46 Cal. 3d at 1117.

40. Id. at 1118.

41. Id.

42. Id. at 1125. As to the church's cross-claim against the deprogrammers, the supreme court found there was a triable issue of fact as to whether the deprogrammer was part of an ongoing conspiracy to prevent church members from freely exercising their religious beliefs through interstate travel, and thus subject to an injunction to prevent future forcible deprogramming activities. Id. at 1127-8.

43. 213 Cal. App. 3d 729 (1989), cert. denied _ U.S. _, 110 S. Ct. 2168, 109 L. Ed. 3d 498 (1990).

44. See Denniston, Supra n. 21.

45. George, 213 Cal. App. 3d at 757.

46. Pen. Code & 236.

47. Pen. Code & 237.

48. George, 213 Cal. App. 3d at 766.

49. Cult apologists argue the entire brainwashing theory must be predicated by force or threat of force. Telephone interview with Ford Greene, August 1, 1990.

50. George, 213 Cal. App. 3d at 729

51. Robin's libel claim was not supported by the appellate court, because the statements in the "official position" circulated by the Krishnas that were not true were merely opinion. The court did find evidence to support the jury's finding that the document was defamatory as to the mother, since the document alleged physical abuse of her daughter as a reason for her leaving home, a statement of fact determined to be false. Robin's wrongful death claim also succeeded, as Marcia had warned the Krishna leadership of her husband's heart condition but the Krishnas had disregarded the foreseeable harm and persisted in hiding Robin from the family.

52. Wollersheim v. Church of Scientology, 212 Cal. App. 3d 872, 879 (1989), cert. denied, 110 S.Ct. 1937, 109 L.Ed. 2d 300 (1990).

53. These sessions are designed to train an individual to have no emotional response whatever to verbal stimuli. For a detailed description of this process and its effects, see F. Conway & J. Siegelman, Snappping, supran. 14, at 161-68.

54. See Allard v. Church of Scientology, 58 Cal. App. 3d 439, 443 (1976), n.1.

55. Interestingly, there was no cause of action for false imprisonment, though the court found ample evidence of coercion, and no cause of action for invasion of privacy, though the court found evidence that the confidences Wollersheim made in a confessional setting were improperly disclosed.

56. Compare F. Conway & J. Siegelman, Snapping supra n. 14, at 166: "The Scientology method...has no religious or spiritual pretensions."

57. 3 Witkin,Cal. Procedure, Actions, & 356, at 383(3d ed. 1985). The question of when he discovered, or should have discovered, all of the elements of his causes of actions against the church was a jury question, and the court of appeals was satisfied with their finding that Wollersheims's discovery fell within the statutory period.

58. The court suggested this is still a question of lively debate. See Founding Church of Scientology v. United States, 409 F.2d 1146, 1160-61 (1969); Founding Church of Scientology v. Webster, 802 F.2d 1448, 1451 (1986).

59. Wollersheim, 212 Cal. App. 3d at 89l3.

60. Also, the court found no distinction between Scientology's policy of "disconnect" and the "shunning" practiced by Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites. Where shunning isolates one member of a group from the rest of the members, the disconnect policy isolates the individual from his family outside the group. Since in Wollersheim's case the practice of disconnect was coerced, the court escaped having to conclude whether to follow the law in Paul v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Soc. of New York, 819 F.2d 875 (1987) (religion cannot be held civilly liable to shunned former member because shunning is constitutionally protected conduct) or Bear v. Reformed Mennonite Church, 341 A.2d 105 (1975) (religion may be civilly liable to shunned former member because shunning must yield to compelling state interest in protecting family relations).

61. Telephone interview with Ford Greene, July 30, 1990.



This article first appeared in the February 1991 issue of The Los Angeles Lawyer. It is reprinted with permission. Frank H. Free, a legal assistant in San Francisco, contributed research to this article. The

abstract was written by the CSJ's Editor.


Sarah Van Hoey is a freelance writer and legal assistant in the San Francisco Bay area.