Cults rob victims of the freedom to make decisions

The New London Day, Eastern Connecticut, May 30, 1999
By Kyn Tolson and Paul Choiniere

The King’s Chapel version of salvation is a seductive one.

So say several cult and religious experts.

There is no guesswork about what God wants. The Bible tells it. And the prophet knows.

There are no moral gray areas, no questions about how to act. The prophet knows. And the pastors spread the word.

Eventually, this vision creates a world colored only in black and white. And, ironically, the world becomes both simple and difficult to live in.

The comfort of having someone tell you what is right and what is wrong, in time, becomes a psychological prison, according to the Rev. Ken Steigler, a Methodist pastor in Salem, Mass. An expert in cult activities, he has counseled the [K] family of Jewett City, which left King’s Chapel in 1997 after many years.

The [K]s and others once faithful to the Norwich church say they surrendered the right to make the most personal type of decisions — where to live, who and when to marry, what to name their children, how to raise them.

When decisions and behavior such as these are dictated by leaders, there is no room for spiritual growth, Steigler says.

Rev. Jim Ricci, assistant pastor at The Cranston Christian Fellowship in Rhode Island, first learned of King’s Chapel in 1997, when ex-member Maria [K], the mother of six, contacted him seeking counsel. Originally from Rhode Island, she has a sister who attends his church.

Ricci recalls the shock of her stories. Her visit, he says, was followed by a flood of almost 40 people who sought his help. Some he describes “like zombies …totally brainwashed.”

“It is typical of these cultic or abusive churches that they have a prophet from God. Once you buy into that, everything else is downhill,” said Ricci. “If you deny the will of the prophet it means you’re denying God. Go against the leaders, and you’re going against God. Your pastor or leader becomes God to you.”

Lonnie D. Kliever, a cult expert and chairman of the religion department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says that controlling churches can be attractive. People often join such congregations, he says, during searches for self-identity. They might be young couples just starting out, someone trying to deal with a difficult marriage or home life, or a young person filled with idealism.

The person who has a weak will or lacks self-confidence is particularly vulnerable, says Kliever, who reviewed the written testimonies of several former King’s Chapel members.

He saw, however, no evidence of “brainwashing,” which, he says, requires the type of captivity and abuse that prisoners of war and hostages experience. He thinks people who remain in strict, manipulating churches are more like misguided victims.

“It is like getting involved in a bad marriage,” he said. “Some find it preferable to stay.

“Cult is shorthand for describing a religion you don’t like. There is nothing very surprising about a Christian group using sex and guilt about sex as the primary lever … to control people. Religions have been doing that for hundreds of years.”

Mary Alice Chrnalogar, author of “Twisted Scriptures,” a book about cults published in 1997, has corresponded with several people who have turned away from King’s Chapel. They contacted her after reading her book.

Involved in a cult herself soon after college, Chrnalogar eventually became a “cult interventionist” and has assisted families in getting their relatives extracted from cults. Her book offers “a path to freedom from abusive churches.”

“I’m very familiar with that group,” she said from her home in Chattanooga, Tenn. “It’s no different from any other cult I have worked with.”

Depriving people of sleep by waking them for interrogations, directing them to live in the same close community, and discouraging contact with relatives who are not believers are just a few of the indications that King’s Chapel has gone awry, she says.

Bob Pardon has also reviewed testimonies from ex-members. He’s director of the New England Institute of Religious Research in Middleboro, Mass. He thinks that King’s Chapel, with its claim of the prophet Syro, “fits the classic profile” of an abusive church.

“If you accept the premise that she hears from God and is always right, then you have no safeguards, no accountability from abuse,” Pardon said. “This is pretty scary stuff.”

Steigler, now 57, focused on cult behavior during his studies for a master’s degree in psychotherapy. He’s a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors. His assignment several years ago to Salem was tied, in part, to the fact that the community, site of the 17th century witch trials, tends to attract pagan and occult groups.

The minister sees similarities between the hysteria that gripped the Puritan community of Salem in 1692 and the behavior in King’s Chapel.
Pastors, he points out, have harangued certain followers to confess to evil spirits — lust, greed and pedophilia, for instance — that they say Syro knows possess them. “There is nothing Biblical about that,” Steigler said.

Similarly, he says, the Salem magistrates used “spectral evidence” from the ranting and visions of young girls to condemn good people of being evil witches. Twenty were executed.

“This was, as many good men and women were to discover, the sort of ‘proof’ against which there is no disproof,” wrote historian Marion L. Starkey in her 1949 accounting of the witch trials, “The Devil in Massachusetts.”

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