Sexual Abuse and the Charismatic Crisis

International Journal of Cultic Studies Vol. 1, 2010, 13-26.

Sexual Abuse and the Charismatic Crisis: Dissension and Downfall in the Canadian Kabalarians

Renée Brodie, Ph.D.

Centre for Global & Social Analysis

Athabasca University


Within charismatically led movements, internal dissension and disillusionment are the greatest threats to a leader's ability to maintain authority and control. Although rarely a documented phenomena in the field of New Religious Movements, the Kabalarian Philosophy (under Ivon Shearing's charismatic leadership) proves to be a case in which several members’ collective disaffection eroded Shearing's authority, bringing to light the sexual abuse and manipulation that he had engaged in for decades. Shearing was indicted on twenty criminal counts in 1997, including gross indecency, indecent assault, sexual assault, and rape, and his trial transcripts document not only the sexual abuse, but how he was able to engage in his criminal behavior; Shearing used his charismatic authority and spiritual teachings to exploit his female members’ devotion, confusion, and fear. The Kabalarians’ case adds to deconversion theories because, uniquely, the disenchantment of a single devotee acted as the catalyst for the dissolution of patriarchal bonds, charismatic authority, group coherence, and, most importantly, members’ silence.

In the field of New Religious Movements, or NRMs, the Kabalarian Philosophy[2] is an organization that few have heard or read about. The reason for this group’s relative anonymity is that throughout its eighty-year-long history, the Kabalarians did not garner significant attention of either the media or academic researchers prior to the events that became public record in 1997. From 1995 to 1997, the Kabalarian Philosophy underwent dramatic and damaging challenges both to the leader’s authority and to the validity of the movement's proclaimed beliefs. During a two-month trial, the group’s leader, Ivon Shearing, faced allegations of sexual abuse and rape, charges that brought the Kabalarians national attention in the Canadian media.

Omitted in the media coverage, however, is any discussion of a rarely documented religious phenomenon: internal group dissension that leads to the breakdown of charismatic authority and the downfall of a religious leader. Most scholarship on charisma, for example, examines its emergence and continuance, but few scholars have the opportunity to identify the factors that contribute to its loss. Janet Liebman Jacobs’ seminal study of dissension and deconversion lays the foundation for this exploration into the Kabalarian Philosophy. Stemming from her work, this study hopes to make a contribution to the charismatic literature by focusing on one of the area’s most neglected aspects: the challenge to charismatic authority that resulted in the breakdown of affective bonds. Using trial transcripts as well as the Kabalarians’ own website,[3] I argue that while the dissension that Kabalarian devotees experienced shares many elements with Liebman Jacobs’ research on deconversion, the Kabalarians’ case adds to deconversion theories because, uniquely, the disenchantment of a single devotee acted as thecatalyst for the dissolution of patriarchal bonds, charismatic authority, group coherence, and, most importantly, members’ silence.

The history of the group begins in the early part of the 1930s, when a man by the name of Alfred J. Parker living in Vancouver believed that he had a mission in life that he needed to share with the world. He wanted to “blend…, unite…, and thus balance… [the beliefs and principles of Eastern and Western thought] through understanding, [so that the merging of the two worldviews] … would provide the world with a perfect religion, a philosophy of life in its entirety” (Kabalarian Philosophy, “History...” 2009). This altruistic statement marked the foundation of the group called the Kabalarian Philosophy, which, over its eighty-year-long history, has had only two leaders: Alfred Parker and his successor, Ivon Shearing.

With representatives across western Canada and in parts of Europe, the Kabalarian Philosophy draws on the Eastern and Western religious and philosophical principles that Parker discovered and that Shearing continued to interpret; but there exists a dark underside to the application of these teachings. According to the testimony presented during a criminal trial in 1997, the unique worldview purported by Shearing was a means of manipulating and exploiting the female members of the group. This exploitation involved multiple sexual offenses, including rape and sexual assault. What surfaced during Shearing’s trial was that he was able to engage in his criminal behavior by using his charismatic authority and spiritual teachings to exploit his female members’ devotion, confusion, and fear. His defense against the multiple sexually based charges was that his actions were theologically justifiable—a position that was publicly contentious and unconvincing to a jury (and many of his most dedicated followers), given his conviction on multiple charges.

The Trial Transcripts: An Overview

On January 14, 1997, Ivon Shearing was indicted on twenty criminal counts, including six gross indecency charges, five indecent assault charges, five sexual assault charges, one count of “hav[ing] sexual intercourse with a female person … who was not his wife and who was under the age of fourteen” (Indictment, R. v. Shearing, 1997:2) and three counts of rape. Beginning on September 15, 1997, the trial spanned two months; included the testimony of thirteen witnesses for the accused and thirteen for the defense; and concluded when the jury reached a verdict on November 17, 1997. It was a case that drew considerable attention in British Columbia, Canada, but made only brief headlines elsewhere in the country. When the Notice of Appeal was delivered January 16, 1998, the media paid little attention to the new development, writing the occasional piece that seemed to suffice to apprise the public of Shearing’s actions. Certainly, the case did not create a long-lasting media frenzy.

Overall, out of the thirteen witnesses for the prosecution (referred to as the Crown in the internal citations), eleven of the women had had sexual contact with Shearing. These women had also been members of the group for a significant period of their lives. Witness #3 was a member of the Kabalarians for twenty-nine years, joining at the age of nine and leaving the Kabalarians at the age of thirty-eight. Witness #4 was a member for eighteen years, joining at the age of twenty and leaving when she, too, was thirty-eight. Witness #5 joined the Kabalarians with her family at the age of five and a half, and left at the age of forty-two, making her a member for thirty-seven years. Witness #6 had a twelve-year membership, joining at the age of eighteen and leaving at the age of thirty. Witness #7 joined the movement at the age of seven with her family, left at the age of thirty-two, and had been a member of the Kabalarian Philosophy for twenty-five years. Witness #8, who had the shortest membership period—ten years—joined with her family at the age of ten and left at the age of twenty. Witness #9, a seventeen-year member, joined the movement with her family when she was eight years old and left when she was twenty-five years old. Witness #10, the witness with the longest membership, was born into the movement, and left forty-six years later. The last witness to testify for the prosecution was a twenty-year member, who was also born into the movement, but left it when she was twenty. While these numbers indicate a low attrition rate, they also seem to indicate members’ significant commitment to Shearing and the Kabalarian Philosophy. Ultimately, Shearing’s trial concluded without him ever taking the stand to defend or justify his actions, and he was convicted on twelve of the twenty charges brought against him (Foreman, R. v. Shearing, 1997:2491–2492). Out of these charges, “four were stayed and a retrial was ordered on four other counts following appeals” (Government of Canada National Parole Board, 2003:3).

Premised on the testimony of both former and current members of the Kabalarian Philosophy, the court transcripts provide a record detailing the events that led to Shearing losing control of his absolute authority as a result of his female members’ growing disbelief and disillusionment with him. Textual analysis is the most useful approach to this material, since it provides an opportunity to examine the recurring themes relevant to the discussion of dissension and loss of charismatic power in the trial transcripts, as well as how the Kabalarian teachings often contradicted Shearing’s charismatic proclamations. By examining the transcripts, we get a glimpse into the women’s process of dissension, starting with their gradual recognition of Shearing’s manipulative behavior, as well as their reluctance to accept his theological claims. With a strong sense of disenchantment in Shearing driving the women, they eventually stepped forward and brought to light a case of systemic sexual abuse that is rarely documented. The secrecy and compartmentalization surrounding Shearing’s actions were so well established that, outside of those victimized, few knew what was happening within the movement.

Janet Liebman Jacobs’ Model of Deconversion

Liebman Jacobs’ model of deconversion outlines a three-stage process that members must undergo:

…the first stage of deconversion … [is] the breaking of social ties to the religious community through challenges to authoritative control. The second stage of deconversion is presented as the disengagement from a deep emotional commitment to the charismatic leader and the rejection of his world view and definition of “truth.” … The final phase of disaffection [manifests when] former converts begin to redefine their social reality following the final break with the charismatic leader and the religious community he represents. (Liebman Jacobs, 1989:14)

Liebman Jacobs’ study, however, also presents two foundational contentions that are of particular relevance to the dissension found within the Kabalarian Philosophy. First, that the “conversion strategies employed by the movement … create[d] primary associations for the convert which result[ed] in the formation of social bonds to the group and deep emotional ties to the charismatic leader” (Liebman Jacobs, 1989:40); and second,

[a]s conversion is experienced within … [an] idealized context, deconversion signifies the failure of the religious community to fulfill the promise of the world of total meaning … [just as the] bonds of affiliation among devotees are weakened by conflicts that arise over power, authority, and control. (Liebman Jacobs, 1989:41)

These two elements highlight both the Kabalarian devotees’ emotional and spiritual attachment to Shearing, and the internal conflict that resulted in the disillusionment of many devotees.

Kabalarian Theological Worldview

The movement’s main spiritual goal was to bring enlightenment, harmony, and understanding to the world through the dissemination of the leaders’ creeds and teachings about the Laws of Nature, since those leaders[4] claimed to know the workings of the universe. Parker

[c]onclud[ed] that the answer to the problem lay in nature, which is the handiwork and the reflection of God, [and as a result,] he began to delve therein. This search led him to [make the claim that he had studied] all the leading spiritual philosophies of the East and West, finally arriving at the point where he could clearly discern that there should be no division between the concept of the East and West…. [I]n unity [of philosophy] there is harmony…. All laws of nature are irrevocable. There is no favouritism for anyone. These laws penetrate into the smallest details of our lives. Therefore, no matter what may be the nature of the problem, it can be solved by the application of the laws contained within the Kabalarian Philosophy. (Kabalarian Philosophy, “History...,” 2009)

When one examines these and other basic Kabalarian beliefs, one cannot see the undercurrent of sexual violence that permeated two decades of the movement’s history. The contradiction between belief and behavior, however, played a crucial role in the breakdown of the movement. The dissension that grew was a direct reaction to the incongruity between the movement’s spiritual message and the leader’s disregard for these same principles, although it took decades for this incongruity to fester into disillusionment, confrontation, and, finally, disaffection.

Shearing As Charismatic Leader

While trying to exhaustively define charisma and the charismatic individual goes beyond the scope of this paper, the work of Max Weber establishes the groundwork for an understanding of the charismatic individual that later scholars such as Lorne Dawson (2006; 2002), Anthony Storr (1996), and Len Oakes (1997), for example, build upon. Weber states that the defining characteristic of charisma is that this quality

sets [the individual] apart from ordinary men … [who is then] treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These [qualities] are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is [often] treated as a leader [to those who recognize and accept the individual’s uniqueness]. (Weber, On Charisma, 1968:48)

By applying Weber’s assertions to our exploration of Ivon Shearing’s leadership of the Kabalarian Philosophy, we see that Shearing clearly displayed charismatic qualities as the movement’s leader, but the women’s collective disaffection eroded his authority, acting as the final impetus in the collapse of the movement.

As the transcripts present it, there seems to be little argument disputing Shearing’s role as the charismatic leader of the movement, although there is no official mention on the group’s official Website in 2009 of him by name, or of his twenty-five-year tenure as leader. It is clear from the court evidence, however, that Shearing used his position to establish which of the movement’s doctrines he felt were the most important to follow, how members behaved, the level of control he wished to exert over his followers, and, to a degree, how members perceived him. Otto F. Kernberg defines this type of leadership style as part of the

…syndrome of malignant narcissism…. The leader … experiences and expresses an inordinate grandiosity, needs to be loved, admired, feared and submitted to at the same time, cannot accept submission from others except when it is accompanied by an intense idealizing loyalty and abandonment of all independent judgment, and experiences any manifestation contrary to his wishes as a sadistic, willful, grave attack against himself. (2003:693)

Court testimony bears out the contention that Shearing seemingly possessed the features of malignant narcissism, given that members were not allowed to challenge any of his proclamations or actions (Witness #8, R. v. Shearing, 1997:670); he was to be understood as “an ultimate authority, that anything Mr. Shearing said or did was in your best interests” (Witness #3, R. v. Shearing, 1997:248); and “if we didn’t understand something that [Shearing] said or did or whatever, [he said] that it was [due to] our smallness of mind or our lack of being able to understand our own journey towards the principle, towards spirituality” (Witness #8, R. v. Shearing, 1997:670). Evidently, Shearing reinforced his authoritarian position in the movement and his own narcissistic desires by denying members the opportunity to question him, and by convincing his devotees that it was their deficiency in understanding spiritual matters that impaired their ability to learn from his teachings. Moreover, members needed to continually show unwavering adulation and attention to him, disregarding their own doubts in the teachings or in his ability to convey the message as a spiritual teacher.

Given that the Kabalarian members relied on Shearing[5] (and Parker before him) for divine proclamations, and believed that Shearing acted as a conduit and proselytizer for God the Principle and the Truth, it is not surprising to learn that many Kabalarian members deified him. According to Kabalarian beliefs, God the principle and the Truth are aspects that are the core of

… all religions and secret doctrines…. [The Kabalistic Wisdom] teaches how the Divine Forces operate through human mind to create intelligence and destiny. It discloses the Spiritual Key to scientific and Spiritual Progress, and it is the only means through which mental balance may be attained. The Kabalistic Wisdom holds the key to the Cyclic Law, through which human destiny may be measured and arranged. (Kabalarian Fraternal Organization, 1966: cover page)

In Kabalarian understanding, Parker and Shearing were the only ones capable of discerning God and the Truth, since they were the only ones who comprehended the true meaning and depth of the universal connection that members believed existed. Their proclamations were absolutely adhered to by devotees, who then went on and promulgated Parker and Shearing’s words as the Truth.

Furthering the assertion that members deified Parker and Shearing as a result of the two men’s esoteric knowledge and abilities is the view that

In … charismatic religious groups, the connection to the divine is an especially powerful source of bonding in that the leader has both a symbolic value in his direct link to God and a physical manifestation in the ongoing interpersonal dynamic that exists between follower and spiritual mentor. (Liebman Jacobs, 1989:74)

To the Kabalarian members, Shearing promulgated a worldview that expressed his divine understanding of the cosmos and the applicability of the universal laws of nature. Shearing seemingly displayed qualities that set him apart from others; his devotees recognized their leader’s unique qualities, and attributed supernatural and extraordinary abilities to him as a result. This echoes Dawson’s (2002) contention that “[n]o charisma exists without the recognition of the group, which then grants authority to the person on that basis” (153).

Liebman Jacobs further contends that such glorification is not uncommon in charismatic groups. “Among the religious devotees, the leaders were either considered deities themselves … or were assumed to have godlike qualities which brought them closer to an understanding of reality beyond the material world of everyday life” (Liebman Jacobs, 1989:74). The attribution of ‘specialness’ and ‘godliness’ allowed Shearing unparalleled control over the movement’s members.

Although Shearing was the second leader of the Kabalarian Philosophy, his personal magnetism and authoritarian leadership style[6] typified a charismatic leader, especially since he had been given explicit authority by Parker at his death. Moreover, Shearing’s leadership was a paradigmatic representation of charismatic authority that was not lessened by his role as successor, but rather was strengthened by it. This appointment was a public acknowledgement of Shearing’s charismatic authority and reinforced his control over the nonroutinized and nondemocratic doctrines the group followed. Moreover, Shearing maintained his power, the group’s unity, and strict control over the devotees for decades: “[He] was the ultimate authority. He was not to be questioned. He was the link to the spiritual consciousness. That was it. He—everything stopped with Ivon Shearing” (Witness #10, R. v. Shearing, 1997:891).

This is a powerful testament to Shearing’s charismatic endowment, authority, and power within the Kabalarian Philosophy, and these statements clearly demonstrate some members’ belief that Shearing possessed special qualities that separated him from others. The recognizable aura that set him apart from his followers also raised him to the level of infallibility. Others have theorized that charismatic leaders believe they have special qualities and knowledge that others do not (see Weber, 1964, 1968, 1978; Oakes, 1997; and Storr, 1996); and this contention emerges repeatedly throughout the transcripts, figuring prominently in many of the witnesses’ testimonies. Members believed that Shearing “had evolved himself … [and was now] very mentally strong…. [Supposedly, he also possessed] universal love and understanding” (Witness #9, R. v. Shearing, 1997:799) beyond that of any other individual (except, perhaps, for Parker). Part of the Kabalarian mythos included teaching members that Shearing “was the only individual or man in the universe that [sic] can connect to the conscious plane of mind” (Witness #4, R. v. Shearing, 1997:316), and that he alone possessed the link between the sacred and the mundane world. Presumably, Shearing himself explained to the members of the Philosophy this particular belief, which is significant because there is no mention of his predecessor’s supposed ability to do the same thing. One theory that explains this omission was that by excluding any mention of Parker’s supposed gift, Shearing’s own uniqueness and value to the group increased. Shearing’s supposed ability to remove negative planes of mind ensured that members sought an audience specifically with him, rather than relying on any written source. The implication of this uniqueness was clear—only through Shearing’s divinely inspired teachings, wisdom, and rituals were members able to access the Principle, the force that bound the universe according to the Kabalarian worldview.

To reinforce the claim that charismatic authority influenced the internal dynamics of the Kabalarians while highlighting Shearing’s eventual loss of control, we need to examine the charismatic figure’s supposed ability to connect with the sacred realm and know the Truth. Members believed that Shearing was the sole figure who had a connection with the Truth, which seemed to solidify his omnipotent and omniscient image within the movement.

Q: Do you recall what the purpose of the mental demonstrations[7] was?

A: It was to prove Ivon’s power and ability to contact the negative realm and the principle…. [H]e would bring through these … negative, debauched, you know, planes of mind and then it would always end with a message from God, God the principle.

Q: From?

A: God the principle, to show his ability to communicate with the truth. (Crown and Witness #8, R. v. Shearing, 1997:681)

If they believed that Shearing could communicate with God and know universaltruths, then members subsequently believed that a connection between the members and the divine existed through Shearing. A connection to the universal truth instilled in them a sense of belonging to something larger and more powerful than themselves, a feeling that members yearned for. Liebman Jacobs describes this affective bonding (1989:73) as an “intense [feeling] of love, devotion, and blind faith that become[s] associated with charismatic bonding” (1989:77).

Authority and Abuse

Shearing maintained his charismatic leadership and authority through effort and calculated action. Marc Galanter (1999) suggests that charismatically led movements often display a monitoring component that helps sustain them,[8] since movements act like social systems that

must transform input from the environment into a form that meets [the group’s] … needs…. [Moreover, members who monitor the movement as part of a system] must also observe and regulate the actions of its component parts, thereby assuring that their respective activities are properly carried out and coordinated. (96–97)

Ideally, the devotees charged with the role of monitoring identify and observe the actions, behaviors, and concerns that other members have with regard to group doctrines or the leader himself. The leader, in turn, responds to the input reported back to him by his chosen monitors, and makes adjustments to his actions or doctrines to stabilize the movement and reduce tension within the group (Galanter, 1999:97). With a comprehensive monitoring system in place, a charismatic leader has the ability to alter the movement’s practices or beliefs to maintain the followers’ dependence on him. Since the movement’s elite—who are typically the most devout members within the organization—observe the group’s reaction to the leader and often gain intimate trust of fellow members, the leader has access to any secret confessions or opinions about the group that were revealed to the elite. The monitoring that exists within charismatic movements reinforces cohesiveness and loyalty among followers; it also maintains a certain level of control over members’ interaction with each other.

When viewed as part of a social system that relies, to a great extent, on the dependence of members,[9] the leader cannot assume (although he presents himself as having absolute authority and power within the movement) that his position is absolute, nor can he idly hope that he will maintain his authority without effort and awareness of the ongoing concerns of his members. Although the gift of charisma can establish them as the leader of a movement, “[e]ach of … [the charismatic leaders’] actions [can] either [continue to] establish, … reinforce, … or undermine … their own authority” (Dawson, 2002:85) in the eyes of their members. Insofar as leaders attempt to sustain their position of supremacy amongst devotees, they must suppress any deviant opinions that they believe threaten the stability and unified direction of the movement. Galanter asserts that an individual member’s autonomy must give way to the group’s needs, and any aberrant thought or action must be quickly dealt with and dissipated (1999:101). Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony seem to support aspects of Galanter’s argument when they state that “a charismatic leader will be tempted to use his authority to try to simplify the environment within the group by eliminating sources of dissension … [and] normative diversity” (1995:246). Moreover, “[t]he responses that charismatic leaders make to perceived threats to their authority will often tend to embellish this authority and extrapolate it in an increasingly authoritarian and absolutist direction” (Robbins and Anthony, 1995:245-246). Seemingly, a pattern emerges indicating that a charismatic leader tends not to tolerate deviance because it detracts from his ability to significantly influence devotees, which then destabilizes group unity and weakens charismatic authority.

Robbins and Anthony’s analysis of threats to charismatic authority and the responses that challenges do incite seems to provide insight into Shearing’s leadership style. Court transcripts reveal that, on more than one occasion, Shearing skillfully dissipated challenges to his charismatic authority. One such example of an attempt to eliminate dissension occurred during a supposed therapy session between Shearing and a young Kabalarian follower. Witnesses understood the therapy sessions Shearing engaged in to be a ‘clearing ritual’ that Shearing used to ritualistically eliminate planes of mind that were negatively affecting the member in spiritual, social, or emotional ways. According to court testimony, the female member had gone to see Shearing to get help to clear the deep-seated negative planes of mind she believed she had. During the course of the supposed therapy session, Shearing placed the girl’s hand on his erect penis. Recoiling in shock and disbelief, she began to believe that he was not helping her spiritually, but, rather, was using her for his own sexual gratification. When she confronted him, he calmly stood up and said that

obviously [I] couldn’t help [you] and … because [I] couldn’t help [you, you are] going to be frigid for life, but if [you] ever wanted … help with this [problem], [you] could come back and meet with [me] another time. (Witness #11, R. v. Shearing, 1997:964)

To someone outside of the Kabalarian worldview, Shearing’s attempt to threaten the devotee into compliance appears obvious. To members, however, who shared the Kabalarian belief that one needs a positive plane of mind to be able to progress spiritually, Shearing’s threat holds significant weight. Shearing’s denial of spiritual advancement because the member did not comply with his demands was a devastating punishment. The threat reinforced his authority, while simultaneously silencing someone whose information about inappropriate behavior could have subverted his charismatic authority within the movement.

In addition to barring enlightenment to members who challenged his authority, Shearing also told members that harm would befall them if they ever left his protection and the protection that the movement afforded them. One witness testified that Shearing had told her that her brother’s fiancée had been murdered because the fiancée “had chosen not to live a principled [and therefore, Kabalarian] life” (Witness #8, R. v. Shearing, 1997:677). Shearing depicted the world outside of the Kabalarian Philosophy as dangerous and precarious, especially for the young girls in the movement. Shearing specifically taught the young girls that the threat of being kidnapped, sold, sexually abused, and murdered in white slavery rings was real, and a likely occurrence if one lived outside the security the Kabalarian doctrines provided (Witness #18, R. v. Shearing, 1997:1907-1908).

Although authoritarian leaders often use the threat of physical harm or lack of spiritual development to guarantee devotees’ compliance, Shearing also created and manipulated specific theological arguments to support his actions. Shearing’s charismatic abilities allowed him to create new doctrine and practice for which devotees were unable to find textual support. These nonscriptural justifications increased the potential for abuse within the Kabalarian Philosophy because members could not rely on any of the group’s writings to contradict the leader’s actions. If the leader attempted a sexual act (for example, the ‘right’ to fondle a member in order to eliminate a negative plane of mind), then there was no evidence to disprove the assertion. One female witness’ testimony supports this assertion:

Q: Are you aware of any Kabalarian literature that discusses the subject of negative sexual planes of mind specifically?

A: No, I’m not aware of any.

Q: Do you know of any literature that says in order for a woman to have a negative sexual plane of mind cleared she has to be touched sexually?

A: No, I have never heard that. (Crown and Witness #19, R. v. Shearing, 1997:1547)

Another statement echoes this testimony:

Q: To your knowledge, is there any body of writing or teachings about the actual process or techniques of mental work?

A: Not to my knowledge. (Defense and Witness #19, R. v. Shearing, 1997:1504)

The absence of scripture indicates the level of reliance that members had placed on Shearing’s proclamations and the power that this charismatic leader possessed. It is no small feat to have convinced so many women of his ‘right’ to sexual privileges without the existence of written doctrines that specified the alleged spiritual benefits of such contact.

Even if supporters might suggest that Shearing did not intentionally abuse the Kabalarian women during the spiritual clearing rituals, this position is undermined by the following testimony:

Mr. Shearing and I … were eating [together] and he said that he had noticed that I was extremely uncomfortable around him. I mean, throughout the years I’ve had a dreadful time of it, of trying to be natural around him [after having been sexually molested by him]. So he said that he noticed this, that he had noticed I had extreme discomfort. And I said, yes, I was very uncomfortable. And he said to me, with regards to past events where we were—when I was young, do you feel like I’ve abused or molested you in any way? And he used the words abused and molested. (Witness #9, R. v. Shearing, 1997:812-813; italics mine)

Certainly, this testimony indicates that Shearing knew that his actions were abusive and suspected that the young woman had not completely accepted that what he had done was spiritual in nature. Since Shearing seemed to have had the intention of receiving sexual gratification from his victims from the beginning of his relationship with them, he always looked for signs of disenchantment in his victims after he had abused them. Despite the evidence suggesting that not all of the women with whom he engaged in sexual activities even realized that he was molesting them until years after the fact,[10] Shearing’s motivations appeared clear each time that he entered into a sexual relationship with a Kabalarian student.

Dissension and Secrecy

The believability of the clearing rituals and Shearing’s credibility in the eyes of his followers, however, did reach a critical point in 1995. A grassroots insurrection had begun to form that would, in due course, cause Shearing to lose his revered position as spiritual leader of the Kabalarian Philosophy and be charged with sexually based offenses. Although he had managed to maintain a high level of secrecy around the exploitative relationships he had with the Kabalarian devotees, dissension spread throughout the movement as disenchanted women began to break the bonds of confidentiality that they, as dedicated members, had sworn to Shearing.

As described in the court documents, the genesis of the disharmony that Shearing’s victims felt traced back to a single woman who felt as though she had been “living a lie” (Witness #4, R. v. Shearing, 1997:318). Believing that this lie was having a negative effect on her life, she had become depressed and highly emotional. According to her testimony, she never had spoken of her anguish to anyone until her friend, a fellow Kabalarian woman, noticed her depression and asked her if she was all right; the woman confided some startling news.

[T]he depression was so bad and it was evident so [my friend] asked me what was wrong and I said, “I can’t tell you. I don’t know … I don’t know what’s wrong.” [My friend] said, “Does it have anything to do with your friendship or your association with Ivon Shearing?” And at that point it was like hitting the nail on the head and I burst into tears and proceeded to explain that yes, it was. (Witness #3, R. v. Shearing, 1997:251)

The woman who first admitted the abuse, however, was filled with anxiety and fear after her candid disclosure. The threats that Shearing had made to her over the years flooded back to her, and she became unsure of the consequences of her confession. Interestingly, this is a point of departure from Liebman Jacobs’ model, where disillusionment is typically first focused on “the middle-level leadership” (Liebman Jacobs, 1989:41), who are a “cadre of higher-status devotees who are directly responsible to the leader” (Liebman Jacobs, 1989:41). Instead of focusing her disaffection on Shearing’s closest devotees, the disaffected woman targeted Shearing himself as the individual responsible for her feelings of disillusionment and guilt. Reportedly, as she was crying, she began apologizing to her friend, saying that she was “‘… so sorry. I’m not allowed to say anything to you because [Shearing] told me if I did I would destroy the person that I told and I would destroy the Philosophy’” (Witness #4, R. v. Shearing, 1997:383).

While the impact of Shearing’s threats haunted the woman, a fellow group member and friend began to feel that Shearing had been duplicitous with the members of the group and that she now wanted “[t]o find out the truth” (Witness #4, R. v. Shearing, 1997:318) about Shearing’s claims of fidelity and honesty. Believing that

if [Shearing] in fact had a relationship with a woman such as [her friend], as he did, that [it] ran contrary to the teachings of the Philosophy and therefore he couldn’t have been the spiritual person that … [everyone] took him for. (Witness #4, R. v. Shearing, 1997:338)

This is another difference between Liebman Jacobs’ model and what transpired within the Kabalarian Philosophy. Shearing tried to be exceptionally careful about keeping his multiple sexual relationships with members a secret, whereas with the devotees and groups that Liebman Jacobs studied, there seems to have been open competition for sexual intimacy to get closer to the divine leader (Liebman Jacobs, 1989:62-63).

Certain groups, particularly those associated with Tantric Buddhism and Hinduism, have sexual meditative practices as part of their religious philosophy and training and it is here where women are most likely to compete for the position of consort, either on a temporary or more permanent basis. The selection process is often controlled by high-status devotees, those men who are the intermediaries between the followers and the charismatic leader. (Liebman Jacobs, 1989:62)

Once his multiple sexual relationships became known to the other devotee, Shearing’s hypocritical behavior caused the woman to doubt his sincerity and the purpose of the clearing rituals that were at the heart of the sexual relationship her friend had with Shearing. As Liebman Jacob notes,

unlike the separation from the social group, the break with the charismatic leader involves feelings of betrayal and the violation of trust as the object of love and devotion proves to be less than the ideal upon which the charismatic bond was established. (Liebman Jacobs, 1989:92).

Certainly, feelings of betrayal and anger festered in the women’s realization of Shearing’s lie.

Once the woman made the confession, though, it was only a matter of time before members started to see the flaws in Shearing’s image. As Janja Lalich points out, dissension within a tightly knit group begins with “br[eaking] the bonds of silence: first with each other; then revealing to the rest of the members what really had been going on behind the scenes” (Lalich, 2004:204). The result of the disclosure was that Kabalarian women began to disobey Shearing’s demand for secrecy about their relationships with him. The Kabalarian devotee who first heard her friend’s revelation approached other female members of the Kabalarian Philosophy who had “come to her [earlier] with problems linked to sexual abuse … [but] [a]t the time didn’t think that it was with Shearing” (Defense quoting Witness #3, R. v. Shearing, 1997:278), asking them if their sexual abuse was linked to Shearing. Interestingly, although the other women the witness approached never originally claimed that they had any sexual involvement with Shearing, it appears that these women did recognize that their relationships with Shearing were abusive. Support for this argument emerges in the transcripts when one reads about the women having spoken their concerns about sexual abuse to another member of the group, without disclosing Shearing’s name.

At this point, however, the disenchanted women were still struggling between revealing the true nature of their relationship with Shearing and the demand for secrecy that he as their deified leader had continually reinforced. As the feelings of uncertainty and confusion were starting to erode Shearing’s authority, the stability of the group began to deteriorate, which consequentially began to adversely affect group unity and cohesion (see Lalich, 2004:207–218). Even when there was a group of six or eight women who had admitted that Shearing abused them, these women did not want to involve the police in the matter, preferring to confront Shearing on their own terms. To accomplish this goal, the women approached a well-respected member of the movement, who was also a lawyer, to seek advice.

The lawyer, a member loyal to Shearing and the movement, took “sworn statements from [the women and] … state[d] that he was [going to] try … to contain the situation with regard to complaints being made to the police” (Witness #1, R. v. Shearing, 1997:27). Not surprisingly, the lawyer did not offer to bring these statements to an outside authority, believing that he should report the dissension amongst members directly to Shearing. By informing Shearing of this growing dissatisfaction within the group, Shearing could then choose how best to handle the situation to his advantage. While it appeared that Shearing would have to placate the women in some sense to regain his control over them, he believed that this was possible, since the disenchanted members continued to demonstrate some allegiance to him by wanting to deal with him within the confines of the Kabalarian Philosophy.

Continuing to act on Shearing’s behalf, the lawyer recommended to the women that they declare what they would like to see as a final resolution to the situation. In response, the women believed that if Shearing, his wife, and the instrument[11] “resign[ed] as members of the Philosophy … [and] that Ivon [Shearing] le[ft] Canada and [did] not return” (Witness #1, R. v. Shearing, 1997:28), then the situation would be resolved. At the same time that the lawyer was trying to deal with the women, however, he also was advising Shearing that “if he had any travel plans abroad, now would be a good time to take them” (Witness #1, R. v. Shearing, 1997:12). The lawyer’s loyalty to the women, therefore, seems to have been secondary to his loyalty to Shearing, since his actions suggested that his main concern was protecting his leader from police action.[12]

Although Shearing proclaimed “that a conspiracy was being formed to see him ousted from the organization” (Witness #1, R. v. Shearing, 1997:18), and he admitted to no wrongdoing, he was anxious to meet the demands of the group to avoid police involvement. In a shocking turn of events, however, Shearing and the group of women both lost control over the situation when a single devotee decided that Shearing could no longer be dealt with internally. “It wasn’t something [the members] could fix any more [sic] inside the organization. I didn’t want to be dragged into that kind of situation. It needed to be in the hands of the law” (Witness #8, R. v. Shearing, 1997:703). Moreover, the woman felt that “[i]t [wa]s time [Shearing’s abusive acts] came out into the public forum for debate. It [wa]s so wrong” (Witness #8, R. v. Shearing, 1997:705). The woman did not tell the other victimized women what she had done, but they soon discovered that she had approached the police when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the CBC) broke the story. The media reported that the leader of the Kabalarian Philosophy had been sexually abusing his female devotees (Witness #1, R. v. Shearing, 1997:23), and, from that moment on, police involvement was guaranteed, resulting in all the members within the complainant group eventually pressing charges against Shearing.


The dissension the members of the Kabalarian Philosophy experienced is perhaps not unique in the world of new religious movements, but it is a rarely documented occurrence. Most interestingly, the members’ dissension and the subsequent breakdown of Shearing’s authority signaled a fundamental change to the future of the movement and in how previously devoted followers viewed—and reacted to—the manipulation and abuses they saw their leader engage in. Moreover, that the devotees’ dissension led to Shearing’s criminal conviction is truly a remarkable event that is worthy of attention and critical examination. The transcripts of Shearing’s criminal trial present him both as a man who embraced charismatic authority and the power and opportunities that the role afforded him, and as a manipulative leader who exploited his members’ vulnerabilities and faith in him. Although the violence Shearing perpetrated manifested itself solely against the women of the Kabalarian Philosophy and not to anyone outside the group, Shearing’s sexual abuse left a trail of damage that extended far beyond his victims’ pain: members who had allegiance to the movement’s spiritual principles were forced to reevaluate their beliefs in the face of their leader’s criminal conviction and to reassess the relationships they had with family and friends.

As of 2009, the Kabalarian Philosophy continues to thrive as an organization, with no mention of its sexually abusive former leader.[13] Although Ivon Shearing was granted a National Parole Board meeting in 2003, the panel concluded that he

abused [his] social standing and position of authority by sexually molesting young girls in a church society … [and found that,] [s]hould [he] be able to get [himself] into a place of power and authority, he [would] manipulate potential victims into compliance and ensure secrecy around [his] behavior…. [In addition, the psychologist found Shearing to be] highly manipulative, even during the interview process. She found that [his] insight was shallow and self-serving ... describing [his] presentation as remarkably selfish, egocentric, and narcissistic. [The psychologist] concluded that [he] was an entrenched sex offender, who was both dangerous and predatory. (Government of Canada National Parole Board, 2003a:3)

Shearing was denied both day parole and full parole in April 2003, and this decision was upheld by the Board’s Appeal Division in September 2003 (National Parole Board Appeal Division, 2003b:4). He was scheduled for statutory release in September 2004, after serving two-thirds of his sentence (Kihara, 2003), and to this author’s knowledge, after his release in 2004, Shearing has done nothing to draw any public attention or to reestablish himself within the Kabalarian Philosophy. Moreover, his victims have seemingly returned to their daily lives, despite the physical, emotional, and psychological damaged inflicted upon them. Shearing’s legacy in the Kabalarian Philosophy seems to be one that many hope will be forgotten with time, while others find it impossible to forget. Were it not for one brave woman who challenged Shearing’s charismatic authority and drew police attention to his criminal behavior, there would be no documentation of his systemic abuse or the unraveling of his power. To this end, I hope this glimpse into dissension contributes even in small measure to a better understanding of the breakdown of charismatic control.


Brodie, Renée. 2005. The Kabalarian Philosophy: Charismatic Control and Sexual Convictions. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Queensland.

Dawson, Lorne L. 2002. “Crises of Charismatic Legitimacy and Violent Behavior in New Religious Movements,” in Cults, Religion, and Violence. David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 80–101.

———. [1998] 2006. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. 2nd ed. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Emerson, Richard M. 1962. “Power-Dependence Relations.” American Sociological Review, 27, 31–41.

Galanter, Marc. 1999. Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Government of Canada National Parole Board Appeal Division Decision. Pre-Release Decision Sheet for Shearing, Ivon. 2003a. April 15, 1–5.

Government of Canada National Parole Board Appeal Division Decision for Shearing, Ivon. 2003b. September 26, 1–4.

Kabalarian Fraternal Organization. 1966. Kabalistic Wisdom: Breathing and Exercise Book. Vancouver, BC: Kabalarian Fraternal Organization.

Kabalarian Philosophy. 2009. “History of the Kabalarian Philosophy,” <> (downloaded 20 April 2010).

_____. 2003. “Public Discussion, Making a Name Change,” <> (downloaded 10 December 2009).

_____. 2008. “History of the Kabalarian Philosophy,” <> (downloaded 8 May 2008).

Kernberg, Otto F. 2003. “Sanctioned Social Violence: A Psychoanalytic View. Part 1.” The International Journal of Psychoanalysis 84.3, 683–698.

Kihara, Debra. 2003. Letter to Anonymous. October 7.

Lalich, Janja. 2004. Bounded Choice: True Believers and Charismatic Cults. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Liebman Jacobs, Janet. 1989. Divine Disenchantment: Deconverting from New Religions. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Oakes, Len. 1997. Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities. 1st ed. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Regina v. Ivon Shearing. 1997. Vol. 1–14, Supreme Court of British Columbia Court of Appeal, pp. 1–2502, Vancouver, Canada.

Robbins, Thomas, and Dick Anthony. 1995. “Sects and Violence: Factors Enhancing the Volatility of Marginal Religious Movements,” in Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Stuart A. Wright, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 236–259.

Storr, Anthony. 1996. Feet of Clay: Saints, Sinners, and Madmen: A Study of Gurus. Toronto: Free Press.

Weber, Max. 1978. Excerpt from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in Max Weber, Selections in Translation. Walter Garrison Runciman, ed., E. Matthews, trans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 135–173.

_____. 1968. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, eds., Ephraim Fischoff, et al., trans. New York: Bedminster Press.

_____. 1968. Max Weber on Charisma and Institution Building. Selected Papers. Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

_____. 1964. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Talcott Parsons, ed., Alexander M. Henderson, trans. New York: Free Press.


My thanks go to Stephen Kent for giving me access to the Stephen A. Kent Collection on Alternative Religions, housed in the University of Alberta Library.

About the Author

Renée Brodie, Ph.D., is a tutor in Religious Studies at Athabasca University, Canada, where she is developing a course exploring the dialogue between religion and popular culture. Her doctoral work through the University of Queensland, Australia, examined the connection between charismatic authority and sexual abuse within a Canadian new religious movement, and she has published an article in the Journal of American Culture dealing with apocalypticism and white supremacy. She plans to continue her research into these areas.

International Journal of Cultic Studies ■ Vol. 1, No. 1, 2010

[1] This article is a selection of ideas originally presented in this author’s 2005 dissertation on the Kabalarian Philosophy. As such, a significant number of excerpts are taken from the larger work, with the purpose of focusing on dissension within charismatic movements. For a more detailed examination of the Kabalarian Philosophy’s history, structure, and beliefs, as well as the dynamics between sexual abuse and charismatic power, please see Brodie (2005).

[2] Currently, the official name of the movement is the Society of Kabalarians of Canada & Kabalarian Philosophy. Because of several name changes throughout the movement’s eighty-year history, I use Kabalarian Philosophy or simply Kabalarians unless the name is of direct significance.

[3] The website address has changed since the original research for this article took place. The new address is and is copyrighted in 2009.

[4] Prior to Ivon Shearing leading the Kabalarian Philosophy, Alfred J. Parker founded the group in the early 1930s and was the movement’s leader for more than thirty years.

[5] Interestingly, as noted, Ivon Shearing is the second charismatic leader of the Kabalarian Philosophy. Shearing took control of the movement after the charismatic founder, Alfred J. Parker, selected him as his successor.

[6] It should be noted that not all charismatic leaders are authoritarian; but from witness testimony, there is strong evidence to suggest that Shearing’s particular style had authoritarian qualities to it, characterized by absolute control over doctrine, organization, and membership.

[7] Mental demonstrations were displays that supposedly established Shearing’s ability to contact the different planes of mind that existed. Usually performed during Teenage Class, mental demonstrations were often “specifically directed at one member or another of the Teenage Class” (Crown, R. v. Shearing, 1997:682). During a mental demonstration, Shearing supposedly “expose[d] a plane of mind that was … affecting somebody” (Witness #8, R. v. Shearing, 1997:682) negatively. According to the witness, Shearing taught them that there were sexual, obsessive, or greedy planes of mind, to name a few, and that you needed to adhere to Kabalarian teachings so that you did not “open … the door and let them in[to] [the organization]” (Witness #8, R. v. Shearing, 1997:682).

[8] Lalich (2004) also discusses similar monitoring movements in her presentation of “systems of control” and “systems of influence” (2004:17) within cults. For a more detailed discussion, see page 17.

[9] Authority within charismatic relationships depends, to a significant extent, on members’ continued recognition of the leader’s charismatic authority. Without this dependent relationship, the power of charismatic authority weakens. For a more detailed discussion on power relationships within a charismatic context, see Richard Emerson’s article, “Power-Dependence Relations.”

[10] Shearing had begun engaging in sexually abusive behavior with members of the movement very early in his tenure as leader. Many of the girls he abused were in their early teens, but they did not press charges for years, even decades, after their molestation (see testimony of Witness #9 and #8 in R. v. Shearing, 1997:816; 667, for example). The reasons for this delayed reaction on the part of the victims extends somewhat beyond the scope of the actual sexual abuse endured by the women, falling more into the area of deconversion theories and why abused members stay in a movement. Generally speaking, though, one could theorize that affective bonding (Liebman Jacobs, 1989) played a significant role in the women’s slow acceptance of what happened to them, as did Shearing’s charismatic power and members’ unwillingness to admit their belief in an unworthy spiritual teacher. To some degree, each of these factors contributed to their ongoing abuse, but to uncover fully the complex dynamics surrounding the issue, there needs to be much more study concerning the decades of silence that some members maintained.

[11] In Kabalarian vocabulary, ‘the instrument’ is a Kabalarian woman who supposedly possessed the ability to act as a channel for disembodied minds, and it is a term that can be interchanged with the term channel. According to Kabalarian beliefs, the instrument had the ability to channel disembodied minds only in the leader’s presence, and only when Shearing deemed that he needed to contact a disembodied mind or negative mental interference (Witness #3, R v. Shearing, 1997:237). There is no information in the Kabalarian literature describing the official process of becoming a channel, nor is there any information concerning the selection process. One could infer, however, that the instrument would need to be a loyal and dedicated member of the movement, since she was constantly in the leader’s presence, and in intimate situations with Shearing and fellow Kabalarian women (as described in numerous examples throughout this chapter).

[12] To my knowledge, the police did not bring any charges of obstruction of justice against anyone else in the movement. Perhaps the lack of any other charges being laid suggests that the prosecution did not believe that there was a high degree of probability of convicting any of Shearing’s accomplices.

[13] There does exist a closed discussion forum that the Kabalarian Philosophy hosts, however, that very briefly mentions Ivon Shearing’s criminal acts; but it states only that, “Yes, a past member was charged, found guilty in the Canadian courts, and spent time in a Canadian prison for various criminal charges. This does not invalidate the principles we teach” (“Public Discussion...,” 2003).