In what could be a landmark case, a Denver District Court jury last month acquitted two cult deprogrammers of kidnapping charges.
The trail held particular interest for religious organizations nationwide in hopes it would send a signal on the legality of forcibly wresting a family member away from a church and subjecting that person to deprogramming.
"What's important is that the court recognized there is something going on here beyond straight religion," says Carol Giambalvo, director of the New York based FOCUS, or Former Cultists Support, a non-profit support organization for former members of closed, intense religious groups. "The defense was able to prove that mind control and the Unification Church were the greater of two evils."
At the center of the controversy was Unification Church member Britta Adolfson, who was nabbed off a Denver street and shoved into a van May 26, 1987. Her abductors were a private detective and a former high-ranking official with the Unification Church, hired by her parents to rescue their daughter from the mental clutches of the church's leader, Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
In a critical ruling, Denver Judge Robert Hyatt agreed to allow the defendants to use so-called "choice of evils" defense. They had to prove their illegal conduct was justified because it prevented a greater crime.
Adolfson escaped from her abductors seven days later and remains a Moonie "freely and voluntarily" today. Many legal scholars and judges joined Adolfson in agreeing that her basic constitutional rights were violated.
Although the case appears to pave the way for forcible deprogramming, Giambalvo says that won't come to pass.
"As a member of FOCUS, I'm against any kind of hold situation, except in a few rare cases. This was one of those," says Giambalvo, who works as an "exit" counselor to those considering leaving such groups.
The pivotal issue, she says, is having the opportunity to educate the person about the group's agenda so he can make an informed choice.
"Right now deception and persuasive techniques are being used to bring people into certain religious groups," she says. "That's what we're up against. It does not mean deprogrammers are anti-religion; on the contrary, we're very much for the freedom of religion and the freedom of choice."
Rick Ross, a Phoenix based deprogrammer who has earned a nationwide reputation for his work with cults and destructive groups, says the Adolfson case was forced to examine whether the woman was fairly recruited or deceived fraudulently by the Unification Church. Ross has worked with more than 100 clients in the last six years and has seen firsthand the distress parents suffer when children, become psychologically and spiritually trapped by an intense religious group.
"Some of these more destructive groups are masters at exploiting people when they are lonely and depressed. They appear to offer relief from the complexities of the world," he says. "What they're actually doing is taking away the member's independence and ability to think for themselves."
When the group is run by an authoritarian leader who paints himself as a messiah and makes spiritual revelations, Ross sees yet another red flag. Parents can be replaced as role models in their offspring's lives and their protests are regarded as stumbling blocks on the road to salvation.
Still, Ross says he won't engage in involuntary deprogramming, no matter how persuasive the parents can be.
"Due to the legal implications, it's not the way to go," he says. "And if the victims are brought out completely against their will, they're going to carry a lot of emotional baggage and harbor resentment against the family."
Note: Rick Ross later did decide to undertake some adult intervention cases on an involuntary basis concerning extreme group situations. No such intervention effort, which was successful (Ross' success rate was 90% in such cases), later resulted in any "emotional baggage" or "resentment against the family." However, "due to the legal implications" previously cited (i.e. Ross was successfully sued by Scientology lawyers) he ended this type of work with adults in 1995.
In Ross' experience, more than 50 percent of the people who seek exit counseling will leave the group and eventually be healed. Those who try to do it on their own are often subject to recurring nightmares and acute anxiety.
"I've heard people say, they're bored with their mainstream church," Ross says. "But in my opinion, it's better to sleep in the back pew on a Sunday than become involved in a radically fundamentalist group that will wreak havoc in your life."
Although Ross refers to Phoenix as a "hotbed of activity" for cults and destructive groups due to its proximity to California and its transient lifestyle, there are few resources to combat the problem.
"There's a crying need for a support system. Instead, the social-service agencies just look away," he says. "For that matter, the religious community should be just as concerned. These groups are giving a bad name to religion and taking great liberties with God's word."
Personal Freedom Outreach, a St. Louis-based cults research organization with an office in Phoenix, engages a Christian evangelical response to cults and "aberrational" fundamentalist groups. Local director Steve Cannon acknowledges that some traditional Bible-based churches are using cult-like recruiting techniques to lure new members.
"They can't be labeled full-blown cults because they still use a basic fundamental doctrine," he says. "But they tend to be hyper-charismatic and use a type of mind control that borders on brainwashing."
Personal Freedom Outreach fields about 20 to 30 requests a month, mainly by ministers and concerned family members seeking information about current cults. Cannon also assists in exit counseling when needed.
"We see a lot of people who have been sold a bill of goods under the guise of true Christian faith," Cannon says. "I've had many people tell me it couldn't possibly happen to them, but I can assure you that everyone is at risk."
Another non-profit group that counters cults and radical groups with a traditional Christian bent is Alpha-Omega Ministries.
"We make no bones about it: We think the answer to involvement in these groups is having a true relationship with Jesus Christ," director Jim White says. "We don't believe salvation comes by membership in any particular organization."
A true Christian, White says, believes in the authority of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ, the person of the Holy Spirit and the salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Beyond that, "we allow for diversity."
Generally, people who are drawn to radical groups and cults are "honest committed folks who just want to believe in something," White says. The danger begins when they get cut off from independent thinking and normal social interaction.
White says he regrets that his one-man office and its 15-member volunteer staff is unable to offer assistance to people once they leave a cult. At this time, the main service is compiling information and counseling those in turmoil.