Campuses ban alleged church cult

Boston Globe/February 23, 2001
By Michael Paulson

Kicked off Boston campuses a decade ago for allegedly cult-like tactics such as telling students that their parents are devils, the Boston Church of Christ is reemerging on campuses in Central Massachusetts. The College of the Holy Cross acted on Wednesday to ban the group from campus, the first time any religious organization has been denied a chance to organize at the Worcester school.

In a campus-wide e-mail, Holy Cross chaplain Katherine M. McElaney said the group employs ''spiritual and psychological abuse,'' and said that ''neither the Boston Church of Christ nor any of its affiliates is free to meet, organize, or proselytize at the College of the Holy Cross.''

College officials in Worcester said that the group also appears to have approached students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Clark University,

Worcester State College, and Quinsigamond Community College. The Boston Church of Christ, founded in Lexington in 1979 and now operating as the International Churches of Christ, espouses a fundamentalist Protestant theology, but allegedly employs strong-arm tactics to recruit members.

The top Worcester official of the International Churches of Christ, Guy Prince, denied that the group is a cult. Prince said the characterizations of the group by Holy Cross are ''totally unjustified and unfounded and not true. Nor have we gotten any complaints from Holy Cross - zero.''

Holy Cross is the latest of several colleges that have banned the group. College officials have been alarmed by the practices of the group since 1979, when it appeared at Boston University. McElaney said several Jesuit colleges have banned the group from campus, and she said some chaplain colleagues encouraged her to take seriously the group's potential for harm.

''They're a destructive religion - everyone else calls them a cult - and they're the only group about which I would say that unambiguously,'' said the Rev. Robert W. Thornburg, dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, who has been battling the group for 22 years. ''They are destructive to freedom of thought, freedom of movement, and freedom of activity. They cut kids off from their families, and their method of recruiting and keeping kids in qualifies as first-rate mind control.''

Thornburg accused the group of deceptive tactics, saying they would slip notes under students' doors advertising a mandatory school meeting that would actually be a recruitment session. Thornburg said that by 1989, when Boston University banned the group, 50 students a year were dropping out of school to join the group full time.

''They are very hierarchical ... and they control the lives of students: who they can date, what they can buy, what courses they can take,'' Thornburg said. ''They're destructive - anyone who discourages one from participation is automatically a devil.'' Thornburg said he believes the group is avoiding major media markets, such as Boston, because of negative publicity, but is wooing college students in smaller communities.

The Rev. Peter J. Scanlon, Catholic chaplain at Worcester Polytechnic, was somewhat less alarmed. ''I think our kids will be OK. I don't think they'll get bowled over. And cults aren't limited to religion - you could have a beer-drinking cult too, and we do have that.''

But Scanlon said he has been contacted by parents of students at Worcester Polytechnic, Worcester State, and Quinsigamond asking about the group. The group operates churches with local names, such as the Worcester Church of Christ, and, according to Holy Cross, also operates in Worcester with the name Christian Family Fellowship. The group is not related to the United Church of Christ, which is a liberal Protestant denomination.

Despite its woes on campuses, the group appears to be thriving off-campus. According to the International Churches of Christ Web site, the group has churches in 171 countries, and in Dallas just last year, 10,000 people celebrated the church's 10th anniversary. The group also has well-organized critics, including former members who have set up Web sites. The BU chapel's Web site has links to those organizations' sites.

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