Cults watchdog faces danger of being shut down

A charity that warns people of the dangers of cults is set to have its funding withdrawn

The Observer, March 3, 2012

Since he escaped from a brainwashing cult 34 years ago, Ian Haworth has survived character assassination, lawsuits, bankruptcy and death threats.

But now the founder of the Cult Information Centre, which educates the public about the threats posed by pseudo-religious groups, finds himself under attack from an unexpected quarter. The Charity Commission is seeking to withdraw the centre's charitable status, a move that would in effect end its activities.

"If that happened, donations from trusts – which are our lifeline – would evaporate. We wouldn't be able to afford our office and we would no longer be able to operate," said Haworth, who established the centre as a response to his experiences in a Toronto-based cult and to the Jonestown massacre of 1978 that saw 918 people die in a mass suicide in Guyana, South America.

Set up as an educational charity, the centre – whose three trustees are anonymous owing to fear of reprisals – had an income of just over £40,000 last year. "Most people don't understand cults, so money is hard to come by," Haworth said. "We don't make any money. That's why there are not many people trying to get into this field. Now, if we don't know whether we are going to retain our charitable status, it makes life doubly hard."

The problems started when a complaint was made to the commission about the centre's educational remit. Concerns were raised that the centre was failing to observe neutrality. A suggestion, made by the commission, for the centre to become a mental health charity was accepted, only for a further complaint to be made that has left its future in the balance.

Haworth believes several cults have taken exception to the centre's website, which once carried links to other websites warning of the dangers of certain groups and which attracted visitors from around the world.

The centre's closure would mark the end of 25 years' work, which has seen Haworth lecture in hundreds of schools, act as an expert witness in high-profile criminal trials, advise the police and raise awareness of cult-related issues in the media. The centre estimates that it receives some 4,000 inquiries a year.

Haworth said the centre's work had attracted further interest after the 9/11 attacks, which prompted a focus on how religious leaders can radicalise followers into becoming terrorists. High-profile incidents involving cults – notably the sarin gas attack in Japan and the Waco siege in Texas – have also heightened awareness.

Haworth was summoned to a meeting at the Charity Commission in the autumn of 2010, when he was informed that his organisation might lose its charitable status. "I thought, 'How can that be?' They'd got one complaint. I was gobsmacked. Our lawyer was stunned. I felt like jumping in the Thames to cool off."

The centre has found itself under attack before. When it applied for charitable status, a number of cult-like organisations, some of which enjoyed charitable status, complained to the commission.

It is understood that this time the complaint has been made by an individual with close links to the Church of Scientology, the celebrity sect whose members include Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta and which strenuously denies it is a cult. A Scientology spokesman denied that the complaint had been made by the church.

Haworth was made bankrupt after he was pursued by a Canadian organisation in the mid-1990s. He has also been threatened verbally and via putative lawsuits from several cults. His organisation's address is kept secret for fear of being targeted by cult supporters.

Haworth expressed concern that the UK was lagging behind other European countries in raising awareness. France has introduced a law to protect its citizens from cults and has a government-funded unit monitoring them. German children are educated about cults from an early age, while Spain has several organisations that track their development.

A spokeswoman for the commission said its policy was not to discuss the identity of complainants and that it was in talks with the centre about its future. "The charity informed us in June 2011 that it would appoint an independent adviser to the trustees to review the charity's activities and suggested a framework for future activities to ensure these are exclusively educational and charitable," the spokeswoman said. "We await the results of this review."

Haworth said he feared the closure of the centre could be just the beginning. "What happens to my colleagues in the field? To the counsellors working with cult victims? Are they next? People in Britain have died because they have been involved in cults." THE $1,500 LESSON

It was the blonde who did for Ian Haworth. "I was single and walking in downtown Toronto and she was beautiful," Haworth recalled of the fateful day in 1978 when he was approached by a cult. "She asked if I was prepared to help with a survey and I said yes."

Two minutes later the woman suggested that, judging by his answers, Haworth might be interested in joining a community group. "She said, 'Isn't it time you gave something back?'"

Originally from a farming community in Lancashire, Haworth (below) thought Toronto had been good to him, so he agreed to go to a meeting at a hotel a week later. The blonde rang him daily to ensure he was still coming. The meeting, which Haworth paid $2 to attend, was joined by more than 100 people and was addressed by a charismatic woman who claimed to have beaten drug and alcohol addictions. By the end of the day, after being plied with food and drink, Haworth was persuaded to hand over $225 for a four-day course that he was promised would help him to stop smoking.

The course started on a Thursday evening. "By Sunday, I had given them all the money I had – $1,500," Haworth said. "I went to work the next day and resigned. I considered myself one of the elite."

It was only when a national newspaper exposed the cult on its front page that Haworth realised he had been brainwashed. He learnt later that he had been hypnotised 16 times over a four-day period.

Haworth set up a group in Toronto, Council on Mind Abuse (Coma), to warn of the dangers of cults. Coma provided the model for the Cult Information Centre, which Haworth established when he returned to the UK.

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