Dr. John Clark, 73

Psychiatrist was authority on danger of cults

Globe Staff, Oct 10, 1999
By Tom Long

Dr. John G. Clark of Weston, a psychiatrist who was among the first to note the damaging effects of cults, died Thursday in Belmont Manor nursing home. He was 73.

Dr. Clark was a member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School and the staff at McLean Hospital in Belmont. He maintained a private practice in Weston.

After several families consulted him in the early '70s about their children's membership in fringe religious groups, he became convinced that the young people were the subjects of what he termed "an impermissible experiment" of subtle and sophisticated psychological manipulation. In 1983, his editorial on the subject in the Journal of the American Medical Association led to wider discussion of the problem and frequent appearances on TV shows, including a BBC documentary about the Unification Church. His criticism of the Church of Scientology led to two lawsuits being filed against him by the group. Though the suits were eventually dismissed, Dr. Clark in 1985 filed suit in US District Court against L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the church, alleging a conspiracy to "destroy" him through a series of threats, harassment, and false and malicious accusations seeking revocation of his medical license and hospital privileges. That suit was settled out of court.

That same year, Dr. Clark received the Leo J. Ryan award, named for the California congressman murdered in Jonestown, Guyana, and, in 1991 The Psychiatric Times named him psychiatrist of the year.

In nominating him, UCLA psychiatrist Dr. John Hochman described Dr. Clark as "a quiet, courageous man of conviction, who was fighting an all-too-lonely and unappreciated battle against well-financed, ruthless organizations." He wrote that "early on, Dr. Clark concluded that the cult issue was at heart a question of human rights. He called the cult phenomenon an 'impermissible experiment' since these groups were gaining a level of exploitive control over their recruits that no ethical social psychologist would ever attempt to gain over his experimental subjects."

According to Hochman, "a student present at a 1978 seminar on cults recalled Dr. Clark stating that 'it was only a matter of time before there would be a bloodbath.' Some in the audience laughed this off, but several months later, the mass suicide-homicides of Jonestown occurred."

Dr. Clark was born in St. Cloud, Minn. After serving in the Navy, he graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, and then Harvard Medical School.

He leaves his wife, Eleanor (Sherwood); a daughter, Catherine; a son, Gordon H.; two brothers, Robert S. and W. Bruce; and a grandson. Funeral arrangements are private.

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