Expert teaches students to avoid dangers of cults

The Daily Pennsylvanian/April 12, 1995
By Paula Feldman

Going through a rough time? Just broke up with a significant other? Felling a bit down or depressed?

Beware - because if any of these criteria apply, you are a perfect target for recruitment into a cult, according to nationally renowned cult expert Rick Ross.

About 50 students and community members gathered in the rooftop lounge of High Rise East last night for "How to Identify and Define a Destructive Group and Cults," a discussion jointly sponsored by the Vice Provost for University Life, the Christian Association and the Newman Center.

Ross, who consulted the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigation during the standoff with members of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, was the evening's keynote speaker. Ross has been involved in deprogramming cult victims, testifying as an expert witness and law enforcement consulting for the past 13 years.

Christian Association Executive Director Beverly Dale organized the event after witnessing the effects of cults on student members and, more commonly, on their friends.

Ross' address began with the definition of a cult, which he said is often times "not so much what the group professes and believes, but how it interacts."

Typically, a cult will be hierarchically organized in a pyramid-like structure, with an authoritarian leader at the top who has no accountability to anyone or anything, The group isolates itself from the rest of society, and everything outside of it is seen as hostile, negative and carnal. Undue coercion and forced persuasion are used to draw people into the group.

"There are very different types of cults," Ross said. "They are not just religious."

But the cults which attract the most converts are religious cults, Ross said.

"One of the criticisms of cults is their deceptive recruitment processes," he said. "[People] may be invited to an activity that is mislabeled."

Following Ross' lecture, a panel of University students who would only identify themselves by their first names discussed their experiences with cults on campus.

"Roseanne" first was approached by a member of the Church of Christ as a student in London. A year later, she was approached by another member on her second day in Trinidad as a student as a student at the University of West Indies.

"The flashing red light comes on when you sense you are being pinpointed because you are alone and vulnerable," she said. "They're very kind and friendly - At the time, I didn't have the tools to deal with them."

For Roseanne, the final straw came when she met students at the University who are members from the Church of Christ in Philadelphia. They used the same key phrases she had heard , by this time, spoken literally around the world.

"I realized something terrible was going on - the influence of this church was powerful and dangerous," she said. "It's often less what they say than what they do."

"Clayton" was lured into the Church of Christ at the beginning of his freshman year, when he left his appointment book in his psychology class. Another student found it, and when Clayton went to reclaim it, the student invited him to a Bible study session. Eager to become more religious, Clayton agreed, and was eventually baptized as a full member.

"Everyone liked each other and seemed happy," he said. "The people there were very friendly and made me feel good about myself."

But the constraints of the Church forced him to spend less time with friends he made during the first week of school.

"Now in retrospect, I see the complete control of the group," he said. "You live with them, you eat with them, you study with them."

Clayton himself participated in the group's recruitment process.

"I did it too - gave lots of love, admonishments, rebukes, embarrassments, to change someone's behavior," he said. "I knew what I was doing, though it wasn't taught."

His parents pulled him out of the group this summer and forced him to attend a deprogramming seminar.

Ross said the suicide rate is high in the Church of Christ, where members often feel they are failures if they are unable to deal with the stress the Church places on them.

"The bottom line is when a person loses their individuality," he said.

People who leave the groups usually know their reasons for such action, he added. They have typically read books on the subject or "really crunched the scriptures with various theologians."

The typical person who joins a cult is someone who does not ask enough questions, Ross said.

"If we asked as many questions as we do when buying a new car or CD player [as when joining a religious group], there wouldn't be any cults," Ross said. "I'm sorry you have to be a bit cynical, [but] if a group is too good to be true, they probably are up to something."

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