Cult activity attracts attention at Pitt

Tribune-Review/October 8, 1998
By Lillie Wilson

When a lovelorn sophomore told Joyce Giangarlo that he'd been dumped because his girlfriend's "discipler" disapproved of him, the University of Pittsburgh official was alarmed.

"It was this use of the word `discipler' that threw me," Giangarlo said. "I thought she must be involved with something very managing. The terminology sent my antennae up."

Giangarlo discovered the probable answer several days later, when national cults expert Ronald Loomis arrived Tuesday in Pittsburgh on a three-day mission.

Cult warning signs

Ronald N. Loomis, education director of the American Family Foundation, says these characteristics typify cults:

  • Charismatic leadership - a leader who claims divinity, special knowledge
  • Deception - in recruitment and fund raising. Uses front groups.
  • Mind control - uses manipulation, brainwashing, coercive persuasion
  • Alienation - induces separation from family and friends
  • Exclusivity - its truth is the only truth
  • Exploitation - financial, physical and psychological
  • Totalitarian - "us vs. them" syndrome and total subjection of the individual to the group

Loomis came to bring local ministers, campus administrators and mental health workers up to date about cults - especially the rapidly expanding International Churches of Christ.

"That's classic ICC activity," Loomis told Giangarlo after she related her tale at an initial session for clergy at the William Pitt Union.

ICC recruits, Loomis said, are typically overseen by a so-called "discipler," who dictates whom the recruit may befriend and date. And the ICC faithful characteristically don't consider members of any other denominations to be Christian, he added.

When more than 150 University of Pittsburgh resident assistants met for orientation at the end of August, all but two indicated that ICC's local chapter, the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ, had tried to recruit them, the Rev. Dawn Check, chairman of the University of Pittsburgh Association of Chaplaincies, told Loomis and her fellow ministers following the session.

Check also said all 30 students involved in her own campus ministry have reported recruitment attempts by the church - overtures she said were rebuffed by the students, with one exception.

No one from the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ, which occupies no local building and is unlisted, could be reached for comment.

The International Churches of Christ has been banned on 37 campuses in 14 states and three countries, Loomis said. In Great Britain, the National Union of Students has advised all student governments to deny ICC recognition on campus.

Terrence Milani, Pitt's associate director of student activities in charge of student group certification on campus, said it's impossible to tell how many members of the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ or any other uncertified group are on campus. The church has not applied for campus certification, he said.

"It has no official standing at Pitt," he said. "It won't be banned from the campus as long as (its members) don't violate university policies and procedures."

Loomis and other cult scholars commonly acknowledge that distinguishing a cult from a religion can be tricky. Churches such as ICC are far-flung offshoots of mainstream denominations, he said.

Extreme devotion and obedience to authority have long been hallmarks of some honored institutions, including the armed forces and even some corporations - not to mention many traditional religions. So most scholars consider those elements insufficient grounds for deeming a group or activity a cult.

An international conference of cult scholars met in 1985 and hammered out what has since become a widespread definition.

The so-called Wingspread Conference's description, which Loomis himself uses, defines two characteristics of a cult:

  • Members show excessive dedication to some person, idea or thing
  • The group uses unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the detriment of members, their families and society

Organizational mind control is prevalent everywhere from schools to monasteries to boot camps, Loomis conceded.

But cults, unlike other groups that demand devotion and obedience, use deception to gain their ends, he said.

"When cults recruit new people, they don't let the recruits know ahead of time what's in store and everything that will be expected of them," Loomis said. "It's the abuse of mind control through deception and disguise that turns a group into a cult."

Check described her students' reports of the Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ's techniques as deceptive.

The church members tend to make social overtures to students without divulging their motives to proselytize, she said, and become aggressive about their religion only after the social overtures have been accepted.

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