Edmonton -- Every country harbours cults, but they are rarely investigated until all hell breaks loose, says Michael Kropveld. "No one had heard about Heaven's Gate in San Diego until 1997 when 39 members apparently committed suicide in order to catch a ride on the Hale-Bopp comet," said Kropveld, executive director of Info-Cult, a Montreal-based resource centre specializing in counselling and consulting on cult related issues.
And many Canadians were shocked when in 1994 during a police investigation, 52 members of the Solar Temple were found dead in Quebec and Switzerland. Fifteen people appeared to have been true suicides, while others were lured into ingesting tranquilizers and then shot.
Kropveld was one of more than 50 presenters during the inaugural American Family Foundation's June 11-12 international conference at the U of A conference centre on cults and other charismatic, or mind controlling, groups. Co-sponsored by the Edmonton Society Against Mind Abuse, the theme of the conference was The Violation of Innocence: How Cults Abuse Children.
Kropveld's personal encounter with a cult (the Unification Church - the Moonies) happened when a friend of his from Montreal was recruited in the mid-1970s.
"The whole ordeal got me more interested because all of the people involved who rescued my friend began to receive requests for more information about cults. It was the first major story of its kind in Canada," Kropveld said in an interview.
"I wanted to set up a centre to help others deal with cults, which eventually became Info-Cult in 1980."
Kropveld said today's strategy for encouraging people to leave a cult is to get them to communicate. "Every situation from our perspective is different, but most important is to improve communications if possible."
Some cases involve people who have simply joined a different religion and the family has leaped to the conclusion that it must be a cult, he said.
"We don't really say yes or no if it's a cult. Rather, we look at their specific concerns and provide more information so they can make a more informed choice knowing more of the pros and cons."
Travelling to a yoga retreat in Arizona, Kropveld's friend hooked up with a cousin and other members involved in a commune. He was offered a free dinner and an invitation to visit their nice house in the country.
"That makes the appeal that much stronger. You are more willing to go along when you know the person recruiting you. A history of trust is very compelling."
Kropveld noted these experiences are in the past. The movement does not function as it once did, when the name Moon was not mentioned for at least 10 days. Group members used to replace Unification Church with "creative community project," a non-denominational project in California.
"To a degree, that's why they were very successful in recruiting, but some analysis demonstrates they were not very successful in retaining membership long term because of the lies and deceptions. There became too many contradictions over time."
Kropveld said a group gains cult status when it becomes controlling. And he warns that this part of the process is dangerously simple both to understand, and to execute.
"Sometimes, it's almost like a love relationship. All of a sudden, you meet people, or a woman or a man, and it's like 'Wow, I'm falling in love,' much like the expression 'Love is blind.' They respond to your certain needs, interests and ideas and you begin to think 'Damn, I can't believe this bunch of people exists. They think like me and they are into the things I am.'
"The image people have when they hear the term cult is the bizarre; the extreme. You hear of people killing themselves and of abuse. People see the end of a movement or the extreme components of a group. They don't necessarily understand how it started," he said.
Kropveld said that to determine whether a group is a cult, one must examine the group's leadership, not its adherents.
"Say you go to a Catholic church somewhere and someone at the rear you visually perceive to be crazy stands up and says that God talks to him and the priest today knows nothing. He's just a fanatical believer but in no way represents traditional beliefs and practices of the Church.
"You have to be able to evaluate the functioning of the group and determine what role its leadership plays. You have to know the interaction between the leader and its members to be able to make a statement if there is a level of potential risk or harm," he said.