Cult expert counsels boys who belonged to Vt. Group

Free Press/August, 1989
By Ann E. Donlan

A nationally known cult expert last week "deprogrammed" two former Vermont boys who have spent most of their lives as members of a religious group centered in Marshfield.

The boys' father, Gerald E. Gromer of Bourbonnais, Ill., hired Rick Ross, 36, for $4,000 to help his sons. Gromer believes that Christ Covenant Church, to which Mark, 11, and Luke, 14, belonged while they lived in Marshfield with their mother, is actually a cult.

Since 1982, Ross said, he has traveled the country exposing cult behavior to at least 100 former members of various religious groups who have ranged in age from 7 to 71.

"This is not even an extremist, fundamentalist church," Ross said of the Christ Covenant Church. "This is a cult."

The church's self-proclaimed pastor, David Mulligan, denied Friday that his church is a cult. He criticized Ross for making assumptions about himself and the church without talking to him or other church members.

Ross said he studied the church group through news accounts, listening to former members and the boys. Mulligan called that approach "shoddy scholarship."

"He (Ross) may be an expert manure-thrower," Mulligan said. "He may know every cult in the world. But since we're not a cult, he knows nothing about us."

Gromer retrieved his sons June 7 in Vermont after searching for them for 9 ½ years. The boys' mother, Loretta Gromer Frey, 34, of Woodbury, is accused of abducting her sons Dec 24, 1979, when she picked them up for a Christmas party. Frey has been free on $20,000 bail since June 12 and is awaiting extradition to Illinois to face a felony count of child abduction. A conviction would mean a maximum three-year prison term and a $10,000 fine.

Gromer said the five-day period Ross spent with the boys a definite breakthrough. Before he arrived, the boys were suspicious of their father and rarely smiled or looked at him, Gromer and his wife Susan said.

"It's just a 100 percent change around," Susan Gromer said.

Ross bases his assertion that Christ Covenant Church is a cult on the influence Mulligan has over it. Mulligan has made church members totally dependent on him and controls their environment, Ross said.

Mulligan denies any power over the 150 members he says the church has in Vermont.

Ross said the boys told him the church has a "blacklist" that includes names of family members whom church members are not supposed to contact.

Cults focus on one individual who believes and tells people he or she is the mediator between God and church members, Ross said.

"This individual is the exclusive purveyor of God's word," Ross said. "He speaks for the group exclusively. The issue is not Jesus, God, the Bible or the New Testament. The issue is David Mulligan and how he runs that group."

Mulligan said Ross' characterizations are wrong. "I assume no role of power whatsoever," he said. "They (church members) think for themselves. They make decisions for themselves. They're complete people."

"If we're guilty of any crime, it's that we're devoutly Christian. We are no more cultish than the Methodist, the Pentecostal, the Catholics and the Lutherans."

The Gomers decided to contact Ross because the therapists the boys had talked with for several weeks after leaving Vermont in June were not trained specifically to deal with cult issues.

Ross said he tries only to help the boys understand what characterizes a cult. He is arranging for a Milwaukee psychologist who has worked with other former cult members to counsel the boys long-term.

It typically takes three or four days to deprogram a cult member, Ross said.

"This case has been tough because these kids are 11 and 14, and they have spent so much of their life in this group."

Ross has shown the boys films and talk-show programs about the cults, discussing such groups as the Unification Church, known as the "Moonies," and the People's Temple, whose members in 1979 committed a mass suicide in Guyana under leader Jim Jones. The boys also met and talked with ex-members of their church and Illinois residents who said they have not seen their Vermont church member relatives in nearly 10 years.

"We're really studying the cult phenomenon together," Ross said in a telephone interview Thursday. "What I think the kids have found is that their group certainly is not unique. They have - for the first time in their lives - an objective view, and they've been able to evaluate information about the group freely."

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