Facing the 'Dark Side' of Cults- Balance of FIFTEEN Years' Experience (Conference 2010)

by Raffaella Di Marzio (www.dimarzio.it)

A paper presented at the CESNUR 2010 conference in Torino.© Raffaella Di Marzio, 2010. Please do not quote or reproduce without the consent of the author



I started to work as a volunteer with a Catholic association in 1993. At first, I used to receive requests for information and help only from families, members going through a crisis or former members of religious groups, journalists and law enforcement authorities. Over the years, I also began to receive contact and requests for information and help from people affiliated to religious and spiritual movements, such help usually being asked for when these people became the target of attacks in the media, on Internet, in books written by former members, on radio and TV, etc. Such cases afforded me the opportunity to compare the recollections and experience of people who are still affiliated with those of hostile former members, concerning the same religious group. I found this opportunity which I chanced upon to be very stimulating, since it opened up new horizons of awareness and made my research richer. 


My intention here is to stress first of all the importance and the irreplaceably positive contribution afforded by help groups and counselling and support centres in society. I shall then sum up some of the more controversial issues involved in how such organizations operate.

a) The positive role played by groups supporting victims

Inside charismatic groups, abuse, harassment and psychological pressure takes place, which can cause various kinds of damages to members. In such cases, the destructive dynamics are put into effect by unscrupulous leaders who are only interested in acquiring material advantages or submitting defenceless individuals to their power. Support and help groups have been established to answer the needs of the victims of such abuse, and their work is in my opinion not only positive but also indispensable.

In my experience, most requests for help and information came from people who were worried about relatives, friends or acquaintances involved in a group which, they feared – sometimes wrongly and sometimes rightly - was a “cult”. A minority of requests came from people who were still members and were going through a crisis for some reason which led them to cast doubts on their affiliation. Very few people asked for help after having decided to leave a religious group.

Volunteers in these groups are motivated by the intention of helping others, without any hidden agenda or thirst for vengeance. Thanks to them, the help group plays a positive role of emotional reassurance, allowing the individual to live over again, tell and calmly reflect on his or her past experience. Contact with these people – who have often been through a similar experience – is profitable and accompanies the person asking for help step by step in coming out of his or her state of confusion and suffering, recovering other affective relationships and other opportunities for self-realization.

In such cases, as time goes by, former members manage to discriminate between the good things they received from the group and what they instead reject and remember as “abuse”, “conditioning” and so on. They often decide to volunteer in the same support group which had welcomed them, also in order to warn their former friends and let them know what they understood after their disaffiliation. This kind of action by former members sometimes leads to other members defecting, sometimes is ineffective, but is in any case useful in order to provide correct information about doctrines and actions which some religious groups hide from the outside world.

b) Controversial aspects of help methods

Cult victim support associations are kept going by many volunteers driven by a great sense of abnegation and a sincere wish to help others. However, the positive action of these organizations is often made useless or seriously affected by methodological errors, which I have witnessed myself, and which I wish to point out in order to improve care activity.

Reliability of data concerning the extent of the cult phenomenon

First of all, I am submitting some data on the number of requests for help and information coming into the counselling centre where I acted as a volunteer. These data are taken by book Nuove religioni e sette (“New Religions and Cults”), published in February 2010. They refer to a three-year period: 1998-1999-2000.

Kind of requests during the years 1998-1999-2000

KIND OF CALL % TOTAL 1998 1999 2000
HELP 57.3 315 45 150 120
INFORMATION 26.7 147 66 56 25
MISCELLANEOUS 16.0 88 39 34 15







It is interesting to see how the number of requests for help grew constantly over the three year period, peaking in 1999. The “End of Millennium” syndrome and the rumours which were circulating at the time about the spreading of “dangerous cults” in Italy, together with the fear of fundamentalist bomb outrages in Rome, helped generate alarm and fear. After 1999, in fact, the number of requests went down, albeit moderately.

To interpret these data, we need to clarify some points, so as not to overestimate a phenomenon which certainly exists, but which probably is less widespread than the alarming figures quoted in the media and by anti-cult movements would make one think. In the three years being taken into account, 550 requests were received, 315 (57.3%) of which were requests for help by relatives of members, 147 (26.7%) came from people who were asking for information for various reasons (journalists, scholars, various agencies, law enforcement authorities) or else who volunteered information and provided data on various groups, and 88 (16%) did not concern the “cult”.

This last item is of special interest: out of 550 calls, 88 (16%) did not have to do with the “cult” phenomenon. This means that counselling centres receive a rather high number of calls which cannot be considered requests for help and should not therefore be included in the official statistics.

Secondly, it should be specified that the 315 requests for help which we received in three years were not unique requests, i.e. they did not come from 315 people asking for help, since one person - or members of one family – might call up to ten times for the same case. It would not therefore be fair to count 10 calls received for one case as 10 different cases. I personally came up against another useful fact for getting to understand the actual size of the phenomenon: the same person (or people belonging to the same family) would get in touch, either consecutively or at the same time, with different help associations, in order to find a solution for his or her problem. This means that when one provides data on the actual number of requests for help received by different associations, it would be misleading to add them up without checking: this would help to prevent spreading exaggerated data and hyperbolic figures which do not reflect the real situation.

2. Training of the operators

There is no training agency enabling qualification for this kind of service, and those who start – often armed only with good will – are “thrown into the arena” and find themselves immediately facing their first problems. The counselling centres work independently from each other, there is no shared intervention protocol: steps are at the discretion of those who take them and are on an entirely voluntary basis. This “methodological anarchy” is, I believe, the reason for the most serious errors committed by a certain number of volunteers, errors which create further personal and social problems for those who ask for help. We may add to this the lack of interest for study and research, a feature shared by many counselling centres who stick to outdated or obsolete theories and scientific contributions. 

3. Oversimplification

The problem of the individual and his or her family is not situated in the complex context of the personality and of family dynamics. It is extrapolated and dealt with as if it were a problem of its own, as if going into or leaving the “cult” could be understood without taking into account the person as a whole and in his or her inter-personal relationships.

No attempt is made, therefore, to understand what failed to work in the groups of reference of that individual before affiliation, what it was that the person did not find in his or her family and in the Church he or she belonged to, which drove him or her to seek for realization elsewhere; instead, they prefer to assign every “fault” to the new group of reference, which at present seems to respond to the expectations of the individual, that is the “cult”, a term which has now become a stereotype useful for lashing out against groups and associations which may also be entirely harmless, a term used by the media which, instead of practising journalism, carry out “media terrorism”. Actually, nobody tries to make sure whether the group being dealt with actually presents those dangerous features typical of a criminological notion of a “cult”. This error leads to mistaken beliefs and assumptions which often render the work of the volunteers ineffective or even self-defeating. Another very common error is due to underestimating the time factor. Those who provide assistance do so at a certain moment, and when the emergency is over, they often lose touch with the people. This however means they cannot understand or check at a later time the effects which the support work has produced on the family nucleus or on the individual.

4) Using unilateral sources

Concerning the issue of the sources used to acquire information about groups, it is my opinion that certain errors are committed:

- using only critical sources, completely ruling out the publications of sociologists, historians and others who describe groups without making value judgements;

- examining the “secret” documents made available by former members totally outside their natural context: this implies the risk of getting only a partial idea or even of falsifying the actual facts;

- uncritically accepting the tales of former members. Though I believe that the contribution of former members is irreplaceable and very useful, over the years I have become aware of the fact that the narratives of these people are highly affected by their current situation which is strongly contrary to the group they have left. Also, listening to the other party, that is the group they have left, I have become aware of aspects I had totally ignored of the manner of operation of some former members.

5) The “certificate” of “victim” makes the latter infallible

The operator of the counselling centre never casts doubt on the tearful statements of the victims who, only because they declare themselves as such, are considered to be “infallible”. By no means do I wish to cast doubt on the sincerity of the worried family members or, in most cases, on that of those who seek to help them. However, there are situations and conflicts which have different and overlapping causes, and it is unlikely that a problem of relationship can be attributed to a single cause, especially a cause external to the person affected. Recently, the issue of false allegations of abuse has become a topic for study both among legal and mental health professionals. Research in this field is giving important results which will also have repercussions in courts of law. 

6) Brainwashing the “brainwashed”? 

Changes in the manner of thinking and behaviour of a loved one belonging to religious group are always construed as the outcome of “mental manipulation” and never as that of a free choice; they must therefore be “corrected”. Once it has been established that the relative who belongs to a group has been “brainwashed”, the remedy appears quite simple: bring him or her back the way he or she was before. However, those who try to achieve this goal often fail, and “success” is limited to a few cases caught in time, when the member – quickly discouraged and frightened – leaves the group before proselytism has really got a grip on him or her. Lack of success causes a certain kind of reaction both in the counselling centre and the family: disillusionment and unease felt both by the volunteer and the family which has asked for help, with a consequent feeling of inadequacy and discouragement. At this point, a common reaction in such milieux is to call on the government to make laws forbidding brainwashing.


In this part, I shall make suggestions and proposals which are the outcome of my personal experience, in order to improve our engagement on the side of victims of cults and controversial spiritual groupings.

- PREVENTION: the years I have spent as a volunteer have reinforced my conviction that prevention is the only winning “weapon” to prevent people from becoming the victims of deceit practised by unscrupulous leaders who manipulate to their own advantage the spiritual needs of people. What is important is that such information is correct and not sensation-seeking or scandalmongering, is not aimed at unleashing a witch hunt but at providing information about controversial cases without turning anyone into the devil and without hurting the religious feelings of the people involved.

- COUNSELLING CENTRES: when dealing with membership and the conflicts it generates within the family, it is of key importance that counselling centres set up to assist those seeking help should not be managed only by worried relatives or hostile former members, but also involve other actors including professionals from various and mutually complementary walks of life. In such centres, the kind of help granted to the user could be more “scientific” and objective, since all people involved could be listened to: the family, the member and the group involved. Doing so could start a dialogue aimed at settling rather than exasperating the conflicts.

- SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH: another important topic which we must take into account in order to improve our involvement in support groups is that of increasing research and developing a serious dialogue with academic scholars and researchers who work on the issue of “cults” from different outlooks. Scientific studies and research in this field are rare and often limited to the description of individual groups. I think that Universities and independent study centres should take up the burden of this problem, and should receive public funds in order to prevent reasons of interest from invalidating the objective nature of the results. 


On the basis of the experience I have developed since 1993, it is my belief that the commitment of those people who decide to provide support to cult victims should be inspired by respect for all religious beliefs and practices, and free of any kind of intolerance towards difference: intolerance can unfairly strike absolutely harmless people and groups, leaving criminal organizations and leaders untouched. Groups and associations providing help to cult victims have a great responsibility both for the fallout of their actions on individuals and social groups, but also because the press and law enforcement authorities investigating controversial groups refer to them as a source of information. Operators are not always sufficiently aware of this enormous responsibility they have, nor are they aware of the very serious consequences which a mistake in intervention or wrong advice can cause to people, families and society. Greater awareness may spur all those who are engaged in this difficult field to multiply efforts in order to improve the results of their action.

Nessun commento: