Jul 30, 2022

Lawyers say church caused suffering for Abe's alleged killer

National Post
The Associated Press
Mari Yamaguchi
Jul 29, 2022 
TOKYO (AP) — A group of lawyers said Friday that the alleged assassin of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was one of many victims of the Unification Church, which has long cultivated ties with high-level Japanese politicians.
The church, founded in South Korea in the 1950s, has become a focus of intense attention in Japan because the suspect in Abe’s shooting, Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, told investigators that he was motivated by Abe’s supposed links to the Unification Church, which he said his mother had made massive donations to, bankrupting the family and destroying his life.
Abe was killed on July 8 with a handmade gun as the former leader gave a speech ahead of national elections. Yamagami was immediately arrested and will be detained until late November for mental evaluations and further investigation.
“What he did was wrong, but Yamagami was suffering because of the church,” Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a lawyer who heads the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, told reporters. The network has about 300 lawyers who have provided legal assistance for people who say they’ve faced financial damage because of the church and other religious groups.
In the 1980s the church began to face accusations that it was using devious recruitment tactics and brainwashing its adherents into turning over huge amounts of money. The church has denied the allegations, and says it has tightened compliance. Critics say things have gotten better but the problems still continue.
The lawyers say they have received 34,000 complaints involving lost money exceeding 120 billion yen ($900 million).
The church in a statement “strongly protested” the lawyers’ claims that made it seem “as if our organization has been accused of the crime, while expressing views about our organization that have nothing to do with the attack.”
The church, which now calls itself the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, said the lawyers were hurting church followers’ credibility, violating their human rights and causing a risk of hate crimes against them. The church has been flooded by harassing phone calls, it says, including death threats.
The church has previously denied forcing followers to give donations and says it has strengthened its compliance in recent years. The church also says Abe wasn’t a member.
Abe sent a video message last year to a group affiliated with the church, which some experts say may have infuriated the shooting suspect.
The South Korean church, which came to Japan in the 1960s, has built close ties with a host of conservative lawmakers, many of them members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled the country almost uninterrupted since its inception in 1955.
The church was founded in Seoul in 1954 by the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who called himself a messiah and preached new interpretations of the Bible. A staunch anti-communist, he urged his followers to embrace a family-oriented value system.
The church’s fundraising was especially aggressive in Japan, the lawyers say, because Moon taught followers there that they needed to give more money to atone for sins committed by their ancestors who colonized the Korean Peninsula, which was controlled by Tokyo from 1910 to 1945.
Moon’s anti-communism gained strong backing from rightwing politicians, including Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who also served as prime minister.
Yamaguchi, the anti-church lawyer, said his group made repeated requests to Abe and other lawmakers to stop supporting the church and its affiliates, but the requests were ignored.
LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi denied at a regular news conference Tuesday that the governing party as a whole had relations with the church. Motegi said a number of LDP lawmakers have been linked to the church and the LDP planned to urge each of them “to be stricter and more careful about their relationships to a group whose social problems have been pointed out.”
AP videojournalist Chisato Tanaka contributed to this report.

From 'slapping therapy' to steep 'liberation' fees, ex-members speak out about life inside the Moonies 'cult'


Yoonji Han 

July 30, 2022

·         The Unification Church was founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon in 1954.


·         Many outside the church have referred to its controversial practices as similar to those of a "cult."

·         Ex-members talked to Insider about their experiences growing up in — and leaving — the church.

This article is the second in a three-part series telling the stories of those who were born into the Unification Church, and their experiences trying to leave it. Read the first part here.

After Reverend Sun Myung Moon's death in 2012, the number of second-gens who left the Unification Church continued to grow. As of July 29, 2022, there were 960 members in Born Under the Moon, a private Facebook group for second-gens, the nickname given to children born into the controversial church. Many made the difficult decision to leave the communities they were born into after they became increasingly aware of the church's hypocrisies — and of how its values clashed with their own burgeoning senses of self.

"While growing up in a diverse community with spiritual values were benefits, the martyristic handling of money, sexuality, parenting and hierarchy have no doubt left their marks," the Facebook group's description reads. "This was our inheritance."

Yuri*, a second-gen who "came out" as Christian when he was 15 and as gay when he was 21, started questioning the church at a young age. He describes his younger self as a "very intense person" with a rebellious streak. He went as far as starting his own youth group in church because he "didn't like how they played games."

"If I'm going to believe something, I'm going to be very intense about it," Yuri told Insider.

As a Blessed Child of a Japanese mom and American dad, Yuri was especially aware of what he perceived to be the unequal ways the church treated its Japanese members — namely by squeezing them for money.

One such way is through costly ancestor liberation ceremonies. Under Rev. Moon's doctrine, followers must free their ancestors from hell to join the church's "spiritual world."

"If you go to the spiritual world without offering the ancestors' liberation ceremony, your ancestors will grab you by the neck and accuse you, saying, 'You idiot, why didn't you bring me into the Unification Church even when you knew and received help from the Rev. Moon?'" Moon told his followers at a speech in December 1990. 

These ceremonies came at a price, with members paying different fees depending on which country they came from. According to an e-calculator the church created, US members must pay $700 to liberate their first seven generations of ancestors. Japanese members must pay 700,000 yen, or just over $5,000 USD.

The racial hierarchy stemmed from the church's belief that Japan must atone for its sins committed against Korea. Moon was born during the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1920, a period of harsh oppression that has bred resentment that still lingers among some members of older Korean generations. As a young adult, Moon joined the Korean independence movement and was arrested and beaten by the Japanese police, according to his autobiography, "As a Peace-Loving Global Citizen."

Since the church's inception, Japan has played a curious role in Unification Church theology. Moon designated Japan as the "Eve nation," which would be both partner and subjugant to Korea, the "Adam nation." Rather than shunning Japan, Rev. Moon attended college there so he could learn about the country with the ultimate goal of bringing it under his wing.

"Instead of refusing all contact, Korea needed to evangelize Japan so that it would be in the position to be the senior partner in the bilateral relationship," Moon wrote in his autobiography.

But many second-gens like Yuri saw the more pernicious implications of Moon's logic.

"They're preying on Asian guilt," Yuri told Insider.

Beating the 'evil' out

Yuri had just finished the seventh grade when he first visited Cheongpyeong, a grand palace that served as the Unification Church's holy center, about an hour east of Seoul. He was having trouble sleeping, and his church leader told his parents he needed to go to Cheongpyeong to have the evil spirits afflicting him driven out.

Cheongpyeong was also where followers went to have their ancestors liberated, and, according to rumors among church members, reportedly cost more than $1 billion to build — in part through members' liberation fees and donations.

There, Yuri met Hyo Nam Kim, who presided over the palace and who was said to host the spirit of Moon's mother-in-law. She was a tough-looking woman who always wore her hair pulled back, though she'd smile at church members she came across at the temple. She always wore a long-sleeved shirt and trousers in muted colors, no jewelry, no makeup.

Hyo Nam nim — followers always used the honorific — told Yuri he needed to beat the evil spirits out of his body. 

Three times a day, Yuri sat in a hall with rows of hundreds of other church members and performed "Ansu," a ritual to banish evil spirits. They beat their arms, legs, and backs to the beat of "Blessing of Glory," which a team of singers and drummers sang on stage in Korean. The Ansu leader yelled out different body parts, and others would walk through the crowd, sometimes urging people to hit themselves harder. Each session lasted over an hour. Sometimes, people drew blood.

Yuri did this at Cheongpyeong for 60 days, even missing the first weeks of eighth grade. He went back later that year, too, to "make sure" the evil spirits were truly banished.


A 'witch hunt'

Cheongpyeong was a "breaking point" for Yuri. He started secretly reading articles he found online of people who left the church, including a book written by the ex-wife of one of Moon's sons. In it, she recalls her husband guzzling alcohol and sleeping with prostitutes, and says the Moon family indulged in adultery, drugs, and physical violence.

"Hearing that from a person, I knew I couldn't be in the church in good conscience," Yuri said.

Yuri also began grappling with his own growing sense of mismatch within the church. He realized he was gay when he was around 13 years old. But the church staunchly opposed homosexuality, which went against its idea of a "perfect marriage." Moon compared gay people to "dirty dung-eating dogs," and said "gays will be eliminated" in a "purge on God's orders."

To help make sense of the questions swirling in his head, Yuri anonymously started a blog named "How Well Do You Know Your Moon?" on Tumblr later in 2009. When church members caught wind of the exposés he posted, they denounced the blog as evil, and began what Yuri described as a "witch hunt" for its creator.

Yuri was outed by a church member who posed as a student working on a paper about the church. After he was discovered, his dad, who worked for the church like most first-generation members, had his salary cut by more than half. 

"They explicitly told him it was because of me," Yuri said.

Yuri said his parents were upset, but more so because they didn't want their community thinking badly of them and their family. They understood, to an extent, his theological confusion and frustrations with church leadership, especially in light of scandals about the Reverend and his family that were coming to light.

A scandal rocks the church

Yuri's blog, which he continued to post on even after he was discovered, proved to be a powerful source of information for other second-gens who also began to question the church.

Sujin* was in Camp Sunrise, a church summer retreat, when Reverend Moon died on September 2, 2012. She was shaken. Father, their leader and messiah of the new world, was dead.

The waves of shock from Moon's death had hardly settled before another scandal ripped new fissures in the church community. In Jin "Tatiana" Moon, the True Parents' second daughter and sixth out of 16 children, had an affair with Ben Lorentzen, the lead singer of the church band. She'd been married to Jin Sung "James" Park, the son of Moon's right hand man, Bo Hi Pak. When the affair was exposed, Hak Ja Han, Moon's wife, told her daughter to relinquish her position and release a statement addressing her sins.

Sujin first found out about the scandal on Yuri's blog. "I felt personally betrayed, like I'd been slapped in the face," she said.

Every Sunday, Sujin and her family had driven to the church-owned Manhattan Center, a large building on 34th Street housing multiple event halls, to listen to In Jin nim's sermons.

With her slight British accent, In Jin nim made Sujin feel like she was really being spoken to. Moon had only spoken Korean, and she'd have to listen to the translation through earbuds. In Jin nim, with her meticulously plucked brows and coiffed hair, had preached about family, love and unity while her husband and five children sat on stage. After hearing about her affair, Sujin said she felt disgusted by the blatant lies and hypocrisy.

"How fucked up do you have to be to literally preach a lie to younger people?" Sujin said.

A lack of a sex education

Anger at the church's hypocrisies only compounded the doubts that many second-gens had started feeling as they became teenagers. Sujin struggled with a growing awareness of her sexuality, and, after the scandal with In Jin nim, she started to actively explore her sexuality. She lost her virginity in college, to a boy with acne scars on his chin.

Afterwards, Sujin blamed herself. It was her fault for leading him on, even though she remembered telling him that she didn't want to have sex — only kiss. Sujin says she only realized a few months later that "rape" was the word used for non-consensual sex, and believed this was what had happened to her.

The church didn't teach their young members sex education. Sex wasn't supposed to be a part of your life until after you were Blessed.

Awash with shame and guilt, Sujin confided in her mom about what happened. Her mom told her she couldn't let anybody in the church find out about this: Nobody would accept someone who had fallen. In the church, it was better to die — even kill yourself — than to be defiled in this way. Her mother instructed her to repent by spending 21 minutes for 40 days straight reading Rev. Moon's texts.

"My mom told me to pretend it never happened because God would forgive me if I repented. But how can I pretend it never happened if I'm having panic attacks and feeling guilty all the time?" Sujin said.

Fear of the outside world

Despite these doubts, actually leaving the church was a terrifying prospect for many second-gens. Fear of the outside world kept them tethered to the community they grew up in.

"When you're told all the time that the only people in this world that'll understand you are other church people — even when you don't believe in the church anymore — you're scared. You think these are the only people that'll get you," Yuri said.

*Names have been changed. Subjects spoke to Insider on the condition of confidentiality.



Jul 28, 2022

Discussion on Reproductive Coercion and Cults

You are invited to join us for a very timely discussion on reproductive coercion and cults.

Discussion on Reproductive Coercion and Cults
With the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, this is not only a timely but a critical subject area to explore with a population that is often stigmatized and in need of support and recovery resources.

The Details:
Date: 12 pm - 2 pm Pacific Time, Sunday, August 7th, 2022
Format: Free zoom webinar, open to all!
Registration Link: https://bit.ly/reproductivecoercionwebinar

The first segment of this webinar will be a presentation of research conducted by Ashlen Hilliard in fulfillment of the MSc Psychology of Coercive Control Program on the relationship between reproductive coercion, psychologically abusive environments, and the extent of group identity in a sample of those who have left cultic groups,

Ashlen’s research is the first exploratory analysis of the complex experiences of individuals who have experienced reproductive coercion while under the influence of a cultic or destructive group setting. Her research fills an identifiable gap in the literature by specifically studying how reproductive coercion manifests in destructive group settings, which has only been anecdotally alluded to from survivor accounts.

Following the presentation of Ashlen's research findings, an opportunity for Q&A will be available. We understand that this can be a difficult topic, and we are grateful that therapist Doni Whitsett, PhD, LCSW, MFT will be joining Ashlen Hilliard as a discussant for the Q&A session.

Have any questions? Feel free to email Ashlen at peopleleavecults@gmail.com

Presenter Information:

Ashlen Hilliard is a cult intervention specialist helping families with loved ones in cultic or high-control groups or relationships and is the face behind People Leave Cults. She completed her MSc in the Psychology of Coercive Control in early 2022 and conducted research on the relationship between reproductive coercion, psychologically abusive environments, and the extent of group identity in a sample of those who have left cultic groups. Ashlen has previous experience working for multiple non-profit settings in the field of cult recovery. Most recently, this has included working as Director of Events for the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA). During that time, she facilitated workshops, webinars, and conferences for those in touch with multiple aspects of the cult phenomenon including therapists, former members, legal professionals, media representatives, academics, and others. Previous to her work with ICSA, she also worked as a case manager in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the non-profit Holding Out Help, where she was involved in the front lines of helping individuals leaving diverse polygamist communities out West. She currently enjoys living in Portland, Oregon where she is a volunteer co-organizer of the Spiritual Abuse Forum for Education (SAFE) Meetup for those who have left or are considering leaving high-demand religious groups in the local community.

Doni Whitsett, PhD, LCSW, MFT, is a Fulbright scholar and a Clinical Professor Emerita of Social Work at the University of Southern California where she taught courses focused on neurobiology, trauma, mental health, and sexuality for over 25 years. As a psychotherapist in private practice she has been working with cult-involved clients and their families for almost 4 decades. She has presented to professional audiences both nationally and internationally in Australia, Canada, France, Poland, and Spain. Published articles focus on neurobiological implications of cult involvement and families and cults (co-authored with Dr. Stephen Kent). Her latest publications include chapters on “A modern psychodynamic approach to working with 1st generation cult survivors” and “Global violence of women in cults.” As an AASECT certified sex therapist, Dr. Whitsett was awarded a Fulbright Specialist Scholarship in 2016 to study, teach, and do research on sexuality in China. whitsett@usc.edu; (323) 907-2400.


Jul 26, 2022

Missouri candidates face criticism over ties to religious schools where students allege abuse

Tessa Weinberg, Clara Bates
July 23, 2022

Former boarding school students are making noise about politicians and elected officials with connections to unlicensed religious reform schools, state-contracted youth residential facilities and summer camps that have faced allegations of abuse and neglect.

At first, Robert Bucklin was optimistic.

A former student of Agape Boarding School in Stockton, Bucklin is among numerous students who have accused the Christian boarding school and its staff of physical and sexual abuse.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt launched an investigation into the school and ultimately recommended 65 criminal counts against 22 staff. The charges involved 36 victims and reached up to Class B felonies for abuse of a child. Schmitt’s office even asked a judge to empanel a special grand jury to hear evidence.

But Bucklin’s hopes quickly faded when Ty Gaither, the Cedar County prosecuting attorney, chose to only file a combined 13 counts of third-degree felony assault — the lowest felony class — against five staffers of the school. As a result, Schmitt asked Gov. Mike Parson last year to take his office off the case.

Bucklin, who is suing Agape, has been outspoken ever since.

He publicly decried Gaither’s decision, going as far as filing a bar complaint against the prosecuting attorney, and has been critical of Schmitt for not doing more to shut down the school. His criticism soon extended to Parson, who he noted has longstanding ties to several boarding schools that have come under scrutiny in southern Missouri.

And Bucklin is not alone.

With Missouri’s primary election less than two weeks away, former boarding school students, activists and candidates have begun making noise about politicians and elected officials with connections to unlicensed religious reform schools, state-contracted youth residential facilities and summer camps that have faced allegations of abuse and neglect.

Relationships that were uncontroversial for years are now earning scorn from those who say elected officials have for too long turned a blind eye to allegations of abuse, with past associations and campaign contributions coming under new scrutiny.

“If you have these ties to places that abused children, you frankly shouldn’t be in office,” said Taylor Burks, a Republican running to replace Vicky Hartzler in the 4th Congressional District.

Bucklin, now 28 and living in Michigan, said former students who suffered abuse shouldn’t be forced to lead the charge against their abusers.

“As a victim of sexual and physical abuse myself at the school, I shouldn’t be fighting harder than the attorney general,” Bucklin said of Schmitt, who is now running for U.S. Senate.

‘Take all the legs out from under the chair’

Among the horrors he says he endured during his time at Agape as a teenager in the late 2000s, Bucklin says he was restrained on the ground for over an hour at a time despite the school’s claims it only employs restraints for a few minutes.

Agape has previously denied allegations of abuse.

In letters to his parents when Bucklin was between 13 and 16 years old, he wrote in scratchy scrawl that he couldn’t stand to be at Agape much longer.

“I hate life,” he wrote. “I don’t want to be here. I wish I was never born.”

“Sometimes I feel like I get treated like a dead rat or something of that kind,” he went on to write.

Affixed to the letter was a yellow post-it note that read: “You need to read this letter. There is a lot that needs to be changed.” The note was written by a staff member of Agape, Bucklin said. An undated incident report said a letter was confiscated and Bucklin was asked to rewrite it.

“The letter is filled with lies that Robert needs to correct,” the report signed by a staffer said, which was provided to The Independent and obtained through the discovery process in Bucklin’s ongoing lawsuit against the school.

Bucklin’s desperation to get anyone to help stop the abuse he says he suffered has been reignited as he works to bring public pressure on Schmitt and Missouri officials to do more to close Agape.

When Bucklin calls and emails the attorney general’s office, he said, “I send like five or six emails before they respond back.”

So he’s resorted to filing open records requests with Schmitt’s office, and in a recent email to the attorney general’s office, Bucklin wrote that it seems as if victims have been abandoned.

Bucklin argues Schmitt has the authority to shut down the school under a recent law passed last year that requires unlicensed facilities to register with the state and establishes a process by which children can be removed in instances of suspected abuse or neglect.

In a response to the bar complaint Bucklin submitted against Gaither, the Cedar County prosecutor wrote that under state law Schmitt’s office is authorized to request a hearing in front of a juvenile judge in order to determine if reasonable cause exists to shut down a facility.

Schmitt has not done so, Gaither wrote in his March letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Independent.

Reached Tuesday, Gaither declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation into Agape. The bar complaint process is ongoing.

A spokesman for Schmitt’s office declined to comment and did not clarify if Schmitt has considered taking action to remove students. Schmitt’s Senate campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Parson did not respond to a request for comment on Bucklin’s criticisms.

James Griffey, who attended Agape as a student from 1998 to 2001 and left in 2002 after working on staff, said it’s demoralizing to feel like so little is being done to close the school.

“Here we are, still a year later, and Agape — the poster child for all these schools — is still open, even though there’s all these allegations of abuse going on. All these court cases, video. It’s like, what more do you need to shut this place down?” said Griffey, who is now 39 and lives in California.

Colton Schrag, who testified before lawmakers last year about the abuse he endured while at Agape, said he felt if Schmitt had the authority to pursue the recommended charges in Agape’s case, he would have.

“I’m not mad at him,” said Schrag, who is now 30 and living in Texas. “I just think he could push the matter a little bit further if he really wanted to.”

Ultimately, officials should be pushing to protect kids at all costs, Schrag said.

“We’ve heard multiple people say the same thing from different generations,” Schrag said of former Agape students’ allegations. “I mean, what’s the common denominator? It’s not these boys. It’s the place they went to.”

Agape is the second unlicensed, religious reform school in southwest Missouri that Schmitt’s office has assisted Gaither in investigating.

Fourth District Congressional candidate Kalena Bruce speaks at a June 6, 2022, campaign event in Sedalia with Gov. Mike Parson looking on.

In the case of the now-closed Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in Humansville, Schmitt was appointed by Parson as special prosecutor in 2020. The school’s owners, Stephanie and Boyd Householder, face nearly 100 felony charges for statutory rape, child abuse and neglect. A trial is set to begin in November 2023.

The owners of the school had long standing connections to state lawmakers in southwest Missouri. Emails obtained by The Independent previously showed the Householders kept lawmakers apprised of local law enforcement and child protective services investigations, relayed allegations of abuse and shared positive testimonials from students and parents.

In response, lawmakers offered their assistance and advocated on behalf of the school to the Department of Social Services.

Allegations of abuse at religious reform schools in Missouri have persisted for decades. However, it wasn’t until the last two years that both Circle of Hope and Agape were thrust into the limelight following a series of investigations by The Kansas City Star and a legislative inquiry by Missouri lawmakers.

Unlike the case against Circle of Hope Girls Ranch, Gaither has retained authority on whether to issue charges related to Agape.

In the race for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat, Democratic candidate Spencer Toder has worked with Bucklin to convince national organizations, like the National Council for Private School Accreditation and Association of Christian Teachers & Schools, to rescind their accreditations of Agape. Toder said he also plans to target ads toward parents who visit the school in order to warn them about past students’ allegations.

Neither Agape nor an attorney for the school responded to requests for comment.

“Our goal,” Toder said, “is to take all the legs out from under the chair that is Agape.”

Renewed scrutiny 

Longstanding ties to other youth residential facilities and camps across the state have come under renewed scrutiny leading up to the Aug. 2 primaries.

U.S. Rep Vicky Hartzler who, like Schmitt, is running for U.S. Senate, received a campaign contribution of $5,000 last year from Debbie Jo White. Along with her husband, Joe White, Debbie Jo runs Kanakuk Kamps, a Branson-based Christian summer camp under scrutiny for sexual abuse of campers.

The camp was first embroiled in scandal over a decade ago. Kanakuk camp counselor and director, Peter Newman, pled guilty in 2010 to seven counts of sexual abuse. A civil suit alleges he abused upward of 50 children, and the prosecutor said Newman’s victim count might be in the hundreds. Many plaintiffs in civil suits signed non-disclosure agreements, so the full scope of the abuse remains unknown.

Newman is now serving two life sentences plus 30 years in prison.

In the last year, the case has received significant national attention, after an investigation into the camp’s history by journalists Nancy and David French.

Scores of former campers have filed lawsuits, including alleging that Kanakuk leadership received several complaints about Newman’s inappropriate conduct in the decade preceding his arrest. CEO Joe White denies these allegations, calling Newman a “master of deception.”

The Whites have been politically active for decades. Debbie Jo White has donated a total of $16,500 to Hartzler’s campaigns since 2010, the year she first ran for the House seat. Joe White donated $1,400 to Hartzler’s campaign, between 2016 and 2020.

In addition to Hartzler, the Whites have given money over the years to other Missouri politicians, including U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley.

“There’s no scenario in which Vicky Hartzler would go and campaign on wanting children to be abused at a camp,” Toder said, “But there’s no scenario in which someone would take money in which that wasn’t something that they were okay with.”

Neither Hartzler’s campaign nor the Whites responded to requests for comment.

In the GOP primary to replace Hartzler in Congress, one candidate’s connections to a state-licensed youth residential facility that’s previously been entangled in allegations of abuse has become a source of criticism.

Home Court Advantage is a youth residential facility in Bolivar, which is contracted with the state to provide care to girls and boys between the ages of 8 and 21 who have psychiatric and behavioral issues.

Kalena Bruce, a certified public accountant who is running in the 4th Congressional District race, has been the registered agent for Home Court Advantage since 2017, according to business filings. She has also received donations from the facility’s owner, who also served on the host committee for an April fundraiser for Bruce that Parson also attended.

In 2017, the facility made headlines after a video surfaced depicting staff allegedly beating a student the year before. Intake was temporarily suspended at the facility as state officials launched an investigation.

Two facility staff were later sentenced to two years of probation, ordered to pay $300 to a county law enforcement restitution fund and do community service after pleading guilty to third degree assault and failure to report child abuse as a mandated reporter, according to the Bolivar Herald Free-Press. A civil suit brought by a former student was also dismissed in 2019 after a settlement was reached.

According to a list the Department of Social Services gave to state lawmakers last year, two of Home Court Advantages’ locations had five preponderance of evidence findings between 2015 to 2020 — three for neglect and two for physical abuse.

Jack McCrimmon, Home Court Advantage’s owner, previously told The Independent he recalled three incidents, but not five. He did not respond to a request for comment last week.

Bruce’s connection to Home Court Advantage drew a rebuke from Burks, who said “it’s incredibly disturbing” that facilities that have faced allegations of abuse exist in the 4th Congressional District. Voters, he said, need to know about politicians’ connections to them.

“It’s disgusting if there’s a candidate who has close business relationships with places that abuse children,” Burks said.

Growing up in the area, Bruce said she’s known of Home Court Advantage’s work, and interned at a business through college that did payroll and accounting work for them. When she opened up her own firm, she inherited their business.

Bruce said she never saw the video of the incident that arose in 2017, but that community members viewed it as an issue spawning from individual employees’ actions.

“Of course any individual in any organization or business that’s found responsible of wrongdoing should be held accountable,” Bruce said. “But to try to attack my character because of the actions of a few individuals who worked at one of my clients’ businesses is desperate, deceitful, and exactly what’s wrong with politics today.”

Bruce said over 19,000 kids have passed through Home Court Advantage over the past two decades, with 85% of those kids going on to graduate from high school, attend technical schools “and becoming contributing members of society.”

“Quite frankly, I’m proud of the work that this state-contracted organization does to provide a safe place for deeply troubled children,” Bruce said, noting that unlike Agape and Circle of Hope, state-licensed facilities like Home Court Advantage have to meet licensing requirements.

Bruce has also received donations from Gaither, the Cedar County prosecuting attorney. She said she couldn’t speak to the handling of Agape, and that the courts will come to the right decision.

Bucklin, who finds time to make calls and contact officials about Agape after long shifts at the hospital where he works, often wonders when the school’s doors will ever be shut. That, he said, is what will bring him peace of mind.

“To be silent is to take the side of those who have committed barbaric and heinous crimes against children,” Bucklin said. “At least say something.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.


Jul 25, 2022

Social isolation linked to changes in brain structure and lower cognition ability

Social isolation linked to changes in brain structure and lower cognition ability
Barbara Jacquelyn Sahakian, Christelle Langley, Chun Shen, and Jianfeng Feng
July 15, 2022

Why do we get a buzz from being in large groups at festivals, jubilees and other public events? According to the social brain hypothesis, it’s because the human brain specifically evolved to support social interactions. Studies have shown that belonging to a group can lead to improved wellbeing and increased satisfaction with life.

Unfortunately though, many people are lonely or socially isolated. And if the human brain really did evolve for social interaction, we should expect this to affect it significantly. Our recent study, published in Neurology, shows that social isolation is linked to changes in brain structure and cognition – the mental process of acquiring knowledge – it even carries an increased risk of dementia in older adults.

There’s already a lot of evidence in support of the social brain hypothesis. One study mapped the brain regions associated with social interaction in approximately 7,000 people. It showed that brain regions consistently involved in diverse social interactions are strongly linked to networks that support cognition, including the default mode network (which is active when we are not focusing on the outside world), the salience network (which helps us select what we pay attention to), the subcortical network (involved in memory, emotion and motivation) and the central executive network (which enables us to regulate our emotions).

We wanted to look more closely at how social isolation affects grey matter – brain regions in the outer layer of the brain, consisting of neurons. We, therefore, investigated data from nearly 500,000 people from the UK Biobank, with a mean age of 57. People were classified as socially isolated if they were living alone, had social contact less than monthly and participated in social activities less than weekly.

Our study also included neuroimaging (MRI) data from approximately 32,000 people. This showed that socially isolated people had poorer cognition, including in memory and reaction time, and lower volume of grey matter in many parts of the brain. These areas included the temporal region (which processes sounds and helps encode memory), the frontal lobe (which is involved in attention, planning and complex cognitive tasks) and the hippocampus – a key area involved in learning and memory, which is typically disrupted early in Alzheimer’s disease.

We also found a link between the lower grey matter volumes and specific genetic processes that are involved in Alzheimer’s disease.

There were follow-ups with participants 12 years later. This showed that those who were socially isolated, but not lonely, had a 26% increased risk of dementia.

Underlying processes

Social isolation needs to be examined in more detail in future studies to determine the exact mechanisms behind its profound effects on our brains. But it is clear that, if you are isolated, you may be suffering from chronic stress. This in turn has a major impact on your brain, and also on your physical health.

Another factor may be that if we don’t use certain brain areas, we lose some of their function. A study with taxi drivers showed that the more they memorised routes and addresses, the more the volume of the hippocampus increased. It is possible that if we don’t regularly engage in social discussion, for example, our use of language and other cognitive processes, such as attention and memory, will diminish.

This may affect our ability to do many complex cognitive tasks – memory and attention are crucial to complex cognitive thinking in general.

Tackling loneliness

We know that a strong set of thinking abilities throughout life, called “cognitive reserve”, can be built up through keeping your brain active. A good way to do this is by learning new things, such as another language or a musical instrument. Cognitive reserve has been shown to ameliorate the course and severity of ageing. For example, it can protect against a number of illnesses or mental health disorders, including forms of dementia, schizophrenia and depression, especially following traumatic brain injury.

There are also lifestyle elements that can improve your cognition and wellbeing, which include a healthy diet and exercise. For Alzheimer’s disease, there are a few pharmacological treatments, but the efficacy of these need to be improved and side effects need to be reduced. There is hope that in the future there will be better treatments for ageing and dementia. One avenue of inquiry in this regard is exogenous ketones – an alternative energy source to glucose – which can be ingested via nutritional supplements.

But as our study shows, tackling social isolation could also help, particularly in old age. Health authorities should do more to check on who is isolated and arrange social activities to help them.

When people are not in a position to interact in person, technology may provide a substitute. However, this may be more applicable to younger generations who are familiar with using technology to communicate. But with training, it may also be effective in reducing social isolation in older adults.

Social interaction is hugely important. One study found that the size of our social group is actually associated with the volume of the orbitofrontal cortex (involved in social cognition and emotion).

But how many friends do we need? Researchers often refer to “Dunbar’s number” to describe the size of social groups, finding that we are not able to maintain more than 150 relationships and only typically manage five close relationships. However, there are some reports which suggest a lack of empirical evidence surrounding Dunbar’s number and further research into the optimal size of social groups is required.

It is hard to argue with the fact that humans are social animals and gain enjoyment from connecting with others, whatever age we are. But, as we are increasingly uncovering, it also crucial for the health of our cognition.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


Jul 24, 2022

How the Moonies took over Japan

Philip Patrick is a lecturer at a Tokyo university and a freelance journalist.
July 20, 2022

In his novel Confessions of a Mask, the Japanese author Yukio Mishima has a character describe his countrymen as living in a “reluctant masquerade”. It’s a good metaphor: Japanese life, while outwardly harmonious and benign, is still dictated by etiquette and custom, and can, on closer inspection, seem choreographed and veiled. But on occasion the mask can slip; or, rarer still, be ripped away, affording a glimpse of a darkness within. It happened last week in Nara, when an assailant drew a homemade shotgun from his bag, and calmly murdered Japan’s longest-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe before an astonished crowd.

The apparent motivation for the crime was quickly revealed: a grievance held by the assassin against the Abe dynasty for promoting a religious group, the Unification Church — better known as the “Moonies”. He alleged the group had pressured his mother into making huge donations — around $1 million — leaving the family “devastated”. Revulsion at the murder was quickly followed by intense curiosity as a spotlight was placed on the murky relationship between Japan’s political class, especially its eternal party of government the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and what are referred to as the new or upstart religions, or less politely, as cults.

Followers of the Unification Church would dispute the latter designation, but it is certainly a controversial organisation with a track record of illegality. The founder Sun Myung Moon, a close friend of Abe’s grandfather — the former PM Nobusuke Kishi — served time for fraud in the USA, and the group’s fundraising activities in Japan, conducted under the alleged protection of the LDP, provoked a group of 300 lawyers to set up an association to help people who claimed to have been coerced. It is alleged that agents of the Unification Church would scan the obituary columns, then target the grieving with emotionally manipulative appeals. The bereaved would be told that their recently deceased relatives needed assistance to reach heaven, which could be arranged, in return for sizeable and ongoing bequests. In 2020, a court in Tokyo ordered the church to repay $34,000 obtained through such methods.

Despite its occasional setbacks, the success of the Unification Church in Japan has been exceptional: it is believed to have raised 70% of its income in the country. But it is far from unique. Japan has proved to be fertile ground for a wide variety of pseudo (or nouveaux) religious groupings, and there are an estimated 180,000, or one for every 700 people in Japan. Many are innocuous, but the more controversial are characterised, according to a study by Inoue Nobutaka, by extreme levels of secrecy, erratic growth, and coercive proselytising.

This trend can be traced to the 1860s, a period of great social upheaval where centuries-old rules and customs were rapidly supplanted by a flood of new ideas and outside influences. The severing of the syncretic ties of Shinto and Buddhism and the lifting of the 250-year-old ban on Christianity in 1873 created space for a proliferation of new faiths. These were initially persecuted by the Right-wing militarists that ruled Japan, who subscribed to the official state religion of Shinto. But after the Second World War, which put an end to emperor worship and saw freedom of religion enshrined in the new US-imposed constitution, a spiritual vacuum emerged. As did, for the unscrupulous, a distinctly attractive tax-free business opportunity.

Customers, or converts, were not hard to find as post-war Japan struggled to rebuild. Cities were flooded with young people from the countryside, who were poor, lonely, and often desperate. The migrants sought not just employment, but spiritual succour and a sense of belonging — the new religions offered both. In Tokyo especially, where the pace of life and the stifling rules of etiquette made making friends a great challenge, the allure of the welcoming new religions was palpable. (Even today, neighbours often don’t speak to each other, knowing one “hello” obliges them to repeat the greeting forever.)

Of those that flourished, some religions sought power and security through politics. The most famous of these is Soka Gakkai, a form of Nichiren Buddhism based on the teachings of a 13th century priest. It now claims eight million followers in Japan and twelve million worldwide. It has its own political party, Komeito, which thanks to the rigid discipline of its members — who vote as they are instructed — has become a key player in Japanese politics, often as a coalition partner for hire.

Komeito has been in alliance with the ruling LDP since 1999 and is the junior coalition partner of the present government. Michael Cucek of Temple University in Tokyo calls Komeito “the most important and least understood part of Japanese politics”. He says that the party is essentially run by women, with the most powerful part being its decision-making inner sanctum the Fujimbu, or mothers and women’s association. The political alliance is controversial within the LDP, but Cucek explains that as 25% of the party’s district votes are believed to be supplied by Komeito — in return, naturally, for favours — the awkward embrace looks likely to endure.

It is tempting to compare the relationship between the two parties to that which the LDP’s senior politicians once maintained with the yakuza — Japan’s organised crime gangs — in the turbulent early Sixties. Kishi maintained a close relation with the mob boss Yoshio Kodama, whose assistance in supplying muscle he called on from time to time. Whether the fixers wear the sharp suits and Hawaiian shirts of the gangsters, or the flowing robes of religious leaders, makes little difference to the outcomes: they get things done.

At the other end of the spectrum are the apocalyptic cults, the most notorious of which was Aum Shinrikyo, founded by Matsumoto Chizuo, the half-blind son of a tatami mat maker. Aum promised psychic powers and salvation from a forecast Armageddon — a prospect with far more resonance in a country regularly struck by natural and man-made disasters. Aum drew on their leader’s charisma and unbounded self-belief: he persuaded followers he could fly and sold a panacea (actually orange peel in water) for $7,000 a shot to hoodwink followers into signing over their assets.

The group offered a form of spiritual cleansing for those who had become disgusted by the moral rot and emptiness that seemed to characterise Japanese society in the Seventies, when Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei (known as Japan’s version of Richard Nixon) was embroiled in a bribery scandal and tainted by association with Yoshio Kodama, and Eighties, when Japan’s bubble economy ushered in an era of decadence and greed. Acolytes tended to be professionals, who were not just cynical about the decline of Japanese ethics but had been numbed into a fatalistic credulous passivity by the banality of corporate life.

Aum was responsible for the world’s only WMD terrorist attack by a private organisation when they released sarin gas onto the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 13 and injuring 6000. The leader was executed, but astonishingly the group survives, having changed its name to Aleph and lowered its profile. It is rumored to have 1600 members and has been in the news recently for refusing to cooperate with government surveillance orders.

The subway attack has become Japan’s signature cult-inspired atrocity, the one everyone knows about. But it is not an isolated incident: in 1986, seven women, calling themselves the “brides of God” and members of the “Friends of the Truth Society”, immolated themselves on a beach in Wakayama.

No one knows for sure how many Japanese are cult members today, but a figure of 10-20% has been estimated. The fundamental problem, one Japan expert tells me, is that “Japan has no real religion”. Traditional Buddhism is more of a philosophical and lifestyle creed and Shinto is mainly concerned with aesthetics, he explains. All of which makes the Japanese yearn for a more structured, accessible, transactional theology.

And once you recognise this yearning, you see evidence of it everywhere. It’s there in the mini-deities or spirits of the yuru-chara — mascot characters that represent everything from prefectures to companies to household goods. It’s there in the teen-pop idols, scarcely allowed to exist as real people, worshipped by devotees who will buy special tickets to shake their hands, or just sit in their presence. It’s there in the exclusive neighbourhood culture schools led by a revered “master” rewarded with discrete cash payments. And it’s there in the faux-religious rituals of tidying guru and Netflix star, Marie Kondo.

Japan is often questioned over its unsettled history, with the various legacies of the Second World War and its aftermath still a source of difficulty. But perhaps it is its unsettled spirituality, which lurks in the Japanese psyche, leading vulnerable and lonely people down dark pathways, that is the deeper, and more troubling issue.


Jul 22, 2022

Dallas QAnon Cult Leader Is Using Indoctrinated Kids To Spread His Ideas On Livestreams

Dallas Observer
MARCH 14, 2022

Dallas QAnon cult leader Michael Brian Protzman is using children to build his following and spread his QAnon-based beliefs through live-streams on the messaging app Telegram.

On Thursday evening, Protzman led an hour-long conversation with a 12-year-old girl on a Telegram livestream. Before the girl joined, the conversation’s moderators said they aim to spread Protzman’s teachings to children by featuring more kid-teachers like the girl, who Protzman and other adult participants referred to as "Tiny."

Before about 500 subscribers, Protzman and the girl exchanged so-called "decodes" using gematria, a simple alpha-numerical system in which A = 1, B = 2, C = 3 and so on. All of the decodes trace nonsensical gematria-based connections leading back to a few simple conclusions: Q has been right all along, and Protzman, alongside Donald Trump and the long-dead JFK and JFK Jr., are about to set in motion the mass execution of a network of satan-worshiping child traffickers who control society.

For example, early in the conversation, the girl laid out a series of convoluted associations between an alleged U.S. government mind-control experiment called Project Montauk, the time on the clock in background of Donald Trump’s first appearance in the movie Home Alone 2 and supposed subliminal messaging about a QAnon-like revolution buried the 2011 movie The Smurfs.

All of these connections, she claimed, lead back to an 111-acre island in Australia called Elliott Island, where an Australian university is leading a marine biology study that somehow involves the brother of the late alligator wrangler Steve Irwin.

Protzman then piggybacked on her chain of connections with a series of Gematria-based links between the Kennedys, Donald Trump’s signature catchphrases and movie-theater popcorn, which all supposedly show that predictions by him and Q, the purported anonymous whistleblower behind QAnon, are about to come true any day.

Last Thursday's stream isn’t the first time Protzman has platformed children in attempts to expand his audience and target kids, recordings of Telegram livestreams show. Late last month, the same 12-year-old girl made at least two extended appearances on Protzman’s channel, the Observer found. During at least one February live-stream, Protzman also brought a 12-year-old boy on to exchange similar gematria-driven nonsense connections for Protzman to riff on after.

One expert said that use of young children who’ve internalized Protzman’s bizarre ideology and speech patterns is unprecedented amongst QAnon leaders.

“There was never anything that I’ve ever seen specifically targeting Q to children, and it’s extremely disturbing,” said Michael Rothschild, whose book The Storm Is Upon Us documents the rise of the QAnon movement from its post-2016 election roots up to last year’s Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Rothschild emphasized that the situation raises immediate concerns about the kids’ wellbeing. “The biggest issue is exploitation of children,” he said.

It’s unclear if these children’s parents are members of Protzman’s group, or whether or not they have been in Dallas alongside them.

Protzman did not respond to requests for comment about how the 12year-old girl and boy became so well-versed in his teachings, which even other QAnon believers have reportedly condemned as outlandish.

At one point in Thursday’s livestream, the girl recalled a "decode" Protzman made “in the room” a few days before they went live. At multiple other points during the stream, Protzman and the girl appear to refer to in-person interactions when they discussed the finer points of their "decodes" in the days before the event.

Rothschild emphasized that even if the children on Protzman’s streams aren’t learning from him in person, their appearance on the streams is alarming. “Is there anyone around that is thinking about her as something other than a vessel for his bizarre ideology?” he said.

Protzman and a core group of followers decided to follow the U.S. ‘Freedom Convoy’ to Washington last week. But in chats and livestreams Protzman has made clear that he intends to return to Dallas after the convoy and a South Carolina Trump rally are over.

They originally came to Dallas in droves in early November. Protzman had predicted that JFK Jr. and his father would reappear in Dallas, where JFK was assassinated, to set in motion all of the righteous persecution and societal reorganization QAnon believers have held onto for years.


Jul 21, 2022


Finnegan Edward Malloy
John Bain
KCII Radio
July 21, 2022

The Jefferson County Attorney’s Office states on November 7, 2021, law enforcement and emergency medical personnel responded to a home in Fairfield on a report that an individual had suffered a gunshot wound to the head. Twenty-one year-old Finnegan Edward Malloy reported that 19-year-old Caleb Heisel had shot himself in the head while playing “Russian Roulette.” Heisel was found dead upon the arrival of law enforcement and medical personnel. Officers located a revolver-style firearm with one spent cartridge at the scene, believed to belong to Malloy. Heisel’s body was sent to the State Medical Examiner’s office for autopsy. Malloy was arrested on November 24, 2021, by the Fairfield Police Department on one count of assisting suicide and one count of aiding and abetting reckless use of a firearm, both class C felonies.

Malloy took personal responsibility for his role in the offense, as well as his role in the theft at Maharishi International University Art Building of tools, supplies and equipment valued at greater than $10,000.00. The recovery of the stolen property at his home also uncovered controlled substances, including cocaine and MDMA, along with evidence of drug distribution.

Malloy was sentenced to indeterminate terms of incarceration not to exceed 10 years on each of those offenses, to run concurrently to each other and taken into custody.


Religious freedom is under fire across the globe, experts warn

Inés San Martín
July 21, 2022

Rome Bureau Chief

ROME – According to experts gathered in Rome this week for a conference organized by the University of Notre Dame, religious freedom is under attack all over the world.

“Religious violence has risen to historic levels over the past decade affecting nearly all religious groups,” said Samah Norquist, a fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

“Believers of nearly all faiths — Christians, Muslims and Jews, Buddhists, Yazidis, Baha’i — have faced discrimination, harassment, repression, and, of course, persecution by state and non-state actors, as well as ideological movements,” Norquist said.

This allegation was backed by Nury Turkel, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan, independent advisory body that monitors religious freedom abroad.

Turkel sounded the alarm on the deterioration of religious freedom in China, where the government continued to “vigorously implement its ‘Sinicization of religion’ policy” and demanded that religious groups and adherents support the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule and ideology.

Although China recognizes Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, and Taoism, adherents of religions with perceived foreign influence — such as Christianity, Islam, and Tibetan Buddhism — and those from other religious movements, are especially vulnerable to persecution, said Turkel, a Uyghur American attorney.

Throughout 2021, Xinjiang authorities continued to detain Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims arbitrarily in internment camps and prison-like facilities for a variety of religiously related reasons.

Over one million Uyghurs have been placed into concentration camps for no other crime than the fact that they worship Allah rather than Xi Xinping. They have been victims of many abuses, including torture, rape, forced labor, and murder.

“Religion poses a unique threat to the Party because it provides a compelling and empowering alternative to its own ideology and cult of personality,” he said. “The only worship the Party is truly comfortable with is its own adulation and policies.”

The “worst nightmare” for the CCP, he said, are communities that care for human rights and human decency. An engaged religious population, Turkel argued, is also a threat for the Chinese government because its authoritarian rule is incompatible with religious freedom.

Their reflections came during a panel discussion organized by the University of Notre Dame’s Religious Liberty Initiative, which is currently being held in Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

Both during his presentation and during the Q&A portion of the panel, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom stressed the importance of not letting abuses against religious freedom go unchallenged, whether caused by government action — as in the case of China — or inaction, as in countries such as Nigeria, where religiously motivated persecution continues to increase.

“Research has found that countries that uphold religious freedom have more vibrant and democratic political institutions, rising economic and social well-being, diminished tension and violence, and greater stability,” he said. “Nations that trample on or fail to protect fundamental human rights, including religious freedom, provide fertile ground for poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical movements and activities.”

Also on the panel was Pakistani Farahnaz Ispahani from the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, who said it is “of paramount importance” to create local and global partnerships between religious and secular human rights advocates.

As she pointed out, religious freedom has long been threatened in her country, particularly for non-Mulsim minorities, with a systematic enforcement of blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya (a variant of Islam) laws. The authorities ignore forced conversions of religious minorities — Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs — to Islam.

Farahnaz also denounced that in her country, and increasingly throughout South Asia, the curricula of public and private schools demonizes other faiths, reinforcing in children a hatred or indifference toward children of other faiths; spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories, helped along by clerics and politicians; and mob violence against members of unarmed minority populations and attacks, including bombings that target places of worship.

“People need to feel the need for religious liberty and should support it just as they do other human rights,” said the former member of Pakistan’s parliament. “Just like someone need not have suffered torture themselves to feel repugnance towards it, people should not only care about the rights of their co-religionists; they should care about the principle of religious liberty.”

Marcus Cole, dean of Notre Dame’s law school and founder of the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative, upon opening the July 20-22 summit, said, the city of Rome serves as a reminder that no empire or entity is “impervious to the truth.” For this reason, he and his cohorts are committed to continue to speak out against the violations of religious freedoms committed both in the United States and abroad.

“We sit here in the capital of the most powerful empire the world has ever known,” he said. “The ruins of that empire are all around us.”

Quoting the Book of Matthew, he pointed out that Jesus once said: “Do you see all of these buildings? Truly I tell you that they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another.”

Being in Rome, Cole said, allows one to be a witness to the truth in Jesus’ words, seeing how the once great Roman empire was conquered by “an idea,” and that idea “was a faith.”

“The Romans laughed at a faith, but in the end, their laughter ended,” he said. “So, the enemies of religious freedom can laugh at us now, but we will not go away. We will continue to fight for freedom of conscience and freedom of religion until it is enjoyed by all.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma


The Cult Vault: 12-hour stream with an aim to raise funds.

A 12-hour stream with an aim to raise funds. Segments include interviews with cult survivors, experts and content creators as well as chances to win giveaway prizes throughout. 

July 21, 2022 5 PM EST


A Little Bit Culty

Page Turner: Spencer Schneider on Writing His Way Out of ‘School’
Page Turner: Spencer Schneider on Writing His Way Out of ‘School’

“We were invisible. We had to be. We took an oath of absolute secrecy. We never even told our immediate families who we were. We went about our lives in New York City. Just like you. We were your accountants, money managers, lawyers, executive recruiters, doctors. We owned your child’s private school and sold you your brownstone. But you’d never guess our secret lives, how we lived in a kind of silent terror and fervor. There were hundreds of us.”

That’s a snippet from Spencer Schneider’s compelling and creepy AF memoir: Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos, and Survival. This isn’t an ad, it’s just the truth: We think you’re going to want to grab yourself a copy before you hit the beach this summer. It’s that much of a page turner. In this episode of A Little Bit Culty, Spencer joins us to share more about what it was like living inside the nightmarish bubble of ‘School’, the ultra-secret Manhattan organization that consumed his life for 23 years. And just in case you’ve not heard of ‘School’, this particular culty shitshow gives us Eyes Wide Shut vibes with sprinklings of Eloise if she lived at The Plaza in the Upside Down. For extra credit, read up on the late Sharon Gans, the eccentric School leader whose cult resume lowlights include: forced adoptions, arranged marriages, twisted displays of public humiliation and conspicuous consumption, and forced labor. Glad you got the hell out of there, Spencer.

More about our guest:

A native of Long Island, Spencer Schneider is a practicing attorney who specializes in corporate litigation in New York. He’s also an open water marathon swimmer and ice water swimmer. He’s employed as an ocean lifeguard, operates a lifeguard training academy, and co-founded a water rescue group. Mr. Schneider is a contributing writer of EAST Magazine. His book, Manhattan Cult Story: My Unbelievable True Story of Sex, Crimes, Chaos, and Survival, will be released by Arcade Publishing and distributed by Simon & Schuster on July 5, 2022.

Rude Awakening: Sarah Landry On Nithyananda & Other Nightmares
Rude Awakening: Sarah Landry On Nithyananda & Other Nightmares (Part 1)

Content Warning: Discussions of child abuse and sexual assault. Listener discretion advised. At just 24 years old, Sarah Landry found herself drawn to Hindu avatar Nithyananda’s teachings like a fly to honey. Moldy, toxic honey. She quickly became an apt pupil, and then his top recruiter via a steady stream of stylized YouTube videos and camera-ready social content. But after learning that the rape and child abuse allegations dogging the organization were just too credible to simply swat away, she stepped down as its propagandist-in-chief and stepped up as one of its harshest critics. The fallout since she blew the whistle on the godman’s shady ways in a series of incendiary 2019 Facebook posts and Youtube videos has been steep. (If you’re labeled as a double-agent for the Vatican by loyalists of a guy who is on the lam after being charged with rape and abduction: You’ve officially reached Remini-levels of cult busting.) In this episode, and the next—there’s just too much to cover to make it a one-parter—Sarah shares what it’s like to be on the other side of an army she helped build, and why she won’t stop working to deplatform culty characters like Nithyananda no matter how many self-proclaimed island nations they pull out of their asses. Learn more about Sarah Landry on her YouTube or Instagram or Twitter.

Rude Awakening: Sarah Landry On Nithyananda & Other Nightmares (Part 2)

Content Warning: Discussions of child abuse and sexual assault. Listener discretion advised. Here’s the second part of our conversation with Sarah Landry who shares what it’s like to face down the very online army she helped create for the so-called guru Nithyananda after going wide with explosive accusations of rape, child abuse, and a whole sordid cornucopia of culty shit.