Jul 30, 2018


"During the past decades there has been a rapidly growing interest in mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) like MBSR or MBCT. Although a number of clinical trials on MBIs have been conducted, the evidence base for MBIs is promising but still limited. Nevertheless, a rapid dissemination of MBIs has taken place and it can be argued that, in the case of MBIs, dissemination came before evidence. We contend that, in addition to empirical arguments, a complex mixture of historical, social and psychological factors has fueled the acceptance of MBIs in the healthcare systems of Western societies."

Raelian movement in Ireland: 'Some think it's a cult but it's nothing like that'

Graham Clifford
Irish Times
July 28, 2018

“With the greatest of respect Claude, a lot of people would describe you as a nut,” – it’s a winter’s night in 1988 and Gay Byrne is in full flow.

Frenchman Claude Vorilhon, founder of the ‘UFO religion’ Raelianism, smiles as the Late Late Show host, and the studio audience titter.

The former sports-car journalist is telling the Irish nation that we all actually derive from extra-terrestrials, that they’ve taken him to their planet and that we’re to build an embassy on earth to welcome them back again.

Vorihon (or ‘Rael’ as he’s referred to), dressed in all white with a dark beard and a large pendant around his neck, doesn’t look like your average Late Lateguest of the grey 80s.

At its height the Raelian Movement had 200 members in Ireland but the figure today stands nearer 60

It's fair to say that few in the studio, or across the country, take him seriously.

But in a sittingroom in Artane a thirtysomething-year-old civil servant is intrigued by what she hears. She isn’t sniggering – on the contrary Moya Henderson wants to know more.

“He talked of how the bible was written in old Hebrew and then translated into Greek, Latin and other languages but that the word ‘God’ was mistranslated. The word in the original bible was ‘Elohim,” says Henderson, the head of the small Raelian Movement in Ireland.

She continues: “The Elohim means ‘those who came from the sky’ and it was they who made us and the world as we know it.”

Two days after that Late Late Show item she went to Liberty Hall for a public meeting where Rael was selling his book, speaking about his religion of peace, meditation and respect and hoping to sow the seeds of an Irish branch of his movement.

Henderson was soon fully involved and one of the most prominent members. Her friends, and colleagues in the Office of Public Works, warned her to be careful.

“They were worried for me but soon they realised I was still the same old Moya. Some think its a cult, that we all become brainwashed but its nothing like that. It’s not a dogmatic religion. You develop at your own pace, are encouraged to meditate, to blossom and bloom as a human being and to be the best person you can be.”

At its height the Raelian Movement had 200 members in Ireland but the figure today stands nearer 60. Internationally its is claimed the religion has 90,000 followers (though the actual figure is thought to be closer to 20,000) – the majority in Canada where the Raelian Movement is at its strongest.

Perfect sense

Sipping green tea in her Dublin home, Moya Henderson explains why the basis of the religion, rather than being fanciful or outlandish, makes perfect sense to her.

“I grew up a Catholic and was told what to believe. I couldn’t interpret the bible for myself because I was told I couldn’t understand it. Raelianism appealed to me because it offered that logical explanation. I haven’t heard a better explanation for who we are, where we came from and where we are going. Most religions are based on faith – ‘you believe us because we are telling you and don’t question us’ – this isn’t like that.”

On the table in front of her is a copy of the Raelian’s The True Face of God – the truth about our extra-terrestrial origins. On the cover is a picture of a flying saucer, a pyramid and the faces of extra-terrestrials.

And around Henderson’s neck is the Raelian symbol pendant – a Swastika encircled by the Star of David.

“The Star of David represent infinity and space and the swastika represents infinity, time and well-being. Some years ago we changed the swastika slightly to a spiral which represents our galaxy. I wear it all the time. I have earrings as well but I lost one of them.”

Rael appeared in a copy of 'Playboy' magazine in 2005 with some semi-naked young women strengthening the notion that sex is everywhere in the religion

One of the corner stones of the religion is the focus on meditation – especially sensual meditation. Indeed, sexual freedom, experimentation and nudity are encouraged.

“When I went to my first seminar in 1991, where I had my baptism ceremony or, as we call it, the Transmission of our Cellular Plan, I was surprised to see so many people in the nude. It was at a camping site in France and initially I was taken aback but sure within days I was running around in the nude as well,” she says.

Rael appeared in a copy of Playboy magazine in 2005 with some semi-naked young women strengthening the notion that sex is everywhere in the religion. The assumption irritates Henderson.

“Sometimes I get older men in Ireland ringing up asking ‘where’s the free sex?’ You’d swear that’s all we were doing. And the tabloids always focus on sex when they report on Raelianism. We do accept that nudity can be important as it helps you to love your body the way it is. And it’s important too to get to know yourself, get to know what you like sexually. But that’s only part of what we’re about.”

But who else in Ireland has converted to Raelianism?

Henderson, a former sprinter with Raheny Shamrocks who now spends much of her week looking after her 96-year-old mother, says members come from across the country.
Bright hope

“We still have some of our original members, people interested in science and a lot of young people. Recently I was down in Killarney speaking with a group of eight young lads who were interested. Now none of them have joined as yet but the seeds have been sown,” she says.

The new bright hope is a 22-year-old genetics student from the midlands. “He’s studying abroad at the moment and we hope he’ll come back and take it over. We’re getting older so it would be wonderful to have his youth and energy.”

August 6th is the religion’s new year and a baptism is expected to take place in Belfast on that date this year. Also the group will be celebrating 30 years in Ireland. Raelians believe in cloning and that when they die there is the possibility they will be ‘recreated’ by the Elohim and taken to their planet. The ‘transmission of cellular data’ alerts the extra-terrestrials to their wishes according to their beliefs.

“Also, if possible, we’re told that when we die there’s a triangular shaped bone, above the breach of the nose, which is to be removed and sent off to head office because that will have our DNA and will be used to facilitate our recreation – but only if we’ve lived a good life,” says Henderson.

I ask is she expects to be ‘recreated’?

“I really hope so, sometimes I think not....but I’m doing everything I can to make sure I am.”


Ministering to the deaf and blind: How religious groups accommodate the disabled

Adam Parker
Charleston Post Courier
July 28, 2018

If you’re deaf and want to attend a worship service, you’re likely to encounter some difficulties.

If you’re blind, it’s not much easier. Few religious texts are widely available in Braille.

Most mainline religious groups don’t cater expressly to the deaf or blind. They ensure their buildings are compliant with the American Disabilities Act, and they often make available sound amplification devices for the hard-of-hearing. But few churches, synagogues and mosques employ someone proficient in sign language.

One denomination, though, is determined to reach as many people worldwide as possible, and has devoted significant time and resources to developing programs and materials for the deaf and blind.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have translated the Bible into approximately 160 languages, including American Sign Language, or ASL (as well as other sign languages used elsewhere in the world). The ASL translation is a series of videos. A Braille translation of the Bible also is available.

The effort began in 2005 when Jehovah’s Witnesses proficient in ASL began converting the church’s New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures into sign language. They began with the book of Matthew. Five years later, all of the New Testament had been recorded.

And it’s not only the Bible that receives such treatment; several other texts produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses and others also have been translated into more than 700 languages.

The religious order takes its outreach to the deaf so seriously that it holds two weekly meetings in Charleston (7 p.m. Tuesdays and 10 a.m. Saturdays at Kingdom Hall, 1550 Meeting St.), and it organizes 11 ASL conventions across the country.

One such convention will be held at the Assembly Hall in Orangeburg (visible from Interstate 26) Aug. 10-12.

“We’re expecting around 1,000 from five different states,” said Lee Morris Jr., a Witness who operates Charleston Interpreting Services. His company, which is not affiliated with the church, offers a variety of services to any customer with no religious strings attached, but he also helps his denomination develop its multilingual texts.

The convention attracts worshippers from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and parts of Alabama and Tennessee, he said.

Because Jehovah’s Witnesses strive to reach people across the globe, their translation services are highly prioritized.

“People’s relationship with the Creator is best accomplished when (they use) the language of their heart, the language of their birth, the one in which they can truly grasp things more easily,” said Patrick Lynch, a media services official based in Atlanta.

The Episcopal Church in South Carolina has no special programming for the deaf or blind, other than the hospitality they extend to all worshippers, according to Director of Communications Holly Votaw.

Reform Judaism in the U.S., like other religious organizations, celebrates inclusive legislation and other federal policies that serve the disabled, but individual synagogues for the most part do not offer special programming for the deaf or blind, according to Rabbi Greg Kanter of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston.

Many do have listening devices they can offer the hard-of-hearing, though hearing aids now in use often permit volume adjustments that adequately assist their users, Kanter noted. Few religious institutions have Braille Bibles on hand.

But perhaps more houses of worship should do more to cater to the deaf by offering sign language during services and providing customized programming to the disabled, he said.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing: If you offer it, they’ll come,” Kanter said.

The Rev. Justin C. Cribb, who is deaf, grew up in the Baptist church (his father was a pastor) and recognized a calling to ministry when he was 10, he wrote in an email.

At first, he worshipped like everyone else.

“While growing up, I enjoyed sharing God’s love through music,” he wrote. “Though I don’t sing very well with my voice, I can with my hands. I’ve enjoyed many opportunities to share music with hearing and deaf people through the years.”

Eventually, he realized he should be ministering to the deaf.

“You see, the Bible says, ‘Whosoever shall call upon the Lord shall be saved,’ but first they have to believe,” Cribb wrote. “And how will they believe if they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher who can sign? I humbly accepted the call and was ordained on September 18, 2011. I served as the deaf pastor of the Deaf Story Church at Hoffmeyer Road Baptist Church in Florence, SC until December 2016, and now I am currently a deaf pastor of LowCountry Deaf Church with Harbour Lake Baptist Church in Goose Creek.”

It’s important for any worshipper to experience God in his native language, Cribb wrote in his email.

“I’ve had a joy to seeing people come to faith in Jesus Christ because they could learn of God’s love for them in ASL, the language they understand.”

For Cribb, outreach to the deaf is both an opportunity and an obligation.

He noted that the deaf too often are overlooked by mainstream institutions, including the church, and cited the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, which states: “Most of the 35 million deaf people around the world have never seen Jesus’s name signed in their language. Often ignored and oppressed, the deaf are some of the least evangelized people on Earth.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses couldn’t agree more.

“Sign language use is relatively small, but it’s important to convey spiritual language to all,” Lee Morris said.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.


Vast Apostate Army

The Vast Apostate Army
"The Vast Apostate Army takes a team focused approach to activism. We aim to expose the harmful policies of the Jehovah's Witness organization while also providing support to those who are questioning or wish to leave."

"Our mission is to raise global awareness of the harm some of the Jehovah’s Witness/Watchtower’s policies can to to individuals, families, and the wider community. It is our hope that this awareness will lead to policy reform within the organization to better protect it’s members as well as members of the general public. We also aim to reach survivors of abuse within the organization who very likely think they are alone and the mishandling of their specific case was just a one off. You are not alone! There are thousands more and there is support. Lastly, many of us still have loved ones inside the organization and wish to free them from the mental grip of a high control group (cult). We fight for justice, reform, and healing."


Book Review: "TRANSCENDENTAL DECEPTION: Behind the TM curtain - bogus science, hidden agendas, and David Lynch’s campaign to push a million public school kids into Transcendental Meditation while falsely claiming it is not a religion"

Reviewed by Laurie
TM-Free Blog
July 25, 2018

Book Review: "TRANSCENDENTAL DECEPTION: Behind the TM curtain - bogus science, hidden agendas, and David Lynch’s campaign to push a million public school kids into Transcendental Meditation while falsely claiming it is not a religion" by Aryeh Siegel

Published 2018 by JanReg Press
222 pages

"This book is different. This book is special.
"...For our practice, we select only the suitable mantras of personal gods. Such mantras fetch to us the grace of personal gods and make us happier in every walk of life...." [quote by Maharishi]. (p. 86)
I have read many fascinating memoirs by people who have spent years in the TM world. And I’ve read excellent books about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his Guru Dev.

But this book is different. It doesn’t tell the story of one life. Nor does it, like most exposes, focus on just one aspect of the TM organization (TMO), such as Maharishi’s sex life, or TM actually being a religious movement.

"...After giving meditation another shot...I had what superficially looked like convulsions and could not walk without assistance afterwards because my abdominals were clenched so tight, I was hunched over more than 90 degrees (that occurred on and off for nearly a week)...." (p. 182-183)
Instead, it gives a comprehensive overview of the TM movement. It brings together the many criticisms ~ over many years ~ in many fields ~ from many scholars. The result is compelling evidence that deception is not an occasional aberration within the TMO, but one of its standard modes of operation. Siegel documents how the TMO has ..."

Jul 29, 2018

Jogye Order wrestling with decades-old factional strife 

Kang Hyun-kyung
Korea Times
July 30. 2018

Under the monster heat wave that has gripped the nation for weeks, Venerable Seoljo, 88, has gone on a hunger strike. 

His fast ― albeit he drinks water with bamboo salt ― marked its 40th day on Sunday.

The senior monk's sit-in protest in a tent set up near Jogye Temple in central Seoul reflects the lingering factional strife inside the nation's largest Buddhist sect, the Jogye Order.

The Jogye Order is poles apart as a few monastics who control the money and power inside the sect clash with the rest following the outbreak of the corruption scandals surrounding its President Seoljeong. 

Seoljeong, who is under fire for various allegations, and Venerable Seoljo are two iconic figures representing the two opposing factions. Being elected Jogye Order president last year, Seoljeong is portrayed as representing the mainstream and the vested interests of the sect, whereas Seoljo is a vocal critic of the "self-serving, ethically flawed" leadership. 

On Friday, Seoljeong paid his second visit to Seoljo to encourage the senior monk to stop his hunger strike, expressing worries about the grave health risk. 

The Jogye Order leader said he "emptied" his mind, which means he is no longer ambitious to stick with the leadership post. 

During a news conference that day, he said he would decide whether to stay or step down from the leadership post as soon as he could, after collecting opinions from other Buddhist leaders. 

But his remarks didn't stop Seoljo from continuing his hunger strike. Seoljo said he would wait and see how things go and then would decide whether to stop fasting or not. 

Seoljeong is embroiled in several allegations. He is accused of having a secret wife with whom he has a daughter. In May, MBC's investigative program "PD Notebook" unveiled an audio file in which a woman identified only by her surname Kim claimed she is the wife of Seoljeong and they have a daughter. She went on to say she had an affair with the Buddhist monk three decades ago. 

In a different audio file unveiled by the Jogye Order, however, she denied this. Kim said she was raped by another man and her daughter is the result of her traumatic past. 

"PD Notebook" raised new allegations regarding the Buddhist monk and claimed Seoljeong has hidden assets under the name of his brother. Seoljeong denied the allegations. 

He filed a lawsuit against Bulkyo.com which initially raised the allegation about his biological daughter, demanding adequate financial compensation for defamation. 

The Buddhist monk, however, had not submitted to DNA testing to confirm whether Kim's daughter is also his.

Amid the allegation, Venerable Seoljo, the former chief monk of Bulguk Temple in North Gyeongsang Province, said whether or not the Jogye Order president has a child is a secondary issue, raising suspicions about Seoljeong's credentials as Buddhist clergy.

Seoljo claimed Seoljeong is not a Buddhist monk as he was not ordained.

"He was born in 1944. He claimed he received ordination as a Buddhist monastic in 1962 at Tongdo Temple. But this shouldn't be true," Seoljo said in a media interview earlier July. "The temple ordains people who are aged 20 or more. I have never heard he had received Buddhist ordination afterwards, which means he is not a Buddhist monk."

Thus, Seoljo said technically Seoljeong is not eligible for the top job in Jogye Order.

"Those who didn't go through Buddhist ordination are not monks. Now we are seeing such a person in the leadership position of the Jogye Order. This is nonsensical," he said. 

"You cannot argue whether he has a child or not inside the temple. But you can argue whether he is a Buddhist monk or not inside the temple." 

Park Gwang-seo, president of the Korea Institute of Religious Freedom and a retired professor of physics, said the factional feud inside Jogye Order has continued partly because of failed reforms in 1994 and 1998. 

"The two-time reforms were blown opportunities as those who took the helm afterwards failed to make the system transparent. Reform has remained as an unfinished job and this explains why such factional strife and corruption scandals broke out from time to time," he said. 

The 1990s were the darkest days for Jogye Order. The Buddhist sect was plunged into turbulence in 1994 and 1998 as then-presidents Euihyun and Wolju, respectively, unsuccessfully attempted to seek re-election in the face of opposition from their followers, which later led to violent clashes between the two sides. 

Those who stood up against the leaders gained the upper hand and have since controlled the Jogye Order. But corruption scandals involving Buddhist leaders and violent clashes continued to occur. 

"To be reborn as a transparent sect, Jogye Order needs a revolution-like change," Park said. "Otherwise it has no future." 

Korean Buddhism's modern history is full of factional strife, particularly after liberation from Japan.

Like Buddhist monks and nuns in other countries, Buddhist monastics here were not allowed to marry. The tradition changed after the Japanese annexation of Korea. Influenced by Japanese Buddhism which allows monastics to marry once they are ordained, the number of Buddhist monastics who were married increased. 

According to unofficial data, married monastics outnumbered traditional ones in the 1950s and the former took over leadership of 25 temples of Jogye Order.

In 1954, then-President Syngman Rhee ordered a purge of married Buddhist monks. Backed by the presidential support, traditional monastics "waged a war" against married ones who overtook the helm in many temples. 

The former hired gangs to regain temples in the struggle and the bloody campaign to purify 

Buddhism continued until 1962 when then-President Park Chung-hee put the brakes on the factional strife inside Jogye Order by allowing temporarily married monastics to remain. 

Some of the gangs who were called up for the factional strife, meanwhile, stayed in temples and some received Buddhist ordination after training.


Meet Santa Muerte’s Matron of Honor

July 28, 2018

ECATEPEC, Mexico — The visions appear so often these days that they cause little stir. The tall, wiry figure of thIe late Jonathan Legaría is still a regular at his temple, while his followers say he imparts wisdom as they dream.

It is 10 years since assailants gunned down the 26-year-old in a hail of some 250 bullets. But the murder of one of the most influential spiritual leaders in Mexico’s recent history has not diminished Santa Muerte, the skeleton folk saint he revered whose name in English would be Saint Death.

In fact, the movement he left behind has strengthened since his passing. The fallen preacher has assumed a saint-like status, while his bereaved mother, Enriqueta Vargas, skillfully guides his flock.

Known as Comandante Pantera (Commander Panther), Legaría founded Santa Muerte International — the loose group of devotees that has grown since his murder. He also built a 72-foot skeleton statue that still towers above its drab surroundings here inEcatepec, just outside Mexico City.
Inaugurated in December 2007, the statue is among the two most famous Santa Muerte landmarks in the world — the other being the public shrinein the rough Mexico City neighborhood of Tepito.

“[Comandante Pantera] was crucial to the cult,” said Mariel Guerrero Díaz, a regular at the temple. “Thanks to him people began seeing more of Santa Muerte. She wasn’t so hidden and looked down upon.”

Every month, thousands stop by to make their petitions to the looming effigy. They leave offerings such as flowers, cigarettes or even bags of cocaine at the temple’s altars.

To these worshippers, Santa Muerte is a powerful miracle worker, capable of offering prosperity, protection or vengeance. Most consider themselves Catholic, although the Vatican has characterized the devotion as an infernal cult.

But the devotees connected directly to Santa Muerte International represent just a fraction of her global following. While the precise origins of the cult are up for debate, experts agree that public and private altars dedicated to the folk saint have multiplied in the past two decades.

There are currently an estimated 10 to 12 million devotees across the Americas, making Santa Muerte the fastest-growing new religious movement in the region,according to Andrew Chesnut, chair of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.

The vast majority of them are law-abiding citizens. But the media has often portrayed the devotion as a narco-cult and highlighted the discovery of Santa Muerte imagery in the raided homes of drug traffickers.

Mexican authorities have subscribed to this view and the army has routinely destroyed Santa Muerte shrines along the U.S. border.

Legaría himself faced a hostile local government, which instructed him to remove his giant statue because it broke building regulations — an order he refused to follow.

However, he did little to clean up the movement’s image.
His first self-published book, Santa Muerte: Revelations, outlines several spiritual rituals, including one for the extermination of enemies and another for criminals looking to avoid arrest.

But some law-abiding devotees are uncomfortable sharing their saint with criminals.

“I am embarrassed by the narco abuse of her imagery and power,” said Warren Robert Vine, a devotee from Texas who was visiting the shrine. “But I sincerely believe there is a new branch growing within the faith that focuses on people, the family and community.”

Vine credits Santa Muerte with healing a herniated disc in his back that stopped him working when he was uninsured. Since having a vivid dream in which his grandfather and Legaría visited him to offer support, Vine has also felt a special bond with the late preacher.

“I have no doubt that he lived a less than perfect life at certain points in time,” Vine said. “But he was drawn to [Santa Muerte] for a reason… Without question I consider Jonathan Legaría to be a saint.”

Many devotees have come to share this view. During his short life, Legaría convinced hundreds of people that he possessed healing powers and drew regular crowds with his preaching. A decade on, it’s clear that the accounts of his spiritual feats become more extraordinary and heroic with each passing year.
Some devotees say Legaría appeared in pictures they took of his personal altar, while his mother reports that he saved one follower by making him temporarily invisible from armed pursuers.

Legaría’s writings suggest he would have enjoyed watching this mythmaking unfold.

In his second book, The Son of Santa Muerte, Legaría describes his upbringing in Tepito, where he learned to fend for himself after his parents deserted him. He received little formal education, he writes, but became a noted boxer who was feared on the streets.

Except this was pure invention, as his mother explained after his death. Legaría was in fact born in the middle-class Mexico City suburb of Ciudad Satélite. He was raised in comfort, the son of Vargas, who owned a karaoke bar, and her husband—a politician who had worked with former Mexican president José López Portillo.

Always ambitious, as a child Legaría told his mother that he would one day be president.
He was also fascinated with the occult. After finishing high school, he took part in magical rituals on trips to Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Nigeria and the United States.

Legaría had special respect for Abakuá and Palo—Afro-Cuban traditions that would have an unmistakable influence on his own branch of Santa Muerte. He also had a taste for fine clothes and jewelry. At the time of his death, he owned a limousine, five imported cars and a motorcycle collection.

Legaría paid for these luxuries with the income from various businesses, including an auto repair shop. He also made money selling rituals and Santa Muerte icons.

As his influence grew, Legaría made enemies in the local church and government.

His most publicized rivalry was with David Romo, a Santa Muerte leader he had slammed for replacing the skeleton statue in his Mexico City church with a new icon of a pale lady called the “Angel of Death.”

A threatening and unpredictable individual, Romo told the Spanish news agency EFE shortly after Legaría’s death that Legaría was a “charlatan.” Four years later, Romo’s spiritual career came to an end when he wassentenced to 66 years in prison for his role in a kidnapping ring.

Given the length of Legaría’s list of enemies, it is not surprising that he had premonitions of an early death. According to Vargas, he would often upset her by bringing up the topic.
Legaría’s prediction was fulfilled in the early hours of July 31, 2008, as he left the radio station where he presented a regular slot devoted to Santa Muerte. A group of assassins with assault rifles fired round after round into his Cadillac Escalade, killing him on the spot. His two female passengers survived, although his pregnant friend lost her baby as a result of her wounds.  

The murder devastated Legaría’s followers, who also faced the spiritual dilemma of why their saint had failed to protect their beloved leader.

“The devotees reacted with incredible sadness and anguish,” said María Elena Rodríguez, a Santa Muerte disciple and witch from the coastal state of Veracruz. “Many of us asked the same question. ‘Why, Mother? Why him?’”
Vargas published her son’s cellphone number and offered a reward of 200,000 pesos ($20,000 at the time) for information leading to the killers.

The calls flooded in day and night, with an infinity of different versions. Some blamed the police or drug cartels, while others accused local priests. One caller even claimed Legaría was alive and living in Peru.

Although Vargas was a devout Catholic who had long viewed her son’s spiritual pursuits with suspicion, she finally turned to the skeletal saint he had venerated.

“I made a promise to Santa Muerte that if she delivered my son’s killers, I would raise her name up and strengthen the cult,” she told The Daily Beast.
Vargas publicly accused various people of her son’s murder. She cast doubt on the Catholic bishop, Onésimo Cepeda, who mockingly toldmedia outlets that Legaría had “loved death so much she had come for him.”

But her own investigations led her to conclude that a federal agent called Emilio Gómez, alias ‘The Knife,’ was behind the killing. According to Vargas, Gómez wanted revenge after the murder of his own son the previous year. She believes he mistakenly identified Legaría as the killer.

When Gómez was himself gunned down by unknown assailants in 2009, Vargas saw the event as the fulfillment of Santa Muerte’s promise.
“I won’t tell you I had forgiven him,” she said. “I am going to hate him until the end of my life.”

By this point, Vargas had already taken control of the temple, despite the hostility of other would-be leaders angling for the role. One told her that devotees would never accept a woman in charge. Another man, already in his 20s, claimed he was Legaría’s son and rightful heir. But the succession doubts were swept away by the force of Vargas’ personality.

She immediately saw that inclusivity was the devotion’s most appealing and distinctive feature. Unlike the Catholic Church, she has always warmly welcomed divorced or LGBT devotees.

“I have tried to show how beautiful it is to respect everybody’s sexual orientation. Neither skin color nor social status matter. Everyone here is brother and sister.”

Vargas also tended to her practical duties. After years of legal wrangling and threats of eviction, she finally won an appeals court ruling that allowed the cult to keep the temple. Her current goal is to gain official recognition of the church.

While devotees see Legaría as a powerful spiritual intermediary, they also benefit from having his mother, a gifted organizer, at the helm.

“Let’s not forget that Vargas was a manager,” said Stefano Bigliardi, an assistant professor at Morocco’s Al Akhawayn University who studied Santa Muerte in Mexico. “She has successfully applied her entrepreneurial skills to a new situation and salvaged the temple during a critical time.”

Many devotees also identify with her story of personal loss since she has firsthand experience of Mexico’s staggering violence and impunity.

More than 200,000 murders (PDF) have been recorded in the country since 2006, and Santa Muerte has taken hold in regions such as Ecatepec that are plagued by violent crime.

Vargas has herself defied many death threats since becoming leader and pursuing her son’s killers. When a masked man sent her a warning via an employee who he threatened with a pistol, she publicly vowed to continue her search for justice.

This fearlessness, and the rage behind it, resonates deeply with her followers.

“There would be no point shooting my heart, because that is already destroyed,” Vargas said. “Shoot me in the forehead while staring in my eyes. That way, my look of contempt will stay etched on your memory.”


Jul 28, 2018

Aum executions fail to end debate over cult’s motives

Japan Times
July 28, 2018

The execution of 13 members of the religious group Aum Shinrikyo in two rounds on July 6 and 26, including the group’s 63-year-old leader, Shoko Asahara (whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto), for the 1995 subway sarin attack and other crimes, was hardly a shock. Several months ago, after exhausting their appeals, some of the Aum members on death row were moved, thus suggesting that executions were imminent.

Executions are never announced beforehand, but the press seemed to know what was going down. NHK was at the Tokyo Detention House on July 6 on the morning Asahara was hanged and filmed witnesses to the execution going into the facility. The footage turned out to be the perfect introductory image two days later for the special program NHK aired. It had obviously been in the works for some time.

Although the public is relieved that the two-decades-plus Aum ordeal is finally over, news outlets are still obsessed with it, citing a lack of closure regarding motives for the crimes, which they claim victims still desire. As one of the judges at Asahara’s trial said during the program, his job was to try to pry information from the defendant about the reason for the killings. However, the guru never explained his actions or those of his followers, so in that sense, the judge said, he failed in his duties.

In the special, NHK offered new information about these motives, taken from transcripts of conversations between Asahara and his lawyers that had never been made public, as well as from letters that Aum executives had written from death row to various groups.
The lawyers’ transcripts, which covered the eight-year trial of Asahara starting in 1996, showed that he was relatively talkative in the beginning and admitted, up to a point, that he had ordered the murder of Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family in 1989 after the attorney tried to help parents who wanted to remove their children from the cult. However, at another point in the transcripts he implied that the order was a “joke” and the murder was the idea of one of his senior members, Kiyohide Hayakawa. None of these statements were entered as evidence during the trial.

Hayakawa admitted in a letter that it was “wrong” to kill the Sakamotos, but that he was only carrying out what he felt was Asahara’s will.

Over the years, much of the media coverage was built on determining why the men closest to Asahara carried out such heinous crimes. They were the best and brightest of their generation, graduates of Japan’s finest universities. They left college when Japan was at the height of its economic power, and could have had any jobs they wanted, but instead decided to follow an acupuncturist who turned a yoga business into a hybrid religion with more than 4,200 followers.

According to letters from Tomomasa Nakagawa, Asahara had “two faces”: a beneficient one he showed to the bulk of his followers and a more calculating one he presented to his inner circle of elites. He did not have confidence in any member whom he perceived was not sympathetic to his militant ideas, which held that the world needed to be “reset” by means of violence. However, Nakagawa said Asahara never sufficiently “explained” his thoughts about the “end of the world.”

Asahara’s conviction turned on a conversation that supposedly occurred during a limousine ride from Tokyo to the Aum compound in Yamanashi Prefecture several days before the subway sarin attack. His inner circle was present, and NHK’s recreation of the conversation followed court transcripts, showing that Hideo Murai proposed the attack as a countermeasure to police pressure against the cult. Asahara agreed and asked Seiichi Endo to make enough sarin for the plan. In the lawyers’ transcripts Asahara claimed he was against the attack but that it had already been set in motion by Murai and Yoshihiro Inoue and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Letters from various members contradicted this version and, as Nakagawa pointed out, followers would never act without the guru’s blessing.

The confusion is not surprising. Although Asahara had been characterized in the press as having become catatonic as the trial progressed, at an early stage he deflected responsibility like any murder suspect. Likewise, the men who carried out the attack tried to protect themselves by claiming it was Asahara’s idea all along.
Lawyer Yasuhiro Yasuda, who was set to represent Asahara at a retrial requested after new evidence about the limo conversation came to light, said during a discussion on the web program DemocraTVthat an unnamed person in the limo said that Asahara was asleep during the whole ride and so couldn’t have approved the attack. Since that conversation was the basis for Asahara’s conviction, a new trial should have been called, but the government ignored Yasuda’s request.

Reportedly, the government wanted to end the Aum matter before the ascension of a new emperor next year. Left in the lurch for a motive, the media turned to the usual suspects. In an Asahi Shimbun column, Genichiro Takahashi, who started covering Aum in the 1980s, wondered how Asahara’s banal teachings could have been taken seriously by such men, and compared their self-destructive loyalty to that of the nation before and during World War II, not to mention the idealistic youths who joined the Japanese Red Army in the 1970s and then proceeded to slaughter one another. In the Mainichi Shimbun, religious scholar Hiromi Shimada wrote that Aum “reflected on a special generation” that came of age during a time when “subcultures” associated with science fiction and the occult were popular.

The judge interviewed by NHK said it was important to clarify the motive for Aum’s actions so that they would never be repeated but, according to Shimada, Aum’s crimes were the product of specific circumstances of the times in which they took place, and those circumstances no longer apply.


Elizabeth Smart reportedly tried to save Catherine Oxenberg's daughter from NXIVM sex cult

New York Post
July 28, 2018

Famed kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart tried to save actress Catherine Oxenberg’s daughter from the Nxivm sex-slave cult, according to a new report.

Smart — who was held captive and raped for nine months at age 14 — tried to aid the “Dynasty” star after learning her daughter India was part of the upstate group, where “Smallville” actress Allison Mack allegedly blackmailed women into having sex with its leader and branded their skin with his initials, Radar Online reports.

“We made a plan for her to send an email to India asking if she needed support, explaining that, she, too had been a victim of media exposure and experienced many emotions that India might be going through,” Oxenberg writes in her new memoir, “Captive: A Mother’s Crusade to Save Her Daughter from a Terrifying Cult,” according to the site.

Smart wrote a “wonderful, heartfelt” letter to India — “but India never responded,” she writes.

India joined the Albany-based organization in 2011 at age 20 after attending one of its self-help workshops, and her personality began to change, according to Oxenberg.
“She was showing signs of becoming secretive, distracted, and unreliable — showing up late for appointments or not helping out at home when she’d promised she would,” she writes in the memoir, per Radar.

Within a few years, she had gone from being a “gentle, mild-mannered” daughter to an “Energizer Bunny missionary,” she writes.


Broke sex cult bookkeeper told to find a new job

Emily Saul and Ruth Brown
NY Post
July 27, 2018

The longtime bookkeeper for upstate sex-slave cult Nxivm was ordered Friday to find a new gig while she is out on bail awaiting trial for her role in the group.

A lawyer for Kathy Russell, 60, complained that her client only has $2,000 in her bank account and counting beans for the self-help sect is her sole source of income — but the judge said too bad.

“She’s gotta branch out,” said Judge Nicholas Garaufis as Russell was arraigned on racketeering charges in Brooklyn federal court.
Russell — who is accused of helping Nxivm leader Keith Raniere commit identity theft in a scheme to smuggle a non-citizen into the US through Canada — entered a not guilty plea and was allowed to stay out of jail on a $25,000 bond, put up by a pal in Alaska.

Russell was arrested Tuesday along with Seagram’s liquor heiress Clare Bronfman — Nxivm’s financial backer— its co-founder Nancy Salzman, and her daughter Lauren Salzman.

Asked as she left court what she’ll do for work now, Russell hid behind a reusable shopping bag and a polka-dot hat, but her lawyer William Fanciullo responded: “Good question.”
The arrests are part of an ongoing federal investigation into Raniere and his right-hand woman, former ”Smallville” star Allison Mack.

They’re facing sex trafficking charges for allegedly coercing women into becoming part of a master-slave group within Nxivm called DOS, where “slaves” were forced to sleep with Raniere and have his initials branded into their skin.
Lauren Salzman, 42, was also arraigned in Brooklyn Friday and allowed to stay out of the slammer on a $5 million bond, signed by her grandparents and secured by $50,000 in cash and property.


Jul 27, 2018

State Department religious freedom summit ends with commitments, critiques

Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
July 27, 2018

WASHINGTON (RNS) — The State Department concluded its first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom Thursday (July 26), with declarations promising further efforts to reduce religious persecution, even as critics said they are waiting to see its statements turned into actions.

Closing the meeting of some 350 government officials, religious freedom advocates and others from more than 80 nations, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed to an action plan, dubbed the Potomac Declaration, that lays out “concrete ways” to protect religious groups around the world.

“The Potomac Declaration is a formal affirmation that says right up front that the United States takes religious freedom seriously, that we will work with others around the world to help those under attack for their beliefs, and that we expect leaders around the world to make it their priority as well,” Pompeo said in a news conference.

The plan of action accompanying the declaration calls for the repeal of “inherently subjective” anti-blasphemy laws abroad and the protection of the publication of religious materials. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback called the meeting’s work a demonstration of “a moment where the Iron Curtain prohibiting religious freedom is coming down.”

In addition, 25 countries co-signed a statement condemning abuses of religious freedom by terrorist groups, while fewer than a dozen added their names to statements condemning religious restrictions in China, Iran and Myanmar.

But Trump administration supporters focused on the Potomac documents, speaking of them in glowing terms. Johnnie Moore, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as well as an ad hoc group of evangelical advisers to President Trump, said the ministerial delivered “religious freedom’s Magna Carta.”

The meeting was welcomed by groups not aligned with the Trump White House as well as some experts who have disagreed with the administration.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, who did not attend the ministerial, expressed hope that the summit could help religious minorities like them who have faced restrictions. More than two dozen Jehovah’s Witnesses have been detained in Russia and dozens more are imprisoned in Korea as conscientious objectors.

“We’re certainly hopeful that the things that are happening to Jehovah’s Witnesses — or anybody else whose freedoms are being restricted — that it gets noticed and that it could improve for everyone,” said Jarrod Lopes, a communications representative for the Witnesses.

Imam Mohamed Magid, the leader of All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Virginia who was at the ministerial, said he appreciated in particular Brownback’s push for a global alliance of leaders to address religious freedom, adding that he hopes there will be regional alliances on the continents of Africa and Asia.

“We have to have people around the world who are activists,” said Magid, who noted the ministerial was the largest gathering of religious people from other countries that he can recall attending in the United States.

Peter Henne, who teaches political science at the University of Vermont and has questioned the Trump administration’s treatment of Muslims, said the summit seemed to produce substantive discussions.

“This was not the Magna Carta for religious freedom, but it wasn’t just a sham for evangelicals,” said Henne, who followed the summit on Twitter.

But Henne appeared skeptical that the discussions would bear fruit: “The Trump administration has promised a lot since the election about helping persecuted Christians, helping people around the world generally, and it hasn’t done a whole lot yet.”

Other critics of the White House sharply contrasted Trump policies with the summit’s talk of religious freedom.

“This administration is led by Islamophobes, runs internment camps for children separated from parents seeking asylum from persecution, and has failed to deliver promised reconstruction funds for Iraqi Christians and other minorities,” said Shaun Casey, who launched the State Department’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs under former Secretary of State John Kerry.

“The conference produced a cloud of words that in no way changed facts on the ground regarding either the Trump Administration’s dreadful record on religious freedom or the behavior of other nations.”

Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, said the meeting showed the State Department was putting religious freedom on par with other interests, such as security and trade.

“What received scant mention, however, is a fundamental principle that’s been a key to America’s success in this realm – that is the healthy distance between religion and state,” she said. “It’s our abiding hope that as our country seeks to promote religious freedom abroad, we not forget the principles which have made religious liberty possible at home.”

Brownback seemed ready to counter that criticism, saying at the news conference that protecting religious freedom is a “safe space” for government that can also lead to greater economic growth and less terrorism.

“You have a right to religious freedom, to do as you choose with your own soul, period,” he said. “That’s what we are pushing, and we think that’s fully consistent with separation of church and state. The government’s role in this is to protect the right.”


Hanged ex-AUM guru said 'wait a minute' when asked about handling of his body

July 27, 2018

The words and actions of Shoko Asahara, former leader of the AUM Shinrikyo cult, shortly before his execution at the Tokyo Detention Center in early July have emerged from testimonies by people familiar with his last moments.

Asahara, who was convicted of mass murder along with his former followers, was handed the death penalty for involvement in a series of terror attacks and murders, including the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subway system, which left 13 people dead and injured some 6,000.

According to those people, Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, woke up on the morning of July 6 in his solitary cell and ate breakfast. He was then prompted by a detention officer to come out of the cell, and was taken to the counseling room where death row inmates are asked if they want to leave last words or talk with a counselor.

When the detention officer told him he was going to be executed that day, and asked about counseling, Asahara said nothing. Judging that he needed no counseling, the officer then asked the ex-cult guru about how to handle his body. As the convict remained silent, the detention officer prodded him again. Asahara then said, "Wait a minute," and made gestures as if he was giving a thought on the issue for a while. As the officer mentioned his wife and daughters and sought his response, Asahara replied in a small voice, "The fourth daughter," indicating his wishes that she be the recipient. As the officer asked again to make sure that he got the answer right, the former cultist referred to the daughter by her name. The officer made another attempt to confirm Asahara's intention, and he nodded in the affirmative.
The body of the former death row inmate was cremated at a facility in Tokyo on July 9. His fourth daughter indicated her intention to receive her fathers' ashes, and her lawyer announced that she wanted the remains to be dispersed over the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, Asahara's wife and third daughter have demanded that the remains be handed over to the wife, saying that it was unthinkable for him to designate a particular individual as the recipient of his body, considering his mental state before his execution.


His parents fell for a spiritual guru. In “Dear Franklin Jones,” he wants to find out why.

The New Age spiritual guru Adi Da in 1986 (Wikipedia)
Adi Da
Ashley McKinless
The American
June 29, 2018


Given the success of true-crime and mystery podcasts like “Serial,” “S-Town” and “Missing Richard Simmons,” Jonathan Hirsch’s investigation of his childhood in what might have been a cult seems like promising fodder for another runaway hit. Hirsch’s parents were disciples of the New Age spiritual guru Adi Da—previously known as Bubba Free John, Da Free John and Da Love-Ananda, among other incarnations, and born Franklin Jones in Queens, N.Y., in 1939. Hirsch left the community when he went to college, and in “Dear Franklin Jones” he sets out to answer some questions: Who was Franklin Jones? Was he a spiritual master or a cult leader and sexual abuser? Why did Hirsch’s parents follow him?

Those looking for another suspenseful, Serial-esque drama, however, will likely be disappointed. There are no shocking revelations about Jones or his religious movement that could not be found on Wikipedia. In fact, the podcast is not really about Jones at all, which is for the good because as far as spiritual thinkers go, Jones is not all that interesting. He had an unremarkable, middle-class upbringing on Long Island; he went to college and “lost his religion” upon discovering sexual freedom. After school, he took part in LSD experiments and adopted a cat named Robert who Jones considered to be his own guru. The gospel of Jones amounts to this: The world is unknowable and mysterious, and the only path to happiness is to pledge complete obedience and devotion to, you guessed it, Franklin Jones.
Who was Franklin Jones? Was he a spiritual master or a cult leader and sexual abuser?

The more interesting question is: Why would anyone be willing to follow this man? It can be easy, as a Christian—at least our guy has withheld the test of time!—to smugly dismiss Franklin Jones as a narcissistic, sex-obsessed charlatan and his followers as dupes. While that is almost certainly an accurate assessment of Jones, it is worth taking seriously what drove so many “seekers” away from established religious traditions and into the orbit of charismatic preachers of modern enlightenment in the second half of the 20th century.

For Hirsch’s mother, Kathleen, who was raised in an Irish Catholic home and has mostly unpleasant memories of the nuns who taught her, it was a desire for spiritual communion. “I saw someone who was alive in the divine and was offering me a relationship to come into that,” she says of Jones. If the Christians in Kathleen’s life had seemed more alive in Christ, would she have felt the need to travel from Nepal to California, from guru to guru, looking for meaning? If she had been taught about St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila, would she have turned to a self-anointed god who expected money and sexual favors from his devotees?
After 17 years following Jones, the Hirsch family left the community feeling estranged and disillusioned. Looking back on the experience, Kathleen—who as Jones’s personal acupuncturist saw firsthand the manipulative aspects of his relationships—says: “We can get idealistic sometimes about what a god-man is supposed to be. If he’s a man, he’s still a man.” Jonathan is left to try to understand why his parents would let a man like Franklin Jones into their family—and after seven episodes neither he nor the listener has a very satisfying answer.

This article also appeared in print, under the headline "In search of Franklin Jones," in the July 23, 2018 issue.


Remaining members of Japan's doomsday cult executed

Aum Shinrikyo cult members, alongside group founder Shoko Asahara (4th from L), speak at a press conference in Tokyo to announce a plan to field candidates for the general election in this photo taken in January 1990.
Aum Shinrikyo cult members
Euan McKirdy, Yoko Wakatsuki and James Griffiths
July 26, 2018


Tokyo (CNN) Six members of a Japanese doomsday cult held responsible for the deaths of dozens of people have been executed, according to Japan's justice minister.

The group's leader Shoko Asahara -- real name Chizuo Matsumoto -- was executed earlier in July, along with six other members of the cult, which was responsible for a sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway in 1995.

Other members of Aum Shinrikyo who had been sentenced to death were hanged Thursday morning, Justice Minister Yoko Kawakami told reporters.

The Tokyo attack was part of a murder spree throughout the country that left 29 people dead. The subway attack itself killed 13 people and injured more than 6,000 others.

Kawakami said that the "extremely heinous" crimes of the cult had been "carefully organized and planned," and that attacks of this magnitude "should never happen again."

Called the attack "indiscriminate terrorism against the public that shocked the world," she said it "shook society with fear, (that) a chemical weapon like sarin was used."

One of those executed Thursday, Kazuaki Okazaki, was one of the first people to join the cult and was instrumental in growing the group's membership. He was implicated in some of the group's earliest killings -- of a lawyer and his family, as well as a follower who tried to leave the cult in 1989.

Another cult member, Yasuo Hayashi, was directly involved in the Tokyo sarin gas attack and other attacks in central Japan, according to state broadcaster NHK.

Three other Aum followers executed -- Masato Yokoyama, Toru Toyoda and Kenichi Hirose -- were also involved in the Tokyo attack, another sarin attack in central Japan and other murders committed by the group, as well as the production of weapons and deadly chemicals.

Satoru Hashimoto was implicated in at least ten murders committed by the group, including the lawyer and his family, as well as the central Japan gas attack.

Asahara's death sentence was finalized in 2006, according to public broadcaster NHK, but trials of his co-conspirators dragged on for a further 12 years. The last appeals were exhausted in early 2018, paving the way for the executions of the cult leader and his followers.

Executions in Japan are done in secret, with no advance warning given to the prisoner, their family or legal representatives, according to Amnesty International. Prisoners often only learn hours before that they are to be killed.

In two terms as justice minister, starting in 2014, Kawakami has recommended the death penalty for 16 people, including the 13 Aum Shinrikyo members. Following the most recent hangings, there are 110 inmates on death row, 88 of whom are applying for retrial.

At Thursday's press conference, Kawakami said that she had "ordered the executions after repeated prudent reviews."

She said that her government had studied anti-capital punishment arguments, but that a country's system of punishment should be based on public sentiment.

She said that Japanese public opinion accepted the death penalty for crimes of this magnitude, and that the elimination of the practice would not appropriate in Japan.
Doomsday beliefs

Asahara founded Aum Shinrikyo in 1984 and quickly attracted thousands of disciples, combining forecasts of a coming apocalypse -- which would come after the US attacked Japan, turning it into a nuclear wasteland -- with traditional religious teachings and new age tactics.

Many of Asahara's followers were highly educated scientists and engineers, who helped bring in huge amounts of money to the cult's coffers.

As the cult grew, the families of members began to raise the alarm, and complaints of brainwashing and abuse within Aum Shinrikyo became more common.

Despite this, few would have predicted what was to come, and the cult shot to global notoriety with the March 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway, when members of Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on carriages full of commuters during rush hour. The attack killed 13 people and injured 5,500.

Asahara and dozens of his followers were arrested in the months that followed, after police raids across the country.

Deadly cult

Aum Shinrikyo's killings began in November 1989, when lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto -- who was working on a class action case against the cult -- was brutally murdered along with his wife and child. The killing was eventually linked to the cult.

Prosecutors said cult members entered the Sakamotos' home as they slept, injected them with lethal doses of potassium chloride and strangled them.

Sakamoto's murder and the growing clamor from cult members' families caused increased attention from the authorities, and Aum Shinrikyo began preparing for the end.

At a sheep farm in rural Western Australia and other properties, cult scientists began testing sarin while others synthesized the VX nerve agent and launched a failed attempt to manufacture automatic rifles.

On June 27, 1994, seven people were killed and more than 500 hospitalized after Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas from a truck by driving slowly around an apartment complex in Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture. Another victim died in 2008.

Subway attack

The Matsumoto attack was a warm up to the main event, which began almost eight months later on March 20, 1995, according to a report by the Federation of American Scientists.

Five Aum Shinrikyo members boarded subway cars on three different lines in central Tokyo during rush hour, carrying plastic bags filled with sarin. They punctured the bags with the sharpened tips of theirs umbrellas and left them on baggage racks or the floor to seep the deadly gas into the carriages.

The trains were scheduled to arrive at central Kasumigaseki station within four minutes of each other, and the cult hoped not only to kill everyone on board, but also use the trains to deliver the gas to a massive interchange used by thousands of passengers at a time.

Fortunately, mistakes made in developing the sarin and its delivery method meant the attack was far less effective than intended, and the group only succeeded in killing 12 and injuring 5,500 people. Another victim died later.

According to the FAS report, chemical weapons experts estimate that "tens of thousands could have easily been killed" if the attack had been carried out correctly.


'It's definitely a cult,' says ex-Johnston church member where Sunday school teacher was arrested

Firstborn Baptist Church
Amanda Lamb
July 24, 2018

BENSON, N.C. — It began with the arrest of a Sunday school teacher on 13 charges of sexually assaulting children earlier this month.

Now, investigators with the Johnston County Sheriff's Office are speaking with more people who have come forward to say they too were molested or abused in other ways at the church.

Some of those same people have reached out to WRAL News, saying they will no longer be silent.

Not unlike the opaque windows of the Firstborn Baptist Church in Benson that let in very little light, seven former members tell us there is a dark climate within those church walls.

"There's this culture of fear and you have to obey the ultimate leader and authority," said Cherith Roberson, 32, a former church member. "And it starts from the beginning."

Roberson's family joined when she was 7 years old.

"It was taught, it was preached about, that you break a child's spirit. And you do that by whatever means necessary," she said.

Her little sister, Beka Foust, was just 5 years old.

"I knew this was not normal," Foust said. "I didn't know what normal was."

The sisters said all the children attended school at church. They said they were told what to wear, what to believe, and were not allowed contact with anyone on the outside.

"You were ostracized from everybody else," Foust said.

And they said there were serious consequences for breaking rules.

"They would put me in the closet with a light out and I would just sit there all day," Foust said. "I was allowed to eat once."

"There was a lot of physical and emotional abuse that went way beyond spanking," Roberson said. "From spanking, to beating, there was a huge paddle in the church school that I attended."

They said church members were publicly humiliated from the pulpit and children were beaten so others could hear their screams.

Roberson said it happened to her friend. "She was beaten and everybody in the school could hear it happening."

Roberson left the church when she was 18 years old, and was disowned by her family.

"They were encouraged to cut off all access to me," she said.

Her family finally left too, and they were reunited.

The sisters said they had to come forward when Sunday school teacher Jonathan Young was charged earlier this month with molesting three girls from the church even though they never thought he would be the one arrested.

"I grew up with him," Roberson said. "We were like siblings.

"It was the worst thing you could hear," said Roberson of the news of Young's arrest. "It was someone we cared about and loved and trusted."

The church's pastor is Kemp Young, and he is the great uncle of the man charged. He spoke to WRAL News shortly after the Sunday school teacher's arrest.

"I'm heartbroken by it all because it's unbelievable," Young told WRAL News on July 3. "I hate if anyone is hurt on either side, but the young man is ruined now. I hate it and I don't know what else to say about it."

Young declined our request for an interview on Tuesday to discuss these new accusations. He told WRAL he refuses to dwell in negativity and that we are not getting credible feedback about what the church is really like.

Both women said several of their peers confided over the years they had been molested by men at the church.

"I know there has been a culture of covering up this kind of activity since the 1980s, at least," Roberson said. "For decades."

They said the victims and their families were asked to leave, while the men stayed on in leadership roles, perpetuating the abuse.

"If you look up the definition of cult in the dictionary, I'm pretty sure the picture of this church would be right beside of it," Roberson said. "It's definitely a cult."

"I understand it's hard when you're in a cult," Foust said. "You don't see it until you're out of it."

"It's not okay that children have been treated this way, disrespected, mentally and physically abused for decades," Roberson said.

WRAL has spoken with five other former church members in-depth about these allegations: three women and two men, and their experiences are very similar to what the sisters shared with us.

One of the women said she and others were sexually abused by church leaders.

The Johnston County Sheriff's Office said the scope of its investigation has widened since it charged Young earlier this month. Because additional charges have not been filed at this time, WRAL is not identifying specific people accused of wrong-doing.


"Apostasy" is a heartbreaking look at life as a Jehovah's Witness

"Apostasy" is a heartbreaking look at life as a Jehovah's Witness
Written and directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former believer, the film is clear and courageous on the organisation’s failings

The Economist
July 25, 2018

THE most sinister aspect of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as they are portrayed in “Apostasy”, is the way their apocalyptic and authoritarian beliefs are disguised by the bland aesthetics of a corporate away day. Meetings in their drab white-and-beige “Kingdom Hall” might as well be marketing conferences in a chain hotel. The group’s Elders are pasty middle-aged men in suits; they are so offhand about the world’s sinners being obliterated that they could be talking about an end-of-year bonus. They refer to “the new system” and “reinstatement” and “disfellowshipping” as if there were some logic to their jargon. And yet, “disfellowshipping”, as dull as it sounds, means being cut off so completely from the religion that your closest relations in it are forbidden to socialise with you. Could this be what happens to the film’s heroines?

A former member of “God’s organisation” himself, Daniel Kokotajlo has written and directed a sober yet revelatory drama which covers about a year in the life of three women in an unnamed northern suburb (it appears to take place in a particularly dreary part of Manchester, so you can see why the local Witnesses might be keen for Jesus to wipe it off the face of the earth). The women are 18-year-old Alex (Molly Wright), her big sister Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), and their determinedly devout mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran). The younger women’s father is neither seen nor discussed, a factor which is typical of Mr Kokotajlo’s understatement, but the viewer has to assume that he left or was kicked out of the organisation.

There are hints that Luisa may be next. Having made new friends in college, she is no longer quite so confident that “the great tribulation” is just around the corner. Alex, meanwhile, seems happy to be in the group, even though her anaemia may require her to have a life-saving blood transfusion, a procedure which the organisation forbids. She reassures herself, chillingly, by leafing through a book about children who have chosen to die rather than to defy this stricture—not that they would have had any informed choice in the matter—but the question bubbling beneath the narrative’s surface is whether she and her family will ultimately make the same choice.

Anyone who isn’t a Jehovah’s Witness may well be appalled not just by the brainwashing and all-round cultishness on display, but by the matter-of-fact callousness: doubters can be expelled from the group with less ceremony than if they were being downsized from an office internship. On the other hand, anyone who is a Jehovah’s Witness may well conclude that the film portrays the organisation fairly, and even positively. Mr Kokotajlo keeps speeches about its cruelty and anti-scientific dogma to a minimum, preferring to present the Witnesses’ practices with a quiet clarity and specificity. The film’s main Elders are obviously convinced that they are being kind and compassionate. But “Apostasy” keeps prodding at the organisation’s flaws, with the courage and determination that come with an insider’s knowledge, until the whole edifice comes crashing to the ground. Certainly, Mr Kokotajlo’s drama should make you look anew at those polite, smartly dressed people who stand next to racks of booklets in shopping centres.

In contrast with the recent films about Scientology, the pared-down, austere “Apostasy” doesn’t have the action-movie pace or skulduggery to attract a wide audience. Nor does it have, for that matter, the glamour of Scientology’s most famous adherent, Tom Cruise—not that any film with the title “Apostasy” was ever going to rival “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” at the box office. But it isn’t a cold factual exercise, either. Ms Finneran, a British television veteran probably best known for her roles in “Benidorm” and “Cold Feet”, is heartbreaking as the family’s tragic matriarch. Ivanna is utterly obedient to the organisation, but you can see the fear in her dark eyes and her tightly set face that her sacrifices may all have been for nothing.

Ms Finneran also knows how to deliver science-fiction-style dialogue with a desperate conviction which is both sad and funny. After one disagreement with her daughters, Ivanna promises them that “in a few hundred years, we’ll have forgotten about all this”. And when Luisa’s lecture timetable clashes with her commitments to the group, her mother asks, “How do you think Jesus will feel when he comes back at Armageddon to destroy the world, and he finds that you’ve been missing meetings so you can go to college?” Most of the film’s characters would deem that a perfectly reasonable question.

“Apostasy” is showing in Britain from July 27th


12Tribes Czech Republic-English subs

July 16, 2018

German reporters travel to Skalna, home of the Twelve Tribes in the Czech Republic where they have settled after leaving Germany.

Expulsion order carried out for group of Hasidic Jews in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts

Hasidic Jews
Expulsion order carried out for group of Hasidic Jews in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts

Giuseppe Valiante
Global News

July 26, 2018 

Most of the young, Hasidic Jewish men who were court-ordered out of homes they were renting in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains had left as of Thursday night, said the town’s mayor.

Denis Chalifoux of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts said he had little choice but to obtain a court injunction ordering the roughly 50 young men from the homes after consecutive summers of complaints by residents claiming they were making noise late into the night.

“They sing songs and play drums — it’s a party,” Chalifoux said in an interview. “And it’s already two summers that it’s happening.”

“They don’t respect the rules.”

He said the court order stipulated the young men had until Thursday at 5 p.m. to leave.

The group was renting a couple of homes belonging to members of a Hasidic sect called Lev Tahor, said Alex Werzberger, a member of a Hasidic community in Montreal whose grandson works in Sainte-Agathe.

Members of Lev Tahor had become the subject of a youth-protection investigation in Quebec over allegations of neglect and child abuse before the community fled to Chatham, Ont., in 2013. The sect, totalling about 200 members, left shortly before some of them were due to appear in front of a Quebec judge for a hearing to ensure child welfare officials had regular access to their children.

Werzberger said the Lev Tahor-owned homes were rented and being used as a dormitory and as a private, all-boys school for the summer.

The boys — from different parts of Canada and the U.S.– may have been a little “rambunctious,” Werzberger said, but he added he doesn’t believe they made enough noise to warrant an expulsion order.

“Boys will be boys,” he said.

Chalifoux said the Lev Tahor sect left behind about 20 buildings in the community when it moved to Ontario in 2013. Some of the homes were sold by the city to recoup back-taxes, while others were seized by financial institutions.

A small number of the homes were still owned by members of the sect — two of which were being used by the newer residents in violation of zoning regulations, Chalifoux explained.

Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts and several villages in the Laurentians are home to various Jewish communities, some of whom have been the victims of hate crimes over the years.

In 2012, vandals broke into about 15 of 50 homes owned by Jewish people in the neighbouring town of Val-Morin. The vandals damaged houses and spray-painted swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti on the Jewish-owned properties.

“I know that a member of the community has accused the city of anti-Semitism but that’s absolutely not true,” said Chalifoux.

“The Jewish community has been in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts for 100 years.”

In general, relations are friendly between the region’s Jewish communities and non-Jewish residents, Chalifoux said.

The mayor said most of the young men had already left as of Thursday afternoon, and a city employee would pass by Friday morning to make sure the court order had been respected.


Jim Jones' lover: inside the mind of the cult leader's right-hand woman

‘Oppressively brilliant’: Carolyn Layton was the lover of cult leader Jim Jones and a central member of his Peoples Temple. Photograph: Moore family
‘Oppressively brilliant’ Carolyn Layton was the mistress
 of cult leader Jim Jones and a central member of his
Peoples Temple. 
Writer Laura Elizabeth Woollett tells the author of The Family why she was drawn to the story of Carolyn Layton

Chris Johnston

The Guardian
July 25, 2018

Melbourne writer Laura Elizabeth Woollett is talking about one of the worst men who ever lived, and also – because she can identify with her – the woman who became his lover. The man was Jim Jones, the cult leader who ordered 918 people. The woman was Carolyn Layton, a California woman who became his enabler.

Woollett, 28, has based her second novel around the character of Layton. She has called her Evelyn – “sleek-haired and oppressively brilliant”. With her young husband, Larry (Woollett calls him Lenny), she was a central member of Jones’s Peoples Temple, which was founded in Indiana in the 1950s, peaked in California in the 1960s and imploded in the most sinister of ways in 1978 when those 918 devotees drank cyanide-laced punch.

Woollett and I could talk about cults forever. I co-wrote The Family, about Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her secretive white-collar cadre of child-stealing cult members from leafy Melbourne. Hamilton-Byrne is still alive at 97, in suburbia, still feted by the dwindling few who surround her. Dementia renders her nonsensical.

Jones died with his followers in South America, a gunshot wound to his head, the gun at his side. He was full of drugs and as paranoid as it is possible to be.

The Family is nonfiction; it’s all true. Woollett’s Beautiful Revolutionary is fiction but heavily based on fact. She calls it “historical fiction” and her research was as exhaustive as for a nonfiction project. She interviewed former cult members and tootled around Redwood Valley in northern California on a bike looking at locations that had significance between 1963 and 1970. She had help from Rebecca Moore, Layton’s sister, a retired professor of religious studies and Jonestown website administrator. Woollett went through archival material from the California Historical Society, including primary sources bequeathed by Layton’s family.

It was here she found the notebook.

“Small things you can find,” she says. “It was a little black book.” There was no name in it but she is sure it belonged to Layton. Most of it was not useful except for one scribble, which said: “Father, I don’t mind dying today, but if we have decided not to we better leave for work pretty soon.”

“Father” was what followers called Jones; he told them he was a reincarnation of Buddha, Jesus, Lenin and Gandhi. He offered a sort of evangelical, isolationist socialism. He was an aggressively bisexual drug user, liar and narcissistic psychopath. The scribble in the notebook revealed to Woollett plenty about how his lover felt about him.

“It was a weird insight into their personal dynamic,” Woolett says. “It definitely informed how I wrote about them. When I read it, I got a chill because I felt so strongly it was her. It was special, like catching something rare.”

When researching a book, some material falls from the sky. Other things you hunt. Putting together The Family, we “obtained” hours of audio tape of Hamilton-Byrne’s sermons. We couldn’t speak to her because of her dementia but here she was talking: contradictory, cruel, plagiarist and dishonest, but compelling and authoritative. Jones also left behind hours of tapes. It’s amazing to hear utterly demented people like this talking at the peak of their powers. Tone of voice, phrasing, it all matters. The gaps and pauses and mispronunciations.

“Jim sounds quite nice to listen to, actually,” Woollett says. “He keeps it interesting for hours and hours and hours.”

In his prime he looked like Elvis, with big hair dyed black and painted-on sideburns. Hamilton-Byrne was addicted to facelifts, drove Jaguars and Daimlers and wore wigs and expensive clothes. Both cult leaders were textbook narcissists with uncanny similarities, including dysfunctional childhoods and fear of the outside world. Ultimately, cults big or small, and cult leaders, can trade in one thing: belief.

“I think on some essential level it’s appealing for people to believe in something rather than nothing,” Woollett says. “It gives you a cause or a sense of meaning. You join something that already exists and it gives you a structure. It’s crucial to know Peoples Temple seemed like a really good thing in the beginning and I think, even at the end when it was horrible, there were still remnants of those good things. There was still that belief on some level. It’s a very human impulse to think things will get better.”

Jonestown Massacre victims' remains found in Delaware funeral home

Woollett developed the novel slowly, through ideas in her 2016 collection of short stories, The Love of a Bad Man, shorter pieces online and even a TV script. She wrote her first novel, The Wood of Suicides, about a girl and a teacher, based on Greek myth, at just 24. Jones is a background character in Beautiful Revolutionary; an animalistic, charismatic presence, sometimes close to the visceral narrative, sometimes a menacing blur. The story is of the doomed coupling of Evelyn and Lenny (Carolyn and Larry).
“Here were two young people who joined the church at the same time and she rose to power and they both had roles in the final tragedy,” Woollett says. “It was all quite remarkable and horrible.”

Both were pacifists and humanitarians. Woollett can relate to both her protagonists. But she relates to Carolyn more, or at least understands her more.

“As soon as I read about Carolyn I wanted to know everything about her and write about her,” Woollett says. “I see her as someone who values certainty even if she doesn’t really like what she’s doing. I think she likes the idea of doing something well. I see ambition in her. The desire for certainty. It’s an appealing notion – to believe in something and be invested in something wholeheartedly. I think that gives her a sense of meaning.”

• Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett is out 30 July; The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones is out now. Both books are published by Scribe.