Facts about cults

Understanding group dynamics is the most important step in preventing abuse by groups, Info-Cult leader says

Montreal Gazette/January 24, 2004
By Harvey Shepherd

A news conference displayed articles found after the fire and death of members of the Solar Temple in Morin Heights in 1994. The Solar Temple is one of the cults highlighted in Info-Cult's new book.

The broadcast reporter wanted a nice, sharp sound bite about the Raëlians, but didn't get one. In fact, the news conference launching Info-Cult's book might not have made much of a media splash.

But that doesn't worry Mike Kropveld. The driving force behind Info-Cult and its predecessor for close to a quarter-century, suggested the Raëlian "flying-saucer cult " may be forgotten in five years or so, but the issues his book deals with will still be important.

Le Phénomène des sectes: l'étude sur le fonctionnement des groupes, by Kropveld and Marie-Andrée Pelland, a doctoral student in criminology at the Université de Montréal, is one more step in the long effort by Info-Cult (Info-Secte in French) to help potential victims, their families and others be on their guard against possible abuses.

The book uses the bloody and well known histories of three groups to make its point: the saga of Roch (Moïse) Thériault and his followers in Quebec and Ontario between about 1978 and 1990, the Solar Temple murders and suicides in Quebec, France and Switzerland in 1994, 1995 and 1997 and the suicide of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate group in California in 1997.

But the approach of Le Phénomène des sectes is a far cry from that of its predecessor, Cult Project, which was founded in 1980.

The Cult Project sought to create "a consciousness to the ramification of membership in cults, (and) to reveal to the public the duplicity of cult propaganda, the hidden aims of various cult groups and the damaging influences they can exert upon individuals, the family and society."

Today, Le Phénomène des sectes seeks to present "cults" not as bizarre, or problematic, but rather as groups "that are present in our daily life."

"In such a context, the way to understand the way they operate and the violence that sometimes breaks out in some of them should be to get informed about group dynamics in general."

According to Kropveld, the No. 1 question from the 2,500 to 3,000 people who contact Info-Cult every year, is whether this group or that group is a cult or sect. But in his view it's not good enough to try to classify groups as good or bad, he says.

Whether it's a family, choir, sports team, working team or spiritual group, he says, everyone is part of a group at some time or another, and, while groups are usually places of personal growth, they can also victimize some of their members.

"Groups that are considered OK can also harm people," he told me.

When Project Cult was founded in 1980, with support from the Hillel student organization and other Jewish groups, it opposed forcible deprogramming - even if, to a great extent, it grew out of Kropveld's involvement in 1977 in the well publicized kidnapping of his close friend Benjie Carroll from the Unification Church (sometimes called Moonies) in 1977.

By the time it was transformed in 1990 into the non-denominational, bilingual Info-Cult, the organization was placing a lot more emphasis on education.

By the end of the 1990s, Info-Cult had even begun to get a few calls from members of "cults" interested in helping Info-Cult improve the quality of its files on their groups.

These days, when Kropveld fields calls from potential recruits or refugees, or worried family members, he often concentrates on trying to help them clarify their own motives and goals.

Nonetheless, Info-Cult maintains a library containing over 2,500 books, over 9,000 files on various groups and subjects, over 1,000 video and audio programs and other documents.

Le Phénomène des sectes was funded by a grant from the Quebec Department of Citizenship. Kropveld is seeking funding for an English-language version.

Le Phénomène des sectes is available both as a paperback from Info-Cult, at $22 - call (514) 274-2333 - or on the Info-Cult site on the Web (www.infocult.org). Other English-language documents on the site cover a lot of the same ground as the book.

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