Cult Mentality: a threat to individual responsibility in the church

Author: Greta E. Larson
Date Published: 10/14/2000

POKROV NOTE: This article was first presented at the Fall, 2000, Conference of Orthodox Christian Laity in Dallas, Texas

“Protected by your coming, O Mother of God, the faithful people solemnly celebrate today. Gazing upon your pure ikon, they humbly say: ‘Watch over us with your noble protection and deliver us from all evil by asking your Son, Christ our God to save our souls.'” — Troparian of the feast of the Protection of the Theotokos (Pokrov), celebrated October 1/14

God asked Mary to be the mother of God, and she agreed. She made a personal choice; she was given individual responsibility. Individual responsibility is more than just the topic of this conference, an academic topic, or a political issue: it is an integral part of our Faith. My web site called Protection of the Theotokos confronts the crucial necessity of individual responsibility in the church. The site confronts the lack of responsibility by clergy and laity in handling the topic of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. It also confronts the taking away of individual responsibility in the case of mind-control and cult activity within an Orthodox context.

The reason I became aware of both cult activity and sexual abuse in the church is because of my own personal experience in my parish. More than ten years ago it was discovered that my four year old sister and several of her friends were victims of sexual abuse by a man who claimed to be a convert to the Orthodox faith. Upon investigation it was discovered that the molester had been involved in a cult group (listed by several national cult awareness networks). Several other members in my parish were also converts from the same group and exhibited a continuing cult mentality as they had known the molester for fifteen years or more, yet didn’t tell my family, or any of the other families in the parish, let alone law enforcement officials, that this man was a violent criminal who was breaking his parole by attending our parish. It became apparent that certain converts in our parish still maintained an allegiance to their previous group. Later it was discovered that while they gave us the impression that they were converts from another orthodox jurisdiction, it turned out that they were from a group that is documented as a Gnostic mystery cult with pagan and occult rituals that had recently adopted orthodox rituals as a means of gaining credibility by mainstream society. Court records show that the leaders in the cult sent letters to court pleading leniency for the molester and another letter invited him to a monastery that housed children.

I first started Protection of the Theotokos web site as a way for myself and my family to reach out to others that had experienced abuse in the church first hand. We list articles on abuse, resources and a list of documented perpetrators. I had no idea the extent of the abuse problems; however I am now informed of cases in the Orthodox Church on a near weekly basis. Without much publicity, we have an average of 800 visits to the web site a month. I have received more than 2000 email messages in response to the site. Perpetrators are listed on my website that have conviction records, but I have a growing file of more than fifty other perpetrators NOT listed on my web site. I have received multiple reports on most of these fifty plus perpetrators, most of whom continue today as “pastors” in Orthodox parishes. Needless to say, the list of victims is staggering.

This conference is honored by the presence of two courageous orthodox mothers — Catherine Metropoulos and Melanie Sakoda — who have stepped forward after seeing their children violated at church. They are both advocates for all children, not just their own. In both of their cases, they were told be silent and not speak about what happened to them, and in both cases their children could have been spared harm if others had spoken out. Yet, both Catherine and Melanie have stopped the cycle of silence and used their individual responsibility to the church to warn others of dangers in their communities.

Sexual abuse is such an explosive issue in the Orthodox Church that people aren’t even allowed to talk about it. My website, which publishes the facts (court documents, newspaper reprints, etc.), is so controversial that one member of the clergy (not present at this conference) attempted to have me removed from the program today. I also made reports to the FBI after receiving threatening messages from another source which indicated that my personal safety may be in jeopardy. It seems that talking about the crimes is actually worse than the crimes themselves. What I want to talk about today may be more difficult to confront than sexual abuse — and is sometimes a cause of sexual abuse — it is the confusing and controversial subject of what I call cult mentality and activity in the Orthodox Church.

What is a “cult mentality” or “cult?”

There are many different thoughts on the subject, but Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a respected authority on cult activity, describes three main factors which are a charismatic leader, brainwashing and emotional, economic, sexual or other type of exploitation of members by the leaders. Cult activity can occur on a very large scale, in a small group situation, and even on a one-on-one basis. In Russia there has recently been some trouble with cult mentality in the Orthodox Church. An article from 1999 said the following:

“Russian Orthodox priests have abused their authority over believers by intruding into their private lives and setting up, cult-like followings, the church’s Synod has complained. ‘The priests ban parishioners from marrying for love, force others to divorce their spouses because they were not married in church, and even compel some believers to enter monasteries or nunneries …. Instead of leading people to God, such priests are more interested in surrounding themselves with tightly knit groups of admirers and warring against rival parishes and traditions within the church.'”

Group mentality in Parishes and monasteries

These same kind of things are seen more and more in the U.S. as well. A cult mentality is seen in sexual abuse cases, for instance, when groups of people will still believe a priest is innocent after a guilty verdict or a guilty plea in court. Often it is the use of cult tactics that make people vulnerable to sexual and other types of abuse.

People have contacted me confused why a priest is suddenly making changes, they are being told what to do, everyone is supposed to follow the priest in every way, etc. Often changes are made in the parish council giving the priest more and more control. Parishioners are told not to question or talk about the changes, and if they do they are called “unorthodox,” or “ethnic/ nominal orthodox.” Sometimes people are derided and told that they don’t understand their own Faith. This makes them intimidated and embarrassed to speak out. One person wrote to me about their experience in their Greek Orthodox parish:

“Soon after the new priest arrived, he began to wear the monk attire: black cassock, black skoufos hat, and long beard. He began to refer to …..spiritual obedience a lot, performed daily liturgies, focused on the desert fathers in his sermons, and encouraged those women who favored spiritual obedience to him to wear scarves during liturgy and refrain from communion if they were menstruating. Some people began wearing (long) prayer ropes ….. wrapped around their wrists several times. Soon it was evident which group of parishioners were the super Orthodox and which group were moderates. … Small groups of the growing cadre of spiritually obedient parishioners went on retreats to the monastery, several states away. Their purpose was to gain a blessing from (the elder) …..They returned saying that (the elder) truly had the power of discernment. Individuals took personal questions for (the elder) seeking answers, such as, Should I buy this property? Should I have a baby? Should I marry this man/woman? Should I become a monk/nun? Throughout this time, a division within the parish became evident, especially at voting time for the Parish Council. The question was, Will this man/woman support the priest or remain a moderate?”

As shown in the letter I just read, group thinking can effect a regular parish. To me one of the most important points of that quote is that people weren’t encouraged to think for themselves, or to ask questions. They were forced to conform to an imposed standard of piety. It is important to remember that the Orthodox faith is full and multifaceted and doesn’t always fit one particular mold.

I have a personal anecdote. In my last parish there were two members who were chrismated into the parish who still lived and worked at a orthodox-style cult commune during the week, but came to our parish on the weekends. I thought this was a concern, both for the parish, and the people in the cult. However, when I asked the priest about it he accused me of gossiping. This is a common thing people are told to keep them from asserting their personal opinions. In fact Margaret Singer, one of the definitive experts on cult activity, says that:

“In many groups, there is a ‘no gossip’ or ‘no nattering’ rule that keeps people from expressing their doubts or misgivings about what is going on. This rule is usually rationalized by saying that gossip will tear apart the fabric of the group or destroy unity, when in reality the rule is a mechanism to keep members from communicating anything other than positive endorsements. Members are taught to report those who break the rule, a practice that also keeps members isolated from each other and increases dependence on the leadership.”

One person wrote to my web site about his abusive spiritual director, and I believe it shows how leaders can be deceptive:

“This man looked homely, dressed modestly, behaved in a gentle, self effacing manner, but had a highly charismatic personality that did not seem charismatic at all–art that concealed art. Whether aware of it or not, he had a splendid voice, and knew when to inflect his words so as to dramatically enhance the impact of what he said at key moments–the effect on me was almost hypnotic. Others were also enchanted. …… (M)y spiritual advisor ‘pulled’ people’s attention toward himself, rather than the God he supposedly honored, and ostensibly served. All in all, I knew something was very wrong, did not want to trust my gut instincts because I felt unable to bear the loneliness involved in ending the relationship — plus I had been going through some terrible crises and had gotten some genuinely valuable support from this man. The worst thing was that he had such a reputation for sanctity, that I and others felt afraid to even question his motives — he was protected by our own unconscious, wishful desire for evidence that God still cared enough to rise up saints in this sad world. I blamed myself and felt guilty all the time.”

Where is the new influence coming from?

In the last twenty years there has been an increased interest by mainstream society in the Orthodox church. An increasing percentage of clergy are converts. Besides the cult group I mentioned earlier that was in my own parish, there are many non-orthodox religions that have adopted orthodox icons, liturgics, theology and music into their traditions. Some of these groups are entranced by the beauty of the rituals, others are truly seeking the essence of the faith, others are using the traditions to cover up for a lack of legitimacy. Some of these groups have tried to join the church en masse — some have succeeded. Individual people interested in the Orthodox faith can be from varied backgrounds According to Don Lattin in an SF Chronicle (3/5/00):

“There has been a growing number of conversions to Orthodox Christianity … both by individuals and entire congregations. Some converts are traditionalists, such as Episcopalians upset over the ordination of women as priests and bishops. Others are evangelicals tired of the spiritual fads and the pop music of Pentecostalism. Some are serious students of the faith who read a little history and conclude that the Orthodox may have the closest structure to the early Christian churches. And there are all those spiritual seekers who dabble in Zen, Sufism or humanistic psychology and then stumble across some Orthodox monk with a long beard and a twinkle in his eye.”

My family converted from the Anglican church. We spent more than a year studying the Orthodox faith and attending the cycle of services. It was an important decision we made, each as individuals, to join the church. As converts my family was welcomed by long-time cradle Orthodox who taught us what it meant to be Orthodox, and we continue to learn more about Orthodoxy from them.

Orthodox people should be proud of the traditions they have maintained for generations and passed on to so many. Another convert is Bishop Kallistos whose book The Orthodox Church reminds us of these traditions. He points out that while the church is hierarchical, it is also “charismatic and Pentecostal.” He goes on to say that “the whole people of God are prophets and priests.” He also reminds us that in the Orthodox tradition, clergy and laity are equally responsible for guarding the faith. However, if lay people are no longer allowed to think for themselves, and told they must always obey their priest or bishop, this precious tradition is lost. As Bishop Isaiah of Denver recently reminded us, God wants loving sons and daughters, not slaves in his kingdom.

How is thought reform implemented? How are people made to be obedient?

The “no gossiping” rule is one way, charismatic leadership is one way, but Margaret Singer also cites changes in diet, sleep and stress as ways of implementing thought reform or persuasion in a cult situation. While I am not condemning fasting or liturgical services, an increased cycle of services can result in sleep deprivation, and trance states and rules of fasting can cause protein deprivation, malnutrition and other health problems. Several of the letters I have gotten describe severe health problems resulting from fasting. One former nun told me of how she left her convent after she almost died when she was told to follow the convent’s dietary restrictions which were against doctor recommendations. Extreme fasting can cause other problems even in healthy people. It can make even the strongest of us too weak to use our good judgment, and more open to suggestion.

The use of spiritual fathers and elders and confessors in the orthodox church is also a way that cult activity can be imposed. In many books about cults, confession is listed as one of the techniques used to apply cult mentality and have people second guess their own judgment. This is in contrast to a healthy use of confession as a reaffirmation of God’s love for us. It can also be used as a way for a leader to impose guilt, which is another cult tactic. Margaret Singer tells how confession is used so that members reveal past and present behavior, contacts with others, and undesirable feelings, seemingly in order to unburden themselves and become free. However, whatever you reveal is subsequently used to further mold you and to make you feel close to the group and estranged from non members. … through the confession process and by instruction in the groups’ teachings, members learn that everything about their former lives, including friends, family, and nonmembers, is wrong and to be avoided.

Here is some of a testimony I received from one former monk who was one of many victims of sexual and spiritual abuse from the spiritual father of his monastery:

“Father carefully cultivates among his novices and monks the concept of absolute obedience to the ‘elder’ (staretz), i.e. himself. He does this by his own interpretations of the Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers and by pointing to certain patristic statements found chiefly in the Ladder of Divine Ascent (e.g. 4:121, “It is better to sin against God than against our father”). Novices and monks are led to believe that total obedience is a monk’s only path into the Kingdom of Heaven and that a monk can gain access to God only through his elder; they are led to believe that their belief in God and their belief in their ‘elder’ are one and the same; they are led to believe that if they disobey their ‘elder’ by any action or even thought, they have disobeyed and betrayed God and are therefore no better than atheists unless they repent, that is, obey.”

Who is vulnerable?

Any one of us can exhibit cult mentality: it happens whenever we allow our thoughts and actions to be dictated by someone else, or by outward appearances. For instance, it can occur in sexual abuse cases against the clergy, when people continue to believe a priest is innocent after a guilty verdict, or even after a guilty plea, simply because he is a priest. However, young people and converts are especially vulnerable, as are people going through a difficult time, such as a divorce, or the death of a loved one. Converts to Otrhodoxy are open to new ideas and willing to learn new things, but they may have a limited idea of what Orthodoxy really is. If they are told that to be Orthodox they must give blind obedience to the clergy, they might not know better.

Young people are similarly vulnerable. Not only are they usually expected to obey their elders, but they also may not yet have developed a mature understanding of Orthodoxy. There is a developing trend in this country of monastery schools, for children as young as five, or teenage novices. I personally feel that having children at monasteries is very wrong. We must certainly make sure that these children are being taught the importance of individual responsibility, not blind obedience.

Vulnerability to blind obedience is particularly problematic when whole groups, with their former leadership intact, are received into the church. If the group’s understanding of Orthodoxy is in error, if they do not understand that they need to exercise their individual responsibility to preserve our heritage, you have not one lay convert, whose misconceptions can be corrected by a priest or by other parishioners, but a serious threat to the Faith. These groups may go on to attract more converts, but only those who are looking for someone else to do their thinking for them.

This brings me to my next subject ….

Outside groups that may influence the Orthodox Church

In this country there are no rules or laws about who wears a clerical robe. There are no rules about who calls themselves Orthodox. Many groups in this country are self proclaimed orthodox. There is also a priest shortage. As a result of these factors, there are more and more priests converts from outside groups, often with no backgrounds or qualifications other than cult leadership positions to lead an Orthodox parish. More and more priests and bishops do not have a seminary education.

In one parish a convert Orthodox priest, formerly with a cult, pronounced excommunication on several devout long time Greek parish council members, simply for asking him to account for missing funds. The priest wrote to them saying:

“….(Y)ou have been suspended from the Sacraments. This difficult action has been taken because of your divisive actions [i.e.: asking about funds] and your refusal to follow the directions of your Priest and Bishop in resolving the problems within our parish. …. Suspension from the Sacraments means you are not a member in good standing, and thus may not continue as a member of the … Council, nor as its chairman …. Restoration to the sacraments is possible and in fact desirable upon ….: resignation from your position on the parish council, confession, and an expressed desire to accept and put on the spirit and practice that characterizes the …. diocese.”

Many of you come from parishes in which the parishioners are essentially like the parish council members described above, but where there is no influence from outside non-orthodox groups. Unfortunately in more and more communities in the Orthodox world, including my own home town of San Francisco, there are groups that appear orthodox, call themselves orthodox, but aren’t affiliated with any Orthodox jurisdictions. Among the controversial groups listed on my web site, four are not currently attached to any canonical Orthodox jurisdiction. There are many more groups that we are still investigating.

Some people may ask:

Why are cults a problem? Shouldn’t they just join the Orthodox Church?

On a list assembled by Margaret Singer, she lists one of the dangers of cult activity is that cults threaten legitimate institutions Many people would say since some groups are not really orthodox, then it doesn’t effect the “real” church. However, many of these self-trained or cult-trained orthodox have been chrismated and ordained into the Orthodox Church, sometimes on the same weekend. One non-orthodox group, for instance, has made it its mission to “save the orthodox from themselves,” and has attempted to send out members to convert to local established Orthodox parishes to establish connections within a parish. Many of these converts present themselves as long-time Orthodox and look to fill positions as Sunday school teachers and ordained deacons or readers. The sacraments are not meant to be a magical spell. Chrismation and ordination do not impart understanding of the Faith, or erase cult mentality.

Most of you know about the conflicts surrounding the widely publicized Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission situation, which was considered a cult before its reception. Currently some Orthodox jurisdictions are attempting to take in other groups, just not so publicly. Recently I heard that one SCOBA jurisdiction is considering taking in the group that my sister’s molester had belonged to. When someone who works with me called the church headquarters to ask if this was true, the phone call was unceremoniously terminated. I then called myself and they hung up on me as well. We were not allowed to ask a simple question and receive a civil answer, much less express an opinion on the wisdom of this alleged reception.

Orthodox unity, you see, is more complicated than it seems.

Perhaps you think that these issues do not affect you or your parish, but take a look at the icon prints, periodicals and books sold in your parish book shop. Many pseudo orthodox groups sell orthodox wares as ways to make money and gain credibility.

Is that an “orthodox bookstore” down the street from your parish, or does it just call itself Orthodox?

I believe Orthodoxy in America is at an important crossroads. The Orthodox Church is NOT a cult — but as lay people we each have a responsibility to make sure that it does not become one. The danger is there. The antidote is the example of Mary. God asked Mary to be the Theotokos, and understanding what was asked of her, she said yes. The Mother of God was a loving daughter, not a slave. We should all strive to be no less.