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Cults are now taking aim at elderly victims

Title: Cults are now taking aim at elderly victims
Date: Saturday, 22 August 1987
Publisher: St. Petersburg Times (Florida)
Author: Diane Salvatore
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Seventy-four-year-old Catherine, recently widowed, joined a religious group at a neighbor's urging in the hope of learning how to prepare her soul for death. Over time, Catherine's daughter Susan noticed that her usually healthy mother was losing weight and was tired and withdrawn.

After nine months, Catherine abruptly decided to move to the group's headquarters in a neighboring state. She liquidated all her assets, removed her daughter's name from their joint bank account and withdrew thousands of dollars of her life savings. But the day before Catherine was scheduled to join the group, Susan had to rush her mother, hysterical and incoherent, to the hospital. Doctors confirmed that she had suffered a severe nervous breakdown.

For most people, the word "cult" conjures up 1960s images of college students wearing flowing robes, chanting rhythmically and spouting Eastern philosophy. But today's realistic young people may be more concerned with career planning and money than mysticism. "As a result, cults have had to turn to new, more susceptible groups," says Herbert Rosedale, a New York lawyer who works for free to help those who feel a cult has victimized them.

In fact, recent developments have changed culls — about 3,000 groups nation-wide with 3-million to 8-million followers — in important ways. Cults today are expanding their membership through a new pool of recruits: the elderly, the middle-aged and churchgoing Christians. While in the past cults attracted equal numbers of males and females, today more women than into are being drawn in.

Those ripest for cult recruitment, according to Marcia Rudin, a leading authority on cults, are people "in a period of transition that makes them vulnerable." As a result, says Reginald Alev, information officer and former executive of Cuff Awareness Network (CAN) in Chicago, "It's common for the elderly to be recruited after the death of a spouse." Not only does this loss make the elderly emotionally vulnerable, it also stirs up a profound fear of their own death. That fear, critics say, is exploited by cults.

"Literally millions of dollars," says Philip Abramowitz, Ph.D., director of the Task Force on Missionaries and Cults of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, "are given to cults by people who are told they will be taught to communicate with those they leave behind when they die."

Loneliness is also a problem for the old, one that cults take advantage of, critics say. "The elderly are neglected in our society," Abramowitz says. "They want someone to listen to their problems and be sympathetic." Cult members know this and do much of their recruiting in hospitals and nursing homes or, Abramowitz says, "pose as cleaning- or cooking-service workers or offer to do shopping, gardening or provide transportation to doctors' appointments."

Experts say the elderly are being targeted for two reasons: There are more of them and they have more money. Those over 65 — women in particular — represent the fastest-growing segment of our population. And senior citizens have had a lifetime to accumulate assets. "Cults go where the money is," Alev says.

According to Rudin, groups that have aimed intense recruitment efforts directly at the elderly include the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT); the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, which has an Orange Blossom Corps specifically for outreach to seniors; The Divine Light Mission; The Way International, whose older members belong to its Sunset Corps; the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation; and The Walk. Visits to some of these groups' meditation programs are offered as recreational outings by some unsuspecting senior-citizen centers.

The middle-aged, especially middle-aged women, are primarily responsible for the popularity of the New Age movement — components of which, some say, represent a new kind of cult. Made chic in large part because of actress Shirley MacLaine's best seller and miniseries Out on a Limb, New Age blends Eastern and Western thought and encompasses sell-help groups, healing crystals, reincarnation and channeling (communicating with spirits through a medium).

CAN says the New Age phenomenon, particularly channeling, shares characteristics with destructive cults. "New Age has become a belief system," Alev says. "Many followers are addicted to a hypnotic subculture." Channelers "are often charismatic types who inspire absolute devotion and claim they are the sole source of revelations from God."

According to Craig Hawkins, a research consultant with Christian Research Institute (CRI), a California-based nonprofit group that monitors cults, "New Age is going to grow and grow. It's the wave of the future." Part of the reason for this growth may be demographics. New Age has attracted the majority of its adherents from aging baby boomers — a group second only to the elderly in population growth. Some New Agers, Alev says, are children of the '60s who still have not found the answers they have been looking for. Others, Rudin adds, "are now realizing that although they have become prosperous, material happiness is not enough."

Mind control techniques were used in Catherine's case. Catherine's daughter later discovered that her mother was targeted for recruitment by a "friendly" neighbor who moved in with her, ostensibly to help out. The woman, herself a mental hostage of the group, kept Catherine on a diet heavy in starches, which made her sluggish and weak. She deprived Catherine of sleep and forced her to copy by hand reams of incoherent prose, which made Catherine highly suggestible. In addition, Catherine, as with members of many cults, was told that worldly harm and eternal damnation would befall her and her family if she tried to break free.

One of the few legal options for someone trying to separate a family member from a cult is to secure a court-ordered temporary conservatorship by proving that the cult member is mentally incompetent and cannot handle his or her own affairs or estate. But proving such conditions in a courtroom has always been difficult.

As a result, many families have balked outside the law for solutions — namely, to deprograming — even though such a procedure, when it involves kidnapping and restraining a person, is a felony in most states.

Still, there are other ways for victims and their families to combat cults.

"The best way is to make cults obey the existing law, or to catch them breaking it," says Peter Georgiades, chairman of the American Bar Association's Subcommittee on Cult-Related Litigation. Many cults give law-enforcement agencies plenty of material to work with. Groups have been prosecuted in the past for myriad offenses: tax evasion; breaking zoning laws; mail fraud; keeping children out of school; stockpiling weapons (purportedly in preparation for Armageddon); drug trafficking; kidnapping; rape; child abuse; medical neglect; prostitution; extortion, and immigration abuses. In one case the crime was murder.

Some cult members have chosen to seek retribution through civil suits. Earlier this year, more than 500 people filed a $1-billion class-action suit against the Church of Scientology, the group founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, charging that confessions they made in private were being used to coerce them and extort money from them.

Yet for every illegal activity that has been discovered, some observers believe that countless others go unpunished. Part of the problem may be that law-enforcement personnel on the front lines — the police — admit they have been slow to recognize cults as the source of much criminality. Ron Cameron, chief of police in Rushville, Ind., who has coordinated seminars to educate Indiana police about cults says, "law enforcement as a whole has been pretty much in the dark about cults and the danger that exists. We have underestimated the magnitude of the problem. That has only recently begun to change."

Perhaps the best solution is prevention. Counselors in a New York City cult clinic run by the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services stress the importance of keeping all vulnerable family members knowledgeable about cults. If a loved one has joined a cult, experts recommend talking with him or her often and at length if possible, reminiscing and repeating how much the cult member is missed and avoiding criticism.

There is life after cults. Today Catherine lives in a senior-citizen community where she is active and happy, after going for counseling with a group that specialized in the problems of those leaving cults.

"My mother is still not as healthy as she was before," says her daughter Susan. "But we're not wasting time looking back. We have a lot of life to catch up on."