Revealed: ‘Hidden epidemic’ of abusive cults in UK, with 2,000 groups operating freely

Thousands have suffered sexual abuse, isolation from friends and family and modern slavery at the hands of UK cults

Independent, UK/July 17, 2022

By Holly Bancroft

Thousands of British adults and children are being deceived into joining UK cult groups, new research has found, with experts calling the phenomenon a “hidden epidemic” that the government has failed to address.

An estimated 2,000 cult groups are operating across the country, but ministers have not acted to stop them because of fears that they cannot legally distinguish between religion and semi-criminal cults, a charity leader said.

A survey of 105 victims of 36 different cult groups, produced by the charity The Family Survival Trust (FST), has found that thousands of people have suffered sexual abuse, isolation from friends and family, financial exploitation and modern slavery at the hands of UK cults.

The charity is calling on the government to expand legislation that criminalises coercive control in domestic abuse relationships so it can be used against cult groups.

Seventeen per cent of respondents to the survey reported having been raped in the group they were part of and 37 per cent experienced other undesired sexual contact.

Some 62 per cent of people polled said they worked long hours for the cult for little or no payment, while 47 per cent said that their groups violated employment laws.

Of the 105 people surveyed by the FST, half were born or raised in high-control groups, while the remainder were recruited as adults.

The 36 cult groups ranged from those based on religion and politics, to those pertaining to wellness and personal growth. The majority of respondents, 91 per cent, said they were part of religious or spiritual groups, with 14 per cent part of personal growth groups and 11 per cent part of political groups.

Membership of the cults ranged from three people to large groups of international members totalling millions.

The survey suggested that different cults took advantage of their victims in different ways, but a common theme was isolation from the members’ loved ones.

Of the 99 people who responded to the question about isolation, 56 per cent said they had been isolated from their parents, 68 per cent from other family members and 71 per cent from their friends.

Out of 94 respondents, 55 per cent said that they had to justify the time not spent on the group to their leaders. Thirty-five per cent said they were expected to submit time sheets.

One person said: “We were told that all time not spent on cult activity was us ‘stealing’ time from the cause and that we would be punished for it.”

Another said: “We had to report how many hours we’d been preaching. I was a full-time pioneer, so had to report 100 hours a month minimum preaching; 1,200 hours a year with no allowance for holidays.”

The majority of respondents said their cult leaders controlled what they could look at and what they could wear.

“We were not allowed to use the internet for anything apart from our jobs, with the exception of viewing their own website and online videos,” one respondent said.

Sexual abuse was also commonly reported among ex-members. Of 71 respondents, 21 per cent said they had had sexual contact with their group leaders.

One victim claimed: “When I told them I had been raped, my family kicked me out and cut off all contact.”

Another said: “The leader had many relationships with women in the group. He said it was our duty to please him. He made us do sexual acts that I didn’t consent to because I couldn’t say no.”

Sixty-six per cent said that they had experienced group-directed celibacy.

More than half of 86 respondents said they had witnessed the physical punishment of children within their group, with 31 per cent experiencing assault or violence within the group.

Nine per cent of 91 people surveyed said they had witnessed human trafficking.

Responding to the report, former MP and chair of the FST Tom Sackville said: “From the moment I became aware of the activities of cults I realised that government, led by officials in the Home Office, had been briefing ministers that this was not a problem and there was anyway nothing that could be done to help victims.

“This was based on the spurious notion that it was not possible to distinguish in law a religion from a semi-criminal cult. Moreover, coercive control is now very adequately described as a crime in recent legislation, but limited to when it occurs in the context of domestic abuse.”

Dr Alexandra Stein, a trustee of the FST, said: “There is a hidden epidemic of cultic abuse in the UK. The trust’s research highlights merely the tip of the iceberg of this abuse, thanks to the bravery of survivors willing and able to speak up.”

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “Coercive control is an abhorrent crime, so to support the criminal justice system in making arrests and pursuing convictions we have consulted on the guidance that will be published later this year when the extended offence comes into force.

“We are committed to ensuring all vulnerable people receive the support they need, including those abused in cults, and will keep all legislation under review.”

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