Anti-Cult Agency Loses Libel Suit

Chicago Tribune/July 3, 1997
By Evan Osnos

Cynthia Kisser, the former director of a Barrington organization that chronicled and criticized the activities of cults, lost a federal case Tuesday against the California-based Church of Scientology International, in which she charged that the church had defamed her in a 1991 magazine article about "deprogramming."

As head of the northwest suburban-based Cult Awareness Network before it went bankrupt in June 1996, Kisser has been an outspoken critic of the church.

    [Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was recently bankrupted and bought up by Scientology. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]

She was suing the controversial group over an article, titled "Exposing the criminal clique called CAN," that appeared in the Scientologists' Freedom magazine, attorneys in the case said. In the article, the church charged that she was a "longtime advocate of forcible restraint and assault."

The jury found Tuesday that the church did not act maliciously or recklessly in printing the article.

While church officials are hailing their victory in the suit as an "end to religious terrorism" on the part of people out to persecute religious minorities, some critics of cults say controversial groups like the church are using defamation and legal muscle to silence opposition.

Kisser's not-for-profit organization offered information and referral services to those concerned that relatives were involved in cults.

However, it went bankrupt after losing a costly civil lawsuit in Washington state, brought by a suburban Seattle youth who charged CAN was involved in his abduction from a fringe element of the United Pentecostal Church.

The decision handed down Tuesday by a jury in U.S. District Court is only the latest chapter in a history of litigation between Kisser and Scientologists that Kisser's attorney, John Beal, says includes close to 50 lawsuits.

Right now, Kisser and Beal are awaiting a decision from the Illinois Supreme Court on whether they may proceed with a case against the church for malicious prosecution, in the form of more than 20 "frivolous" lawsuits filed against Kisser's organization over the last few years, Beal said.

"I think the Church of Scientology does try to silence its critics," Beal said. "The two means it uses are aggressive press campaigns and litigation."

The Church of Scientology, which was founded in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard, author of "Dianetics," denies charges by those who say that its spiritual improvement techniques and other policies make it a manipulative cult.

In some cases, the church has filed libel lawsuits, including one against Time for a 1991 magazine article describing the church as "the thriving cult of greed and power." That case still is in litigation, said a spokesperson for the Church of Scientology of Illinois. [Judge Dismisses Lawsuit]

Church officials flatly deny they are trying to silence legitimate critics, calling CAN a religious "hate group."

"If stifling dissent is exposing kidnappers who assault all religions--to destroy religion--then it is time to take a look at why they are doing that," said Heber Jentzsch, president of the church.

Margaret Thaler Singer, a retired adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied various groups, was sued unsuccessfully by the Scientologists in 1986, she believes, because she testified against them in another court case.

"I think (Tuesday's decision) bodes very poorly for free and open discussion of religious new age (groups) and almost any organization," Singer said, "because it suggests that size and power can be mustered to squelch democratic expression of opinion."

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