Nov 30, 2023

Ex-leader of S.Korea's largest Buddhist sect self immolates

Daiji World
November 30, 2023

"South Korea's largest Buddhist sect, the Jogye Order on Thursday said that a former leader immolated himself after he was found dead in a temple fire a day earlier.

"Ven. Jaseung left a warning to all Buddhists with his self-immolation, praying for the stability of the religious group and the salvation of the world through the dissemination of the Dharma," Yonhap News Agency quoted Ven. Wubong, the spokesman for the Jogye Order, as saying at a press briefing.

He announced the former head passed away at age 69 in a fire that erupted at Chiljang Temple in Anseong, Gyeonggi province, at about 6.50 p.m. Wednesday.

His body was found at a dormitory for monks in the temple, where he was staying alone.

The police discovered notes apparently written for the temple's chief priest in Jaseung's car parked nearby.

They read: "I'm sorry for causing a lot of troubles by ending my life here. ... This building will be restored by my disciples, and I'm both sorry and grateful."

The police say they will analyse all closed-circuit TV footage inside the temple to determine the exact cause of the fire.

The Jogye Order said it will hold a five-day funeral led by its current leader Ven. Jinwoo at Jogye Temple situated in downtown Seoul.

Born in 1954, Ven. Jaseung became a Buddhist monk at age 19 and served as the president of the Jogye Order from 2009 to 2017.

Self-immolation is a Buddhist practice of burning oneself alive as an offering to Buddha."

Nov 29, 2023

How to get someone out of a cult - and what happens afterwards

The Conversation

November 29, 2023

Author Suzanne Newcombe 

1.     Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies, The Open University

Disclosure statement

Suzanne Newcombe is honorary director of Inform - Information Network Focus on Religious Movements ( Inform was established in 1988 by Professor Eileen Barker at the London School of Economics to provide up-to-date and accurate information about new and minority religious groups, often termed 'cults' and to provide a bridge between academic research and the questions of the general public. Its start-up funding was provided by the UK Home Office and Inform continues to receive project funding income from the UK government, as well as being supported by grants from charitable foundations and academic funding bodies.


The Open University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.

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Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

No one ever sets out to join a cult.

At the beginning it looks like the group will meet some need or ideal. For most people it seems to work initially - at least somewhat.

A recent Netflix documentary showed the experiences of people in the Twin Flames Universe group, which offers online courses in finding your soulmate. For those who joined Twin Flames, it seemed that they were no longer alone. Former members say every aspect of their lives were controlled. A statement on the group’s website says these claims “distort” their “true aims and methods” and “misrepresent the autonomy of our community members.”

In general terms though, why do people leave high-demand religious groups (often called cults), and how can you help someone who’s stuck? The answer is always unique and depends on the context. Important factors to consider include the individual’s personal characteristics, the nature of the group and outside circumstances.

For some people, there is a gradual slipping away. The classic cult-like group encourages isolation from friends, family and even outside employment. But if someone does continue to engage with other activities and groups, these might reduce the appeal of an increasingly demanding group.

Some people experience a sudden change in thinking when the group crosses an ethical line or when the when the duplicity of a leader’s teaching and behaviour is realised. Sometimes a group of people leave together.

But, as the length and depth of involvement increases, leaving can become harder and harder. This is partially due to the “sunk costs” effect. If you spend your life savings on “training” and cut all your ties with your family, it becomes more difficult to start over.

Additionally, many people are both perpetrators and victims of the group’s harmful activities. Shame and social stigma does not make it any easier to leave.

So if you’re worried someone you know has joined a cult, what can you do to help?

Mind your language

Intervention from an outsider can help protect someone from being further indoctrinated, but it is important to be careful about the wording you use in conversations.

Research on people who left high demand groups has shown it can help to:

·         try to maintain positive contact

·         do not shame or belittle the person

·         be curious and do some research

·         ask questions about specific aspects of the group which might be concerning.

Do not tell a person who is excited about their involvement in a new group that you believe they have been brainwashed or are in a cult. At this time in person’s journey, using language about cults usually makes them feel divided from society.

Members are often warned that those outside the group cannot understand the convert’s experiences. Labelling the group as an evil cult can entrench such a belief.

Do your research

When joining a high-demand religious group there are usually “pulls” (things that are attractive about the group) as well as “pushes” (things the person is trying to change about their life) involved. Exploring and identifying these pulls and pushes can encourage people to engage in more active decision making and make them think about their own identity.

Do some research about what exactly may be problematic about this particular group. It can be helpful to ask questions specific things group members are likely to encounter before the issues come up.

For example:

·         What if you were asked not to be in touch with your family ever again? Is that okay and ethical? How will they feel about you leaving their life?

·         How much money do you think is reasonable to spend on this group?

·         Could it be a good idea to safeguard savings or property, just “in case” things change with the group?

Encourage critical thinking

The use of “thought-terminating clichés”, stock phrases which shut down critical thinking, are often used by groups which aim to align people’s thinking with a dogma.

For example, bad experiences or illness might be attributed to “karma” or giving attention to physical and emotional needs might be labelled “self-cherishing” or “promoting ego.” These explanations can be gently challenged by introducing other ideas as possibilities.

In some groups there is constant questioning and reframing of members’ experiences. For example, questioning the decision of an authority figure might be deflected by an accusation the member is demonstrating a “lack of faith” or an order “to meditate on your negative mind”.

This kind of behaviour can be understood as gaslighting, where someone is encouraged not to trust their memory, thoughts and sensations and can cause people to feel confused, physically ill and doubting their sanity.

Questions like those offered above, can encourage someone to consider other ways of thinking and tune into their own experiences and ethics more clearly. This helps people think more critically about explanations given by a group to justify harmful behaviour and maintain contact with their own internal moral compass.

If they’re entrenched within the group, it is still worth trying to keep an open door. Even minimal contact at birthdays and Christmas can help people know there is a friendly person outside. A recent study of family members of cult members, found that those who eventually left the group said close family bonds outside the movement were important.

Life afterwards

Experiences of leaving religious groups are complex and diverse. Some might physically distance themselves from a group, but maintain aspects of the worldview and even practices for long periods of time after leaving. One example is the Free Zone Scientology movement, made up of people who practice L. Ron Hubbard’s techniques outside the structures of the Church of Scientology.

In other cases, former members sometimes continue social contact with people in the group, particularly if they have close family who are still members. They might decide to never officially denounce the group, but nevertheless move quite far away from the group’s ways of seeing the world.

Reestablishing social and financial footing after leaving a high-demand group is not easy. In the words of one recent study “extensive emotional effort” is needed to create new social ties and a new understanding of self.

Some may need basic practical support to find a place to live, a job, or educational qualifications. Many find some contact with others who have had similar experiences important and validating.

Those who leave can benefit from being given time and safe spaces to reevaluate their experiences. Where possible, this is usually best done with the help of a professional counselor.

These high demand groups show how powerful the our need for social bonds can be - both in attracting people to the groups in the first place and in helping them pull away.


Nov 28, 2023

Tantric yoga guru Gregorian Bivolaru charged with human trafficking

French authorities arrest Misa leader in major raid over claims of organised kidnapping, rape and abuse


The Guardian

Associated Press in Paris

Tue 28 Nov 2023


French authorities have arrested the leader of a multinational tantric yoga organisation on suspicion of indoctrinating women for sexual exploitation.

The Romanian guru was detained on Tuesday morning during a major police operation across the Paris region, according to a French judicial official, who was not authorised to speak publicly about an ongoing investigation.

The French official identified the man as Gregorian B, whom French media identified as Gregorian Bivolaru, 71, an internationally known yoga teacher and author.

The investigation into Bivolaru and his yoga federation, the Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute (Misa), began after reports of psychological manipulation and sexual exploitation within the organisation, according to the official. Former Misa members alerted authorities to the alleged abuses.

Bivolaru is being charged with human trafficking, organised kidnapping, rape and organised abuse of weakness by members of a sect, according to French authorities.

The international police agency Interpol has issued a notice for Bivolaru’s arrest on behalf of authorities in Finland, where he is wanted for alleged aggravated trafficking in human beings.

Websites associated with Bivolaru alleged he was the victim of a wide-ranging plot to discredit him.


The raids in France involved 175 police officers and resulted in 40 other arrests across the French capital, Seine-et-Marne, Val-de-Marne and the Alpes-Maritimes.

The operation targeted several locations used by the organisation, where women were reportedly indoctrinated and coerced into sexual practices. The locations, described as “ashrams”, served as housing for women selected by Bivolaru for initiation into Tantric yoga practices, according to French authorities.

Bivolaru, who was convicted of raping a minor in Romania, founded Misa in 1990.

The French investigation found evidence that students were coerced into sexual activities that included participating in explicit video chats for monetary gain, according to the judicial official. These alleged activities, purportedly carried out under the pretense of Tantric yoga teachings, formed part of an intricate system of financial exploitation and control, the official said.


Nov 25, 2023


Religion dispatches


NOVEMBER 24, 2023

What inspired you to write The Exorcist Effect?

Over twenty years ago, Michael Cuneo wrote a book called American Exorcism, arguing that William Friedkin’s The Exorcist had almost single-handedly brought about a revival of exorcism in America. We think Cuneo was generally correct, but it’s hard to actually prove this claim. In fact, one acquisitions editor who approached us to write “something” about exorcism told us he was no longer interested in our project because it was impossible to demonstrate a causal connection between horror films and supernatural belief.


The Exorcist Effect: Horror, Religion, and Demonic Belief

Joseph P. Laycock and Eric Harrelson
Oxford University Press
Nov 7, 2023

We think we’ve come up with a cogent model of how horror films shape religious beliefs, practices, and experiences. To do this, we looked at archival sources, concepts from folklore studies like “ostension” (essentially the way that stories affect or are mimicked in real life), and studies by psychologists and neuroscientists. We also know that the opposite is true: religion shapes horror movies. So what we’re really looking at is a Möbius strip in which movies and culture transform each other. We call this phenomenon “The Exorcist Effect.”

What’s the most important take-home message for readers at this cultural moment?

Some of the cases of moral panic we examined in this book were disturbing: “recovered memories” of satanic ritual abuse that were clearly scenes from The Exorcist and The Omen; psychiatrists forcing their patients to undergo exorcisms; tropes from horror movies that shaped the trial of The West Memphis Three (popularized in the 1996 documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills); QAnon claims about torturing children to harvest “adrenochrome” or Hillary Clinton wearing a child’s face like a mask. These cases show what’s at stake when we use horror movies to interpret the real world.

In cases like the West Memphis Three, where three young boys were murdered, it seemed that the fear, anger, and sadness experienced after a horrible and seemingly inexplicable tragedy were weaponized by authorities and opportunists to produce a simple, tidy explanation—that the murders had been part of a satanic ritual—rather than address the actual underlying causes. The ensuing scapegoating often takes its cues from horror films, as it’s easier to blame some imagined force of evil than to accept a member of your community is capable of deliberately committing such an unthinkable act. As Hannah Arendt observed, real world evil is often banal and rarely resembles movie villains.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

There are a lot of horror movies out there and we couldn’t cover everything. While we were able to give some coverage to foreign films, we focused primarily on American films and North American culture. There is definitely more work to be done to analyze the relationship between religion and horror in places like Japan, Korea, Turkey, and Iran.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

We really hope no one thinks we are advocating censorship. We view censoring movies or books or music as a reactionary move that doesn’t address the core issues of the problems it purports to solve. Furthermore, stigmatizing film, music, and other art can actually lead to more harm perpetrated on innocent people. Instead of censorship, we advocate for media and information literacy, along with better critical thinking skills. 

Additionally, readers may think we are out to “debunk” the existence of the supernatural. Our goal is not to prove that there are no demons or ghosts or whatever. But some beliefs do need to be questioned. For example, it is harmful to believe someone is guilty of murder because they “look like a Satanist” from a horror movie.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

We hope film scholars as well as religion scholars will appreciate some of the information we found in the archives and through interviews. For example, we discovered a lot of cool stuff about figures like the Warrens, who inspired the Conjuring film series, and Malachi Martin, a former Jesuit who lied incessantly about his knowledge of exorcism. We’re also both horror fans and we think other fans will be curious about how their favorite movies influenced not just entertainment, but folklore, religious practices, and even psychiatry.

Fans of “true crime” may also enjoy some of the connections we discovered. For example, David Berkowitz, the Zodiac Killer, and Jeffrey Dahmer all tried to capitalize on “The Exorcist” franchise, either to get attention or build a defense. We also analyze the trial of Arne Johnson, in which Ed and Lorraine Warren attempted to argue Johnson was not guilty of murder by reason of demonic possession.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

We think the information in this book is interesting and fun to read, but there’s also a point to it. “The Exorcist Effect” has contributed to some destructive outcomes that have ruined lives. The greatest of these was The Satanic Panic, a conspiracy theory that was rendered more plausible in the 1980s after cable television put films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen into heavy rotation.

So we hope this book encourages readers to think about the power of media. We need to find ways to get the public to think more critically about these topics and to question where their assumptions about things like demons and Satanic cults come from. We all need to take a cue from marketing materials for Wes Craven’s 1972 breakthrough horror film The Last House on the Left and remind ourselves: “It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.”

What alternative title would you give the book?

We homed in on “The Exorcist Effect” pretty quickly. The hard part is deciding what to put after the colon. We looked at “How Horror and Religion Shape Each Other” but decided this was too vague. We finally settled on “Religion, Horror, and Demonic Belief” to signal what you can expect to find in this book.

How do you feel about the cover? 

We wanted to evoke the classic Exorcist movie poster, which has been parodied and pastiched in so many subsequent films and other visual media. In the 1970s, black and purple were the signature colors of the advertising campaign for the book and film. We decided on the image of a spooky church to signal that this is still a book about the American religious landscape.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Well obviously, American Exorcism by Michael Cuneo since that book began the process of connecting The Exorcist to contemporary exorcism culture. We were also really impressed with Flicker: Your Brain on Movies by neuroscientist Jeff Zacks. Zacks’s findings on how movies affect memory and our models for reality have disturbing implications for horror movies.

What’s your next book?

We found more about Ed and Lorraine Warren than we could fit in one chapter and Eric may do a follow up project on the Warrens. Joseph is currently looking for a publisher for a new project on the reptilian conspiracy theory.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about your book? 

Much like William Friedkin, we would like to inform the media that our project is cursed. We have heard that despite having a local priest come out to bless the printing presses, six employees of the publishing house were injured during printing. It has also been said that a delivery truck carrying the first hard copies of the book was involved in a dangerous accident. The driver reportedly lost control of the vehicle and ran down an embankment. The truck rolled several times before coming to a stop just before a sharp 25-foot drop. The driver luckily escaped with only a few broken fingers and some 13 stitches. He reported seeing a large black dog with glowing red eyes standing in the road and swerved to avoid hitting it.

A curse may explain why this book took nearly five years to write and why our research trip to Connecticut to see the Annabelle doll went over budget. Readers have been warned.


Town Hall Over QAnon Cult Goes Exactly Like You Would Expect

The small town in Saskatchewan where the infamous "QAnon Queen of Canada" has taken refuge is not having a great time

Mack Lamoureux

November 24, 2023


The town hall over the QAnon cult that had taken over the a local school was going mighty fine until people started telling each other to “go fuck themselves.” 

Sitting in the front row, Rick Manz, the man who invited the cult to town and gifted them a school where they lived for over a month, sat with a wide grin showing off his missing front teeth. He clapped along as an older woman took the mic and accused some in the town of “threatening their own neighbors.”

“She’s a cult sympathizer,” one man shouted from the side.

“Fuck off, no I am not” was the woman’s reply. “I'm sick and tired of listening to you. I want Richmound to be the nice community it was when I moved in.”

“It’s people like you supporting that idiot there that is causing issues,” responded the man while pointing at Manz. 

It’s been two months since Romana Didulo, better known as the QAnon Queen, came to the tiny town of Richmound, Saskatchewan. Didulo is a QAnon influencer who has built a following by telling people she’s the true queen of Canada and is essentially a spiritual being here to bring humanity to a “new timeline.” Prior to her time in Richmound, Didulo was essentially on a never-ending tour of Canada where she would set up in parking lots of cities where her followers would come to listen to her speak and give her money and gifts. 

Didulo, and a small group of dedicated followers who have given up their lives to serve her every whim, have been living on the property gifted to her by Manz, a local who bought the school in the hopes of turning it into a cannabis grow-op. Didulo has declared that her followers now need to call Manz “His Excellency” and treat him like a diplomat for her service. Didulo embraced the school and even used it to host a meetup of her followers where they piled into the school gym and did a weird little ritual based around the fraudulent currency she made up.

Didulo promptly left the property last week after fire officials showed up for an inspection. Richmond Mayor Brad Miller told CBC News that he called the inspectors after spotting a heater propped upon a propane tank—a clear fire hazard. Mill told VICE News inspectors were turned away and by the end of the day the cult fled. 

Now the cult is taking shelter at a farmhouse just an hour outside of town. Their motorhomes, trailers, and vehicles can be easily seen from the highway, giving the locals passing by a reminder they’re still around. Christine Sarteschi, a criminology professor at Chatham University who follows Didulo closely, told VICE News that “based on their livestream comments, and some sources in town, it appears as though they are planning to return to the Richmound school building.”

“‘Queen’ Romana and her followers are quite secretive about their activities and intentions but reports from Richmound sources indicate that they have left but intend to return,” Sarteschi told VICE. “Romana continues to disparage certain town individuals in its nightly livestream and remains a menace to the town and its people.”

The town has offered stiff pushback on the cult, holding multiple protests to get them out. The cult is increasingly paranoid of the town and has said they were worried about their school being burnt down or dogs being paranoid. Numerous times they’ve taken to their livestream—which is the cult's primary form of communication to their follower—to attack Miller, and locals in the town by name. On the flip side, the town is paranoid of the cult after some of Didulo’s followers sent out faux “cease and desist orders'' that promised the execution of the recipients.

Even though the cult is an hour out of town, incidents with the townsfolks are still occurring. The cult posted a video on Thursday of an interaction they had with locals and an independent journalist they’ve been sparring with. In it Didulo yells in the grocery store they’re in that she’s “being harassed” and marches towards the journalist who was filming them. In another video she gets into an argument with a local who asks her why she wants him “executed.” In the post accompanying the video, she demanded “this man and woman be charged with aggravated harassment, hate crime stalking, stalking causing fear.” 

This in turn led to Didulo and her crew making paranoid livestream about the incident where multiple members of the Didulo’s inner circle gave lengthy statements about what happened. The group was particularly irate because one of the men who spoke to Didulo had his fly down when doing so.

“Where does this end?” an exasperated Manz yells. “You ambush the Queen with your fly down! There are no words to describe you.”

Nov 24, 2023

How an Exclusive NYC Cult Influenced the 1970’s Art Scene

Alexander Stille, author of 'The Sullivanians,' joins Ben Davis on the podcast this week.

Artnet News
November 23, 2023

[12:01 PM] Caroline Goldstein The Sullivanians in Central Park. Photo: Donna Warshaw, courtesy of Alexander Stille.
[12:01 PM] Caroline Goldstein The Sullivanians in Central Park. Photo: Donna Warshaw, courtesy of Alexander Stille.
Welcome to the Art Angle, a podcast from Artnet News that delves into the places where the art world meets the real world, bringing each week’s biggest story down to earth. Join us every week for an in-depth look at what matters most in museums, the art market, and much more, with input from our own writers and editors, as well as artists, curators, and other top experts in the field.

“I was like reborn,” the art critic Clement Greenberg once remembered, “it was the most important event in my life.”

The event in question was his encounter with Sullivanian therapy. His biographer, Florence Rubenfeld, once wrote that it would not overstretch the facts to say that after the late ’50s, Clem’s comportment in the art world can only be understood in this context. Yet despite how large Clement Greenberg looms as the most impactful U.S. critic of the 20th century, few people know this history.

A new book called The Sullivanians, Sex, Psychotherapy, and the Wild Life of an American Commune is raising the subject once again, as literally one chapter in a much larger narrative. A lot of other people shared Greenberg’s experience of rebirth. From the 1950s to the 1980s, hundreds of bright, educated people looking for purpose and community passed through the doors of the Sullivan Institute for Research in Psychoanalysis on New York’s Upper West Side.

Formulated into a doctrine by Saul Newton and Jane Pierce, this experimental therapy promised to liberate devotees from both creative and sexual repression. In the course of the 60s, it would evolve into a multi-decade experiment in polyamory, collective living, and group child rearing, before eventually coming apart in scandal when the inner workings of the group were exposed in the 1980s.

Recently, the author of The Sullivanians, Alexander Stille, joined Ben Davis to talk about both about the Sullivan Institute’s contact with U.S. art at mid-century, and more importantly, about the larger story of what this group became and what it represents now.

Timekeepers no more, rank-and-file Jehovah's Witnesses say goodbye to tracking proselytizing hours

Yahoo News
November 22, 2023

Jehovah's Witnesses are well-known for proselytizing door-to-door and handing out their literature on city streets. Less known to the general public, their adherents have been required for the past century to make regular reports to their congregation's leaders on how many hours they put into such ministry.

Those hourly reports were a key metric for a congregation's spiritual vitality and a factor in deciding who rose to leadership. Former adherents tell of pressure to meet these quotas and guilt when they didn't.

But in a historic shift, that practice ended this month.

For the first time since 1920, leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses have removed the hours-reporting requirement for rank-and-file adherents.

“Our ministry involves much more than counting time,” Samuel Herd, a member of the denomination’s Governing Body, said in announcing the policy change to applause at the October annual meeting of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, a legal entity central to the Jehovah's Witnesses' work.

Herd said the Governing Body is “confident that you dear ones will continue to render whole-souled service,” motivated not by obligation but devotion to God, whom they call Jehovah. But he acknowledged leaders would have to adapt.

“You will have to know the flock well,” he said. “Evaluating a congregation’s spiritual health or a brother’s qualifications to serve (in leadership positions such) as an elder or ministerial servant will not simply be a matter of computing averages, time spent in the ministry, literature placements and so forth.”

The video of the meeting, held in Newburgh, New York, was publicly posted by the organization in early November, though leaked recordings circulated for weeks earlier on unofficial websites.

“This is one of the biggest changes I ever remember” in the organization, said former elder Martin Haugh of York Haven, Pennsylvania.

Removal of the hours requirement applies to “publishers,” or rank-and-file adherents involved in active ministry. They will now only need to file monthly reports saying whether they’ve conducted any evangelistic activity and Bible studies, without specifying hours.

Those who sign up for more extensive service, known as “pioneers” or “missionaries,” will continue to record their hours.

Skeptical former adherents, however, are speculating different motives are at play — that adherents' ministry hours have dropped so noticeably, particularly since the pandemic.

When numbers were growing, “it was always brought up at meetings or in their publications to show the growth of the organization,” said Mitch Melin of Washington state, a former adherent now working to bring awareness to what he calls the “darker side" of the organization, such as its control of Witnesses and the practice of shunning certain members. He speculated that "if they're declining, it might be embarrassing to show” the numbers.

Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses based at their world headquarters in New York state, disputed this notion. He said ministry time had been increasing yearly until the pandemic, peaking above 2 billion hours worldwide. While the hours are below pre-pandemic levels, he said they began rising from 1.4 billion in 2021 to 1.5 billion hours in 2022 as Witnesses resumed door-to-door visits and other ministry.

Former elder Haugh, who left over what he saw as the denomination's mishandling of sexual abuse and other matters, said the hours requirement was once central in adherents' lives.

“It showed you how loyal you were to Jehovah by how much time was put in," he said.

Haugh recalled how a regional supervisor yelled at elders if their congregation's performance lagged. Haugh said marriages broke up over spouses' different levels of commitment, and people who were judged as failing at ministry would spiral into depression. "Now they don’t have to have that stigmatization that they’re not putting in the hours,” he said.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Jehovah's Witnesses were handing out literature to passers-by at various downtown locations in Pittsburgh — the 19th century birthplace of the movement.

Those interviewed said they planned to do as much ministry as ever and hadn't focused on the hours. “It doesn’t affect our day-to-day life," said Chuck Ghee, a local elder. "We give the best out of our heart.”

The Governing Body also devoted part of the annual meeting to revising its interpretation of biblical prophecies about the end times — a paramount focus of Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Governing Body now accepts that even in the final countdown to Armageddon, nonbelievers might still accept the truth and be saved. That reverses a previous understanding that, once an apocalyptic Great Tribulation gets underway, it would be too late.

That announcement, not yet formally made public, has also been circulating online on the same unofficial sites that distributed authentic recordings of the announced policy change on tracking hours.

“Will all those living during the Great Tribulation have a full opportunity to decide either for the kingdom or against it?” Governing Body member Geoffrey Jackson said at the annual meeting.

“We don’t know, and we don’t need to know because we’re not the judges," Jackson said. “We know that Jehovah and Jesus are merciful, that they will always do the right thing.”

Earlier leaders of the organization had raised expectations for apocalyptic events in specific years, such as 1975, which failed to materialize. Current teaching still puts a strong emphasis on the end times, but without predicting specific dates.

Governing Body member Jeffrey Winder said at the annual meeting that God reveals truth gradually and that the body is happy to have its understandings corrected.

“Knowing this, we are not embarrassed about adjustments that are made, nor is an apology needed for not getting it exactly right previously," he said.

Lopes declined to comment on the unreleased teaching videos before their scheduled release in January, following their translation into more than 200 languages spoken by adherents. While he neither confirmed nor disputed the videos' authenticity, he did say unofficial sites impinge on copyright when they distribute Watch Tower videos without authorization.

The changes come at a turbulent time for Jehovah's Witnesses. Worship gatherings in India and Germany suffered fatal attacks in the past year from former participants. Believers in Russia, where the denomination is banned, face persecution.

The Jehovah's Witnesses faces intense scrutiny worldwide over the handling of child sexual abuse. A Pennsylvania grand jury has charged 14 men since 2022 with sexual abuse within the organization.

The denomination counts 8.7 million adherents worldwide, with 1.2 million in the United States.

The changes in teaching and the practice of recording hours, taken together, can be seen as a “relaxation of the sectarian identity of the group," said Mathew Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

On the one hand, “it's hard to see the Witnesses becoming a mainstream church, because it would lose some of its appeal to being the possessors of biblical truth” to the exclusion of others, Schmalz said. On the other hand, the organization wants “to have the public take them seriously as a religious organization."

Former elder Haugh said the changes don't make up for failures in reforming the handling of abuse or for battling former adherents and critics in court and other venues. “They may be nicer to their own members, but they’ve become even more against their former members,” he said.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

The Cult Specialist: Ian Haworth hangs up the Cult Information Centre's hotline for the last time

Paul Jones
The Skeptic
November 20, 2023

Paul Jones is a Shanghai-based wannabe journalist trying to combine writing with his special subject of high-control groups, including cults, multi-level marketing schemes, and problematic coaching programmes/relationships. His brief stint in the Korean Christian group, Shincheonji, made him want to help former and current cult members, and their families, and contribute something to the field of cult education. His articles on Chinese community architecture and Shanghai’s boxing gyms have appeared in the British Council’s ChinaNow magazine, and That’s Magazine.

After forty-five years educating the public about the danger of cults, the Cult Information Centre’s, Ian Haworth, 76, stopped taking phone calls in August this year, but before he disconnected the phone, he agreed to condense four-and-a-half decades of experience into two long-distance telephone conversations.

Ian answers the phone on the third ring, but — despite trading emails for a few weeks leading up to our conversation — it takes him a moment to remember who I am.

“I wasn’t sure which Paul it was.” I ask him if he regularly speaks to a lot of Pauls. “Well, anything’s possible in this field,” he says.

He opens our conversation with a caveat: “You can hit me with anything you want to. It could be personal or otherwise because I don’t have to answer and I’ll be very straightforward with you.”

Despite the disclaimer, Haworth is happy to talk and punctuates his observations and recollections with jokes, anecdotes, and original metaphors that require a mental double-take to keep up.

“Nobody in the right mind would try and do this sort of work for 45 years,” he says as he gives a candid window into the fascinating, often unbelievable, often tragic world of cults.

Not an Expert

An Internet search for information on people working in what is sometimes called the anti-cult field yields the term “cult expert,” which refers to a person (often a former cult member) who raises public awareness about the issue and provides specialised exit-counselling for people leaving cults.

Haworth, however, doesn’t feel comfortable with the title, “I’m a cult specialist. Whether or not somebody wants to see me as an expert is up to them.”

He simplifies his role even further, “I have wanted to be, over the years, available to talk things through with people that want to talk about something to do with cults – whoever they are. And I’ve tried to do that.”

While he might not consider himself an expert, Haworth’s work has seen him in the lecture theatres of universities and schools across North America and the UK, appear in TV and radio interviews, and inside courtrooms to provide expert witness testimony, or—as I learn a little later—on the receiving end of libel suits levelled against him by the groups he’s trying to protect the public from.

His book Cults: A Practical Guide is currently in its fourth edition, and he’s helped found non-profit organisations and charities across North America, the UK, and Europe to help educate the public and support former cult members and families who’ve lost loved ones to cults.

Since 1987, Haworth has been the general secretary of the London-based Cult Information Centre (CIC), one of the few UK-based non-profit organisations set up to help educate and support the public.

In the last few years, Haworth has stopped giving so many talks. “I had to just slow down a bit because I was suffering from O.L.D,” he pauses and then adds, “Sorry, that’s my attempt at humour again.”

Regardless of how he sees his role in the last forty-five years, Haworth has been one of the few on the frontline fighting to protect the public from cults.

From Bolton to Canada

Born in Bolton in 1947 to a family of “farmers on both sides,” Haworth moved to Leyland, Lancashire when he was young, where he grew up on his family’s poultry farm. Back then, according to Haworth, a cult meant nothing more to him than the name for a young horse.

Unsure about his future career options, the young Haworth first dabbled in engineering before settling on business. After a three-month university trip to the US in 1969 and a stint washing dishes in a resort hotel in Connecticut, which Haworth describes as “the best holiday of my life,” he moved to the US. Then, in 1972, a twenty-five-year-old Haworth, concerned about America’s ongoing war in Vietnam and the possibility of being drafted, headed to Toronto, Canada, where he worked for electronics and telecoms companies in various roles, and was a buyer of the first sub-$100 calculators on the market.

Reflecting on his professional ambitions at the time, Haworth says he had absolutely no idea what he wanted to do with his life – but that would all change in the space of a few days when he signed up for a course that promised to help him stop smoking.

“The only time I was convinced that I knew what I had to do,” he says, “Was when I escaped from the cult.”

Encountering the Group

Toronto, 1978, and Haworth – a heavy smoker of seven years – is seeking professional help to quit, and is considering his options. He sees an advertisement for a $220, five-week course boasting a 70% success rate. Researching things a bit more, he encounters another company offering a similar thing; however, this one comes with a money-back guarantee.

“What could be wrong with that?” he recalls thinking, “Well, everything, as it turns out.”

A motel near the Toronto Pearson International Airport provided the venue for the course. Haworth attended on a Thursday evening along with forty other participants – some of whom hoped to see changes in their professional lives or practices; some wanted a more personal transformation. No matter what they were individually seeking, they were all there to improve some aspect of their personality or life, and whatever that was, this course, and the group behind it, promised to deliver.

The opening evening’s session on that Thursday night went on well into the early hours of the following morning. Exhausted and operating on very little sleep, Haworth went to work the next day. Instead of returning home to rest once his workday had finished, he was expected to attend the course again for another evening session.

From the beginning, the group established clear rules to prevent the participants from interacting too much with each other, or questioning what was happening. According to Haworth, everything was “…there to inhibit us from questioning and checking things out.”

The group’s activities were tightly controlled, and designed to force changes in the participants’ behaviour and thinking. Haworth remembers the days well:

We were hypnotised, 16 times in the four-day course without knowing it once. We didn’t eat the normal sorts of food that we would normally eat. Nor did we eat the food as often as we would normally eat it, or at the same time. And the chairs in the room were set up in such a way to work against us.

The intense, long days and nights filled with relentless group activities and controlled toilet breaks, combined with sleep deprivation and hypnosis had a powerful, heady effect on Haworth, “One of the results of being hypnotised, even a few times, never mind, 16, is that you’ll feel good. You’re hungry, you’re exhausted, but you feel good.”

This continued over a few days – that’s all it took. The group’s techniques were so effective that by Saturday afternoon, Haworth hadn’t been for his usual cigarette during the allotted break.

“I was theirs hook, line, and sinker by Saturday midday,” Haworth remembers, “Two evenings, one morning, and I was gone.”

However, he doesn’t attribute this break in his old habit to the course’s efficacy in delivering on its promise, but rather the creation of a new identity — one that belongs to the group, “I quit being me because they turned me into someone else who didn’t smoke,” Haworth tells me.

In their 1994 paper, Pseudo-Identity and the Treatment of Personality Change in Victims of Captivity and Cults, psychiatrists Louis J. West and Paul R. Martin explored how cults use destabilising techniques to disrupt people’s senses of self and cause dramatic changes in their personality and behaviour:

Cases of pseudo-identity observed among cult victims are often very clear-cut, classic examples of transformation through deliberately contrived situational forces of a normal individual’s personality into that of a ‘different person’.

The sudden shifts in Haworth’s behaviour began to concern the people who knew him best; neither his girlfriend nor his roommate could understand what had happened during the space of a weekend that could turn somebody they knew so well into a person they hardly recognised.

He also handed in his notice at work. His boss, noticing the changes in his personality and sensing that something wasn’t quite right, didn’t immediately process the request, “She knew something was wrong, she couldn’t explain it, but she knew I was in trouble,” he says.

The group’s meetings and activities quickly took over all of Haworth’s free time, whether it was fundraising, recruiting people on the streets, or attending courses and meetings, “I was just doing whatever they told me to do,” Haworth explains.

Monday evenings, he’d be attending top-up meetings; Wednesdays, he’d be handling new recruits and getting them to sign up for courses. The group, in a short space of time, had learned that Haworth was a former competitive swimmer, so they arranged for him to teach disabled children to swim at the local hospital on Tuesdays to help boost the group’s image and profile within the community.

He even tried recruiting the people closest to him. One of these people was Haworth’s neighbour. “A very dear neighbour who, like everyone else, I tried to recruit,” he admits.

This neighbour called him one day to tell him the group he’d been non-stop talking about for the past week was in today’s newspaper and invited him to the lobby of their building to receive a copy. Eager to see what good things the press were saying, he immediately returned to his own apartment and opened the newspaper, expecting the article to be full of effusive praise for the group—but what he found was anything but.

Dejection and disbelief replaced excitement – Haworth “fell apart at the seams” as he read horror stories of one former member in a psychiatric unit, and other recent ones in psychiatric care.

The message in the article was unambiguous: This was a cult, and people needed to stay well away.

A shocked Haworth took the article to the group’s leadership, where his questions were met with a tirade about the ethnicity of the journalist. “Why don’t you go away,” they told him, “And come back when you’re feeling better?”

Haworth did leave, but instead of ignoring the article as propaganda or bad press, he decided to call the journalist behind the piece. A forty-five-minute telephone conversation later, the journalist invited Haworth to his office to see the information he had about the group that, but — for legal reasons — couldn’t print.

Haworth wasted no time and immediately jumped on a train, arriving at the newspaper office. The journalist left Haworth alone in the back office with all of his research. A shocked Haworth emerged an hour later, “This is far worse than what you said in the article!” he said to the journalist, who nodded, “Yes, my boy. That’s lawyers for you.”

Persistent influence

Despite the course only lasting a few days, and Haworth only being in the group for two-and-a-half weeks, the techniques used against him had lingering effects.

It was six months before he began to notice certain aspects of his original personality returning, “As time goes by, the cult personality is eroded away, till it no longer exists,” he says.

His desire to smoke returned; however, this was a welcome sign that things were beginning to change, “And when it got to the point after six months where I wanted to smoke again. I was actually happy, because I knew that was normal.”

It was a few months before other aspects of his suppressed, authentic personality began to re-emerge. Again, he—and this time the people closest to him—took this as a positive sign that he was returning to his former self; although, Haworth’s not so sure his friends were happy to see all of his previous traits reinstated:

“After eleven months, my typical painful sense of humour came back as well, and that’s when I knew I was really the old me again. I was back to telling jokes that would make people say, ‘Oh no, Ian” No. Why?’ Come up with a new material please!’” Haworth laughs.

Haworth continued to attend the group’s meetings to warn others, a very dangerous move, he admits, as he could have easily been sucked back in. During this time, he convinced six other members to leave, but the seventh alerted the leadership to Haworth’s activities, and the jig was up—after that, he never attended another meeting or saw any of the group’s leadership again.

After leaving the group, Haworth returned to his former place of work to ask if he could rescind his request and have his old job back. His boss removed the letter of resignation from the drawer in her desk and tore it up in front of him.

Haworth resumed smoking but managed to quit a few years later, this time on his own terms—without the help of anyone or any course.

The World Gets Introduced to Brainwashing.

Berkeley, California, 1974. Charles Manson, the notorious drifter-criminal, and mastermind behind the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders that terrified Hollywood and brought California’s counterculture movement to a bloody close, is three years into a life sentence (commuted in 1972 from the original death penalty sentence).

The highly-televised public trials that once captivated audiences in the US and internationally, and dominated all the nightly news channels, have been replaced by a more pressing national issue—the latest developments about Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

However, Manson is still an unresolved issue in the minds of the American people, psychologists, and the media. Nobody understands or has a definitive answer for how a thirty-six-year-old, 5”2 man, with a slightly above average IQ of 109 could have so much power over a group of middle-class, educated, idealistic young people—known to him as the Family—to have them murder on his command.

Three years after Manson’s sentencing, and 370 miles north of Los Angeles, in the city of Berkeley, the same issues of control, complicity, and coercion, would again be part of the national debate.

On February 4, 1974, the far-left militant group the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, then 19, and subjected her to threats and acts of psychological torture (including being locked in a cupboard for weeks) that would, according to some psychologists at the time, constitute to “brainwashing”.

Hearst would go on to be an active participant in the SLA’s bank robberies, and images from CCTV footage from one raid show her shouldering a M1 carbine semi-automatic rifle and yelling at customers, “Up, up, up against the wall, motherfuckers!”

Hearst wasn’t present in the SLA’s hideout when a gun battle with police left six members of the group dead, along with its leader, but she was apprehended shortly afterwards after two failed attempts to kill law enforcement with homemade explosives.

In her testimony, Hearst claims she was coerced and manipulated into participating in the SLA’s activities, and the few psychologists at the time who understood the effects of mind control and thought reform (often known as “brainwashing”) validated her claims.

But doctors on the prosecution’s side described Hearst as “a rebel in search of a cause” and very much in control of her actions, and with no brainwashing defence to help her in the courtrooms, Hearst received a hefty thirty-five-year sentence.

However, an incident five years later would bring the dangers of cults and mind control to international attention. On November 19th, 1979, television media aerial helicopters circle over a 3,800-acre agricultural settlement in Guyana. Strewn around the central structure, the bodies of 918 women, children and men lie face down in the verdant grass. Motionless multi-generational families have their arms draped over one another in one final act of domestic affection; some even have pillows beneath their heads.

On the orders of their leader, the reverend Jim Jones, members of the People’s Temple queued up to consume a cyanide-laced drink in what Jones described as an “act of revolutionary suicide” against the tyranny of the US government.

Parents waited in line, holding their children in their arms as they queued patiently to receive their fatal doses—mothers and fathers squirted syringes into their children’s mouths before ingesting their own.

The event would be the largest death of US citizens before 9/11, and would be known then on as the Jonestown Massacre.

In the wake of Jonestown, American actor John Wayne was one of many vocal supporters of the incarcerated Hearst, and instrumental in the shift in public option about her complicity in the SLA’s crimes:

It seems quite odd to me that the American people have immediately accepted the fact that one man can brainwash 900 human beings into mass suicide, but will not accept the fact that a ruthless group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, could brainwash a little girl by torture, degradation and confinement.

With the tragedy at Jonestown, Hearst’s sentence was commuted to 22 months by then-President Jimmy Carter. She would later receive a full pardon by US President Bill Clinton on January 20, 2001—his last day in office.

And with Jonestown, cults became an international phenomenon and concern.

Haworth remembers the sequence of events very well:

The course started in September, I escaped in October and what happened in November of 1978? Well, Jonestown occurred, of course, in Guyana. The massacre in Jonestown.

One evening, the radio hosts of Canadian radio station CHFI-FM were discussing the tragedy, and—like the rest of the world— were trying to unpack and understand how a single man could get 918 people to not only commit suicide at his behest but kill their children on his command as well.

The hosts discussed whether they should be concerned about such a tragedy happening in Canada and open the phone lines to their audiences for comment.

The phone rings, and the caller is connected. “Yes,” says Haworth, now live on air.

And for the next few moments, the hosts and anybody tuned in on the drive home that evening, listened to Haworth tell his story about the dangers of mind control and cults.

Haworth’s knowledge of a burgeoning topic of interest led to him being invited for a longer interview, which then caught the attention of other media outlets, “I was doing media interviews from that point on,” he recalls.

Council on Mind Abuse (COMA)

Haworth’s first organisation was (the now defunct) Council on Mind Abuse (COMA), which he set up the year after his exit from his group and was the first of its kind in Canada.

COMA would provide the template for Haworth’s UK-based organisation, the CIC, eight years later. His goal in 1979 was to “Warn the public in general. It was to help families. It was to help ex-cult members. It was to help the police. It was to help researchers. It was to help anybody and everybody that was interested in looking at cults.”

He sold all his insurance policies, pooled his finances, and began to give talks and interviews around Canada to educate the public about his personal experiences and the danger of cults. The talks saw him standing in front of high school and first-year university students, members of the Jewish women’s league, and the congregations of local churches.

“I was doing 200 lectures a year,” Haworth says, “It was not unusual, unfortunately, for me to be doing two talks in a day and occasionally three: one in the morning, one in the afternoon, one in the evening.”

In the beginning, he paid for his own petrol and overheads, but as the work and the demand picked up, he realised that if he wanted to continue, he would need to start charging a fee. The dollar price tag attached to the ticket only piqued people’s interest further, and each night, more people would come to see Haworth speak about the dangers of cults, “So then it started to balance out financially,” he says, “I could just about stay afloat.”

From its very inception, COMA and its members had the attention of lobbyist groups connected to and funded by the groups Haworth was trying to warn the public about. The purpose of these lobbyist groups, says Haworth, is “to criticise the critics.”

A few weeks after COMA’s launch, Haworth learned about a meeting at a Canadian hotel about him and his organisation’s activities. He knew nothing about it, and getting the information last minute, he took a car to the location. A panel of academics from a group calling itself the Canadians for the Protection of Religious Liberties (CPRL) had called a press conference in the back function room of the hotel and were preparing to address an audience of journalists.

Haworth arrived five minutes late, and as he entered the room, all cameras, microphones, and lights turned on him.

He introduced himself to the audience as the subject of the meeting; however, out of respect to the CPRL, who had hired the room, he agreed to wait in the corridor and respond to any allegations when the CPRL had finished their address.

Exiting the room, he closed the door just enough so he could hear what was happening inside.

With the proceedings underway, a religious affairs editor for a national newspaper stood up and asked the panel—in a very thick Irish accent, Haworth recalls—if they [the CPRL] were possibly affiliated or connected with any groups that might be considered cults.

The panel looked at each other. “There are none of us here associated with any group that’s been formed in the last 100 years,” replied one CPRL representative.

The editor checked his notebook. “Ah. That’s very interesting,” he said and then asked why a well-known cult (infamous still to this day for ruthlessly going after their critics) was down on the hotel’s records as having paid the CPRL’s bill for the press conference.

Throughout the 1980s, COMA operated out of a secret location and would receive between 100-150 calls a week from members of the public who wanted information. Haworth left the organisation in 1987, but trouble with funding and protracted libel suits with two well-known groups forced COMA to declare bankruptcy and officially close on March 1st, 1992.

A Wing Mirror on Each Shoulder

Haworth is no stranger to the lengths cults will go to discredit or silence anyone bringing negative attention to their activities and practices. The CIC’s website does not list an office address for security reasons, and a company specialising in secure post boxes manages its private PO Box address.

“It isn’t a field people queue up to get into because, if you do, you’re not going to make much of any money and you’re going to get smeared,” he tells me, “And, if you did work all the hours they wanted you to work, then you wouldn’t last very long.”

During our conversations, Haworth uses the word “cult” and the “cult phenomenon” to describe the field at large, but avoids it entirely when describing any individual or collective of individuals.

When we discuss the 418 who starved to death in Kenya when Good News International Ministries pastor, Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, told his followers to begin a deadly fast in preparation to “meet Jesus,” or Smallville’s Allison Mack’s recent release from prison after she was named a co-conspirator in NXIVM founder Keith Ranieri’s sex trafficking and forced labour charges, Haworth avoids the term cult entirely, preferring instead to refer them as “groups” or “groups of concern.”

A defensive tactic, which is “common sense for people in our field,” according to Haworth, who describes how some of his hyper-vigilant colleagues—concerned about the lengths some cults will go to silence or cause problems for their critics—conduct their work with “a wing mirror on each shoulder.”

To illustrate his point, he begins a story about how a friend, an outspoken critic of one group, had the Canadian police call to inform her that they had disturbing photographs in their possession.

These photos showed four men parading around her hometown carrying a coffin. Her name was written in big letters on the wooden lid.

Members of a group under scrutiny or receiving negative press may use intimidation tactics to get a person from speaking out against them, but if the group in question has resources and money on its side, then a libel case can be costly even if you manage to win, “If their lawyer is better than yours, and if they’ve got more money than you, tough. And in addition, you can tell the truth and win, and lose a fortune,” Haworth points out.

When asked if the threats and harassment ever had him reconsidering his position in the field, he’s quick to respond, “I wouldn’t see the point in that,” he says, “It’s not something I want, or I look forward to, but it’s something I anticipated when I started off in the field. It’s just life in the big city when you’re dealing with cults.”

He recounts one incident with his characteristic sense of humour, “I had a phone call from a guy who told me my end was near. And I guess that was a bit ambiguous,” he pauses for a second, “It could have meant I was short.”

While he might not welcome the harassment, the attention he gets means that he’s doing something right and “If you’re not doing something worthwhile, you’re not going to get the flak. So, the more flak I got, the more it convinced me that, oh well, something must be working.”

Mind Control

“When most people think of cults, they only think of religious cults,” Haworth explains, “It’s [also] nice to think that there’s a problem elsewhere, like California rather than here.”

There’s also the misconception that only the down-and-out, the mentally ill, and the disenfranchised members of society end up in cults. In reality, cults are looking for the opposite type of person, “They think there must be something wrong with someone that finishes up in a cult in the first place. It’s the blame the victim syndrome,” Haworth adds.

During his own time in a group, he remembers the instructions given to him during his recruiting drives, “When I was recruiting, I was told to stay away from ‘space cadets’, that was the technical terminology used.”

Highly educated students or graduates from prestigious universities like Oxbridge, he says, are high-risk targets for recruitment.

American cult expert Steve Hassan’s website Freedom of Mind defines undue influence (another term for mind control) as “any act of persuasion that overcomes the free will and judgment of another person. People can be unduly influenced by deception, flattery, trickery, coercion, hypnosis, and other techniques.”

The CIC website lists 26 different mind control techniques: hypnosis, limitation of food, and sleep deprivation are all part of the list.

Groups do not need to use all twenty-six techniques to erode a person’s autonomy and encourage compliance; instead, a combination might be used depending on the group, as some people are more receptive to some techniques than others.

“All that varies from one cult to another in terms of the methodology is which combination of techniques that particular group uses,” Haworth describes, “Trance induction, for example, is extremely powerful and if someone is being induced into a trance state through chanting or through hypnosis, then you can do just whatever you want with that person.”

Other experts or specialists may have a different way of identifying the presence of mind control, but Haworth prefers to take a non-academic approach to keep things understandable as “Some criteria are difficult to get your head round. It’s not plain English for me, but then again, I’m from the north of England.”

Psychological Coercion

When asked to define the danger these groups and their leaders pose to the public, Haworth needs little time to think over his answer, “A complete loss of free will, a loss of the ability to think and use logic, which most of us take for granted… And until you see that happen in someone, it’s hard to imagine what that can be like.”

He compares what happens in cults to a type of slavery, but unlike the laws that protect people from being physically trafficked, there’s nothing to protect people from psychological coercion, “What cults have been doing is a form of slavery for decades. And not one of the slavery laws has ever been applied and can’t be applied when dealing with cults.”

Only within the last decade have laws been passed to protect people from coercive and controlling behaviours. The issue is proving the presence of psychological coercion. “It’s not illegal to psychologically coerce people,” Haworth points out.

Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 makes it an offence to use controlling or coercive behaviours and, if found guilty, carries a maximum penalty of a five-year prison sentence. The law, however, only applies when people are personally connected, which means only in the context of family or relatives, or being in a relationship (intimate, married, or civil partnership). There’s another misconception that a person joins freely and can leave on the same terms.

The signature block at the end of each of Haworth’s emails contains a warning of sorts. It reads, “People don’t join Cults…they are recruited.”

While people may be attracted to cults by their own will, a series of techniques will be used against them to erode their autonomy: keeping them within the group, carrying out orders without question, and behaving in ways that go against their best interests.

“If you get a judge that understands what a cult is, boy you’ve done well.” Haworth gives the example of a family member trying to access their family after they’ve been shunned or lost contact with their loved ones, which is, unfortunately, a frequent occurrence when people are involved with cults.

The judge may say to a desperate husband trying to contact his wife, “‘Please, Sir. Are you trying to tell me that your spouse is a cult member? How ridiculous! Your spouse is a very intelligent person.’ So, this person is equating intelligence with sussing out of cult ahead of time and being less likely to be recruited. It’s actually just the opposite.”

If it’s not illegal to set up a cult and psychologically coerce people into working for free, handing over their belongings and finances, and excommunicating their friends and family, then one of the best defences someone has in ensuring they’re not recruited is to research the group thoroughly before making any type of commitment.

“If it’s that good, then there must be a ton of information available ahead of time. Check it out thoroughly. If it’s okay, you should be able to Google it and find a lot of good news online. But Google it, in case it’s a cult,” recommends Haworth, “because if it is, there may well be some horror stories online.”

He adds, “More people will check out a second-hand car than a course that might ruin their lives.”

Role Change

I scheduled another phone call with Haworth, and we exchanged emails in the week leading up to our next conversation.

“Never heard of you,” he tells me with a laugh when I inform him who is calling.

Today will be the last time Haworth answers the phone at the CIC.

We’re discussing his involvement in the Canadian group when he suddenly stops me mid-question because he’s remembered something. It sounds as if he’s about to say, “If I have one regret,” but he self-corrects, and asks me if I remember the story about his Canadian neighbour who gave him the newspaper article about the group he was involved in all those years ago.

I should have gone back to her to say thank you so much. Maybe bought a bunch of flowers or something. But I never saw her again. She left the country and went to live elsewhere. So that’s a little regret that I have, that I could ever thank her for being so kind to give me the newspaper article… She said [the article] was great, because [from] her perspective it was, because she was worried about me.

I ask if anything shocks or surprises him after all this time. Haworth needs no time to think over his answer:

It’s not what shocks me, it’s what upsets me. It upsets me that the government still doesn’t understand how cults work and aren’t doing anything to protect British citizens. And because of that British money is going down the drain into these groups. British corporations are less productive than they could be. The National Health Service is hit with more patients.

Haworth’s previously jocular tone is absent:

It upsets me that the legal system is, by and large, completely unaware of how cults operate and how undue influence should be applied in civil cases. It upsets me that the police haven’t been trained in this area. It upsets me every time the phone rings and someone else has been lost to a cult.

But not every phone call is just another horror story, another desperate parent or spouse seeking advice about how to get their loved ones back.

Sometimes, it’s a person who’s escaped from a group, or it’s people recently reunited with their family members, and they want to wish Haworth a happy Christmas:

It makes my day when I get a call from somebody who says they’ve just managed to escape even if they’re at the beginning of the withdrawal period, which is an awful time to go through. I’ll say, ‘Hey, thanks very much, you’ve made my day, you really have’. And it’s such great news because most of the time it’s another person grieving the loss of someone to one of these groups.

But even after forty-five years in the field and everything he’s seen, Haworth is not considering today as the start of a type of retirement.

The phone calls at the CIC will stop after today, but Haworth has no intentions of leaving the field. Instead, he’ll be focusing more on maintaining the CIC’s online presence, writing on the topic, and recording the occasional podcast, “I’m going behind the scenes,” he explains, “I’ll still be out there and trying to warn people but doing it through writing rather than in person on the phone.”

“And,” he tells me, “My wife will come first.”

Author’s Note: The names of any cults or groups Mr Haworth has personally been involved with, or encountered in the courtrooms, have been omitted from the following article.

If you, or anybody you know, have been affected by anything mentioned in this article and would like more information or support, please visit one of the following websites: