How to rescue a loved one from a sect

Swiss Info, SWI/July 21, 2019

By Anand Chandrasekhar

Are you worried that someone you know is drifting away after joining a sect? Swiss helpline Infosekta answers some of our readers’ questions on the subject. 

Susanne Schaaf of Infosektaexternal link - a Zurich-based helpline for those concerned by sects - is in a good mood. Her former colleague has just won a case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the Zurich district court. The religious group had accused the former Infosekta employee of defamatory accusations in 2015. The judges ruled that the allegations were serious but were supported by tangible research.  

“We are not journalists who need to have a 50:50 balance for and against groups (Infosekta prefers to avoid the legally-sensitive term sects) but take a critical stand like a consumer protection organisation. Our information has to be accurate and is based on secondary literature, internal documents, visits to problematic groups and talking to families and ex-members,” Schaaf told   

Jehovah’s Witnesses accounted for most of the cases (110 out of a total of 716) that Infosekta dealt with in 2018, followed by YOU Church (35), Scientology (24), International Christian Fellowship (17) and the Anastasia movement (11). Inquiries to Infosekta in 2018 concerned around 350 groups but overall Infosekta monitors 66 problematic religious and esoteric groups.external link  

What is a sect?

“From a theological point of view, a sectarian groups are perceived as those deviating from the bible. This approach is not helpful in our opinion and we keep track of a diverse range of religious groups that concern people or generate problems,” says Schaaf.  

Many of these religious groups, especially evangelical ones, are unhappy about being lumped with more esoteric groups. Schaaf understands that these groups see themselves as free churches and not sects. But she insists that these groups exhibit sect-like tendencies.   

“At first glance they appear like any bible group. This is one side of the coin and behind it lies a black-and-white approach of either you are with us and God, or you are under the influence of Satan,” she says.   

How does one set up a sect?

“In Switzerland there are many providers in the alternate worldview market. It is therefore not easy to establish a successful group,” says Schaaf.    

According to her, a group leader needs to be charismatic and be able to convince people that he or she has special spiritual skills. The leader must present his or her teaching as something unique, which is helpful in solving all problems. From a practical point of view, one needs to create an appealing website, find a platform to preach and assemble a group that believes in you.   

For finances, Switzerland offers an easy option of creating an association (Verein in German). Once created you can apply to the canton for tax-deductible status for charitable donations.    

Who joins a sect?

According to Schaaf, there are more men in groups with right-wing views and those that expound conspiracy theories or believe in alien beings. Esoteric groups like those with a focus on nature, self-healing, energy, crystals or angels have more women, although the leaders are often men.    

Many members of problematic evangelical groups have an immigration background from Africa and often try to convert people from the diaspora.   

How do sects manipulate people? 
Schaaf says they strive to eliminate any feelings of doubt about the group’s principles and actions. 

“They claim you are free to decide but then ask you to think carefully about your decision. Some even claim that doubts are the temptations of the devil,” she says. 

Sects put direct and indirect pressure on members to bring friends and relatives into the fold or distance themselves if their relations quit the group. For example, evangelical groups state that those who are not born again are sinners, even if they live a virtuous life. This can cause difficulties in partnerships and families.  

Manipulation is also used to extract money from the faithful. Some groups ask members to pay 10% of their monthly earnings and more for the realisation of God's plan. People sometimes give more than they can afford because the leader says that they will get back what they give tenfold or hundredfold.  

“When people end up with problems, the groups try to blame the outcome on external factors or the members themselves. These controversial groups should be responsible for how their messages are received,” says Schaaf. 

How do you extricate someone from a sect?

Schaaf strongly advises against reacting with anger or strong emotions as the members are in a different place mentally. Being too confrontational is not a good approach as you risk cutting off any discussion.   

“We’ve had cases where group members block relatives on social media and change their phone number because they do not want any more tedious discussions. This is the worst thing that can happen as it is important to be as close as possible in this situation,” says Schaaf.  

Instead of confrontation, it is better to get them to talk about what they are feeling or doing. This can open the door to a dialogue. 

How long does the process take?

“To leave a group a person must reach a point where they can't bear to be there anymore no matter what happens if they quit. We don't know how long this process can take,” says Schaaf.  

A former member of Jehovah's Witness only left at the age of 60 after spending 40 years inside. Therefore, Schaaf recommends that relatives and friends acknowledge that they cannot change the situation substantially in the immediate future. She compares the experience to having a relative with drug or alcohol problems or an eating disorder.  It takes time overcome an addiction.

“It is balance of reaching out and keeping a certain distance for self-protection. If you are too distant you could lose the person and too much contact can stress you out and damage your health,” she says.   

The journey to quitting a sect is a long-term goal with many steps. According to Schaaf, the three main things one can do as a friend or relative are: keep the relation alive, do not judge, and try to have regular communication.  

Who can help during a crisis?

The police do not get involved as in most cases sect members are consenting adults. One of the rare instances of police intervention was a raid on the Cherry Blossom groupexternal link near Solothurn in 2015 as they were suspected of using illegal psychotropic drugs like LSD, ecstasy and mescaline.  

Apart from calling the Infosekta helpline, there is an option to join a self-help group comprising family and friends of sect members to share experiences. There is also a group of former Jehovah Witnesses for those coming to terms with life outside that community. Both groups meet once a month.

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