Cult experts are alarmed by Keene prophet's case


Keene Sentinel, January 12, 2000
By Brian Rourke

Ronald J. O'Brien is a cult leader, two experts say, and people should worry about where he's leading his followers.

Citing the tragic ends of some cults in recent years, Rick A. Ross of Phoenix, Ariz., and Joseph Nickell of Buffalo, N.Y. -- both authorities on cults -- say that what they've seen in the writings, pronouncements and warnings of the 55-year-old Keene man are cause for concern.

Less than a year ago, few in Keene had even heard of O'Brien, who rented a small house on Victoria Street. Then, religious statues in his house began oozing oil, and thousands of hosts, the bread wafers Catholics use in Holy Communion, miraculously appeared in his home, he told people. Then, he proclaimed himself a prophet, and began having conversations with God. These conversations he conveyed to his followers using the Internet. Since then, O'Brien's past has emerged -- he served time for credit-card fraud, he changed his name, and he bought nearly 9,225 hosts from church-supply businesses.

Ross and Nickell worry that O'Brien shows characteristics of a cult leader:


  • He's a self-proclaimed prophet.


  • He purports that miracles occur in his home.


  • He predicts a heavenly warning, a mass healing, and Armageddon.


  • He condemns those who disagree with him.


  • He instructs members of his organization, Friends of the Eucharist, to form a religious army, The Sons of Light, and hunker down in northern New Hampshire to defend true Catholicism. And, since his organization accepts credit cards, "he has become a prophet for profit," said Ross, who's been qualified as a cult expert in court cases in six states.

    O'Brien is certainly not the first person to claim he's a prophet. "Scarcely a month goes by that I don't hear about one of these," says Nickell, who investigates and writes about religious phenomena. He's now working for Skeptical Inquirer magazine in Buffalo. But it's hard to quantify. No one knows the number of cults and self-proclaimed prophets in operation, Nickell says: "There's no registry." Often, people learn of cults through tragedy -- Jim Jones and the People's Temple, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Marshall Applewhite and Heaven's Gate.

    By comparison, O'Brien and Friends of the Eucharist are moderate. The group's members haven't done anything rash, certainly not killed themselves. They've simply done what members of all other cults have done throughout time: follow their leader.

    "Regardless of how the group may begin, the belief of the group begins to take less importance to the individual, who becomes the focus of the group," Ross said. "Increasingly, what you are seeing with O'Brien is not unlike Jim Jones, David Koresh or Marshall Applegate. The focus of the group is increasingly becoming O'Brien himself. You see a cult-like pattern." O'Brien's followers have given him more than $100,000. Many believe that he's a prophet, that he speaks with God, and that he knows the future. These same people dismiss his past. They have faith in O'Brien. Until 1995, Ronald J. O'Brien was Ronald J. Woodruff, a felon who served 13 months for credit-card fraud: using false names to obtain numerous credit cards to steal about $300,000.

    Since Oct. 13, O'Brien has lived with his wife and two stepchildren in Kiltimagh, Ireland. He keeps in contact with his followers via e-mail and the Internet. His organization's Web site has received more than 108,000 hits since it went up in April.

    "A couple of centuries ago, if you wanted to set up shop as a mystic, the whole village might turn out," Nickell said. "But it would take a year for the news to get to Paris. Today, a peculiar pattern one sees on tree bark is reported instantly everywhere. The Internet is another tool in the hands of a propagandist."

    Aside from fame and fortune, there's another reason people pose as prophets: belief. They want others to believe as they do. This, Nickell calls pious fraud.

    "The motive is not crassly commercial," Nickell said. "The person is just promoting religious faith. It's an ends-justify-the-means attitude." O'Brien calls for a return to what he calls true Catholicism, which he calls the only true religion. He says masses must again be given in Latin; women must not be allowed on the altar; the Roman Catholic Church must reform its wayward and evil ways.

    "The mentality he is fostering is, 'We are of the light; the church will be sorry and suffer,' implying those outside are in the darkness," Ross said. "This is very typical. There is a sharp line drawn for those in the organization who submit to his views and those on the outside. This is in the philosophy of all cult leaders."

    But O'Brien is uncommon in one regard: Never in Nickell's 26 years of investigating has he come upon a person who claimed that thousands of communion hosts miraculously appeared in his home. "I'm not aware of this particular phenomenon," Nickell says. "But nothing surprises me."

    It, however, surprised some of O'Brien's followers to find out recently that he'd bought those hosts. Purchase invoices from church-supply companies prove it.

    These disclosures haven't shaken the faith of many of O'Brien's followers. "I (still) believe God is speaking to him," said Warren T. Wells of Scranton, Pa. "My faith tells me that."

    Bethan Kendrick of Nelson said it would take quite a bit for her to lose faith in O'Brien: "I have prayed for a sign on this. I've had confirmation on four occasions. I'm following my heart."

    If O'Brien's prophesied worldwide warning -- a cross appearing in the sky -- does not occur between Jan. 19 and Jan. 31, Kendrick says she will wait for the miracle. O'Brien has prophesied that all gathered on April 13 in Garabandal, Spain, will be healed of all infirmities and disabilities. So, Kendrick's going there with her disabled son. And if there's no miracle? Her faith in O'Brien will remain strong.

    "If there is no miracle, I'd say God lied," Kendrick said. "That would be a difficult thing to handle. God has said (through O'Brien) that there is going to be a miracle."

    Paul M. Blake of Canton, Mass., said he won't wait that long. If there's no miracle, O'Brien's no prophet. But for the time being, he is, Blake says. "God may be giving us a prophet who has all the deficiencies and problems we in society have, as opposed to someone walking around with a halo," Blake said. "All these things (revelations about O'Brien's past, and his purchases of hosts) don't bother me."

    Blake said, "If he is not a valid prophet, that will become apparent. I think everyone should hold their fire until April 13."


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