Anti-Cult Group folds in Wake of Verdict

Washington Legal Times/July 1, 1996
By Benjamin Wittes This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Cult Awareness Network (CAN), the country's leading anti-cult advocacy organization, is being liquidated by an Illinois Bankruptcy Court following a $1.1 million federal court judgment against it.


[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.]

The decision has CAN's enemies celebrating the demise of their most powerful and dedicated foe.

"The group has maintained extremely close ties and condoned illegal behavior all over the place in acting out the bigotry they advocate," says Laurie Bartilson, name partner in the Los Angeles firm of Moxon & Bartilson, which represents both the successful plaintiff int he action against CAN and the Church of Scientology International.

But the liquidation also has group officials and lobbyists claiming they have been infairly silenced by a powerful adversary.

"What's happened here is a miscarriage of justice. It's knocked out a credible advocate in a controversial and important issue," says David Bardin, a partner at D.C.'s Arent Fox Kinter Plotkin & Kahn, who represents CAN's Washington interests. "It illustrates that the American justice system and American judges can be manipulated by a determined drive to shut down criticism."

CAN's demise is the result of a verdict in federal court in Seattle last year, holding the group liable over an alleged kidnapping and forcible deprogramming of Jason Scott, a member of the Life Tabernacle Church. Scott was represented in the case by Bartilson and Kendrick Moxon, who is also a Church of Scientology minister and a longtime foe of CAN.

CAN executive Director Cynthia Kisser says the group fought off about 50 suits in recent years without ever being hit by a judgment. The group strenuously denies that it engages in any improper activity.

But Scott's suit ended with a knockout blow as a jury determined that CAN had been negligent and had engaged in a conspiracy to deprive Scott of his civil rights. Last fall, CAN was ordered to pay $1.1 million to Scott, a burden that - on top of the cost of defending all the other suits - the group was unable to meet.

Although CAN is appealing the judgment to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and Kisser says she is confident of a reversal, the trial court refused to stay the judgment against the Chicago-based group, and CAN filed for bankruptcy protection. When US Bankruptcy Judge Ronald Barliant rejected its proposal for a Chapter 11 reorganization, he forced the group to request a liquidation, which he ordered on June 20.

With a trustee now in charge and a lock on the group's office door, Kisser and Bardin say they are worried that when CAN's assets are sold off, they will include the name "Cult Awareness Network" and files containing information provided by the group's confidential informants.

"We have phone records with confidential information: we have letters: we have financial records where people have provided us with information," says Kisser. "If a hostile organization buys these and engages in adverse activities, that could harm the privacy of our sources."

No assets have yet been sold. But Bartilson says that while Scott has no interest in buying CAN's files or name, she wouldn't be at all surprised it others are.

Bardin's lobbying activities, however, will apparently not be much affected by the sudden nonexistence of his client. He also represents a New York-based anti-cult group called the American Family Foundation.

Bardin, who says he lobbies Congress and federal agencies and tries to involve other interest groups in anti-cult work, says his goal is "to convey that there are very real issues and problems and that good people in America have been very badly hurt and are not getting an adequate hearing."

But if CAN has woes, says Bartilson, it is the group's own fault.

"In some sense, CAN has been primarily an advocacy group, and in that sense, the particular thing it happens to advocate is bigotry," she contends. "But when advocacy crosses the line into criminal conduct, and when that criminal conduct is levied at someone simply because of their religious beliefs, that's not tolerable. I can't say I'm upset that they won't be there anymore."

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