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Cults, Playing For Keeps

The family of missing teenager Bobby Kelly fear the religious group he joined a month ago is a cult. How can you seek to reclaim loved ones if you fear they are being held against their will? By BBC News Online's Megan Lane.

It is one of the worst nightmares a family can face - a loved one who disappears into a cult.

This is the scenario facing the family of Bobby Kelly, a 16-year-old from Romford, Essex, who ran away from home shortly after meeting members of the Jesus Christians.

While there is no evidence to suggest he is being held against his will, his family is concerned about his welfare.

Definition of a cult
Uses psychological coercion to recruit, indoctrinate and retain members
Forms an elitist society
Self-appointed leader who is messianic, dogmatic and unaccountable
'End justifies the means' approach to recruitment and fundraising
Members do not share in wealth
Bobby, who has said he wants to dedicate his life to the group, has been made a ward of the court in an attempt to block any effort to take him out of the country.

Ian Haworth, general secretary of the Cult Information Centre (CIC), says should a loved one - a son or daughter, a parent, a partner - be lured into a cult, friends and family should take it seriously.

"A cult isn't playing games; it's playing for keeps. The aim of the average cult is to recruit for life, or until that person is no longer useful to them."

The Jesus Christians say they are not a cult, but a "live-by-faith, work-for-God-not-money Christian community", according to their website.

Mr Haworth says one of the leaders, David Mackay, split off from the Family, formerly the Children of God, two decades ago.

The group's major base is in Australia, and its UK members are nomadic, handing out illustrated leaflets in London, Guildford, Liverpool and on the south coast.

"The Jesus Christians are a group about which we have received complaints, and about which we have concerns," Mr Haworth says.

'Love bombing'

In 1978, Mr Haworth was himself rescued from a Canadian cult he had joined two and a half weeks earlier: "It took me 11 months to get over it."

Bobby Kelly
Bobby Kelly: "I'm staying with the group"
Mind control techniques work very quickly on unsuspecting individuals, he says, warning that it can take just three or four days for a new recruit to be broken down.

Typical techniques employed by cults include hypnosis, peer group pressure, and "love bombing" - creating a sense of belonging through constant hugging and flattery.

New recruits are given stock phrases to use when questioned by the media.

Leaders may also bombard them with complex lectures on incomprehensible doctrine, which can break down rational thought.

"And while it's happening, it feels good," says Mr Haworth.

Raise questions about the corrupt side of the group - there is always a corrupt side

Ian Haworth
Should friends and family suspect a loved one has got involved with a sect, they must avoid going public with their fears.

"If the cult gets wind of any publicity, it can make the member disappear. I don't mean kill them, but it may well have other branches around the country or in other parts of the world."

The CIC recommends refraining from ridiculing the member's beliefs - he or she will have been programmed to regard outsiders with suspicion.

Know your stuff

After re-establishing contact, friends and family can try and deprogram the member themselves, or employ a reputable exit counsellor.

JC comic
One of the Jesus Christians' comics
"It has to be in a voluntary session - the member has to agree to counselling, even if they don't think they need it."

Those who choose to do it themselves must exhaustively research the cult, the terms it uses, and its methods so they can talk to the member on the same wavelength.

"Raise questions about the corrupt side of the group - there is always a corrupt side, be it Swiss bank accounts or limousines."

Emphasise the difference between conversion and coercion. If a member begins to realise the powerful experience they went through was man-made, not divine, they may again start to question what they are doing.

Most important of all is to remain patient and constantly express your love and support, Mr Haworth says.

He warns the process could take a week, a month, a year - and in some cases, the member may never leave the cult.

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