This Is How Cults Work

This post originally appeared in VICE UK
by Daniel Dylan Wray
December 16, 2014

Cults will always be associated with the big names. Your David Koreshes, your Jim Joneses, your Charlie Mansons—the guys you’ll have seen hogging half the Netflix documentary section like they’re the only megalomanic sociopaths to ever grace a fortified compound. But there are plenty of other, more humble, groups out there still suckering people in and fleecing them for all they’re worth.

Ian Haworth, an ex-cult member, has been running the UK-based ​Cult Information Centre since 1987. There, he and his team provide information, guidance, and assistance to those who want to leave a cult, those who have already left one, and to concerned friends and families. I caught up with him recently to get an insight into how a modern-day cult operates.

VICE: Hi, Ian. How did you end up joining a cult yourself?

I was doing some shopping one day [in Toronto] and met a lady who asked if I could help her with a survey. I agreed. She then told me I’d probably be interested in joining a community group she represented, saying “Isn’t it time you considered giving something back to the community instead of taking from it all the time like most people do?” The meeting consisted of a talk, followed by a coffee break, followed by a film. When the break was called, people started to come into the room with all kinds of food. I’d paid $1.50 to attend, so I thought I’d get my money’s worth.

I then decided to go for a cigarette, when someone rushed over and said, “Oh, we didn’t know you smoked. You can smoke out here, but have you ever thought about quitting?” About a month before this my doctor had told me I’d probably die by the time I was 40 if I didn’t quit smoking, so she’d hit my area of interest. The course spanned four days and they guaranteed success. At the end of the course I’d given them all the money I had, decided to dedicate my life to them, and handed in my resignation at work.

That was quick. How did you eventually end up leaving?

​I was a completely different person, but of course I didn’t know that. Friends knew that, my roommate knew that. People were scared of me, people felt sorry for me, people had a variety of emotions but didn’t know what to do. People at work were stunned that I’d handed in my notice because I was doing well. When I was working my final month, the group [PSI Mind Development Institution—now non-existent] were exposed in the media. I hadn’t yet been programmed against the media, so I was open to media input. It reactivated my critical mind and I managed to leave. I then went through 11 months of pretty severe withdrawal.

Do you believe intelligent, educated people are more likely to be recruited than people in turmoil or who may be considered unstable?
​ This idea of troubled people is the eternal myth. People want to imagine this is the case because they don’t want to consider themselves as “vulnerable.” I don’t use the word vulnerable very often, but I’d argue that we’re all vulnerable to the techniques used by these groups. The late Dr. John G Clark, who I quote a lot, said the safest people are the mentally ill. The easiest people to recruit are ones with alert, questioning minds who want to debate issues with other people. You take a strong-willed, strong-minded person and put them into a cult environment and the techniques used will break a person down very, very quickly. The smarter, the healthier the mind, the quicker and easier you are to control. It’s just one of these tragic realities.

What have you found to be the primary motives for setting up and recruiting people into cults?

​ The common denominators would be people and money. Some may just enjoy the power they have over a mass of people; others may well be wanting, from the word go, to acquire financial benefits and amass great wealth; others may have other ambitions of taking over the world. Then there are some who may well actually believe they are God, or whatever. I think those are the ones who are quite often mentally ill, so there’s quite a mix of leaders and they may well have slightly different motivations. But, again, the common denominators are people and money.

You estimate that there are currently between 500 to 1,000 cults in the UK. Are they on the rise?

​ Yes. If someone is recruited into a cult, that person—among other things—is going to be going out to recruit other people. Either in a formal way or an informal way, they’ll be obeying instructions from the group on how to do that. Or they’ll simply do it because they’ve been radicalized, are on a high, singing their praises and can’t wait to recruit. So, as each person recruits others, you’ll get an exponential growth of that organization—and the same applies to all the others. Then you get power struggles and splits in some of the groups. You get other groups, from different parts of the world, setting up branches in the UK, so it’s a phenomenon that is growing.
Do you ever infiltrate cult meetings to acquire information?
​No, that would be foolish. We’d never recommend going to any meetings that cults have because the techniques they use work on anybody, including me.

What usually triggers a member into wanting to leave a cult and to seek help from you?

​Because cults use mind control techniques to recruit people, a person’s mind is controlled by the group. Therefore the person no longer has control or normal thought processes; they are impaired, and the person can no longer critically evaluate. You become someone else. What is common is that something reactivates the critical mind of the cult member. It could be something you see or hear that you’re not supposed to see or hear within the group; it could be something that somebody—when you’re out recruiting or soliciting funds—says to you. If you’re programmed to understand that people are evil and will be hostile toward you, and then they’re kind and gentle in dealing with you, that will upset the apple cart.

During this period, how active are the cults in trying to get members to return?

​It varies. If you consider what it’s like to be in a cult, you’re programmed to think that this group is the be-all and end-all, and that anyone leaving this group is going to suffer horribly. So you would see it as helpful, as a cult member, to try and contact somebody who is an ex-member and try to pull them back in. So it’s not unusual for someone to be pursued.

Are these techniques always psychological, or have you encountered any instances of violence or physical threats?

​I’ve dealt with people who have come out of cults and who have died. There was a case that was supposed to go before the courts—the government was looking at a particular group and possibly looking at removing its charitable status—and a key witness, who was an ex-member of the group, was found hanging from a lamppost. Some people say it was murder, other people say it was suicide. I don’t know.

One chap I spoke to in Canada had fled from an organization and was really shaken up badly. I normally just speak to people on the phone, but I offered to meet up with him. He was at university and had a lot of work to do because he was just about to start his exams, and I said, “Well, can I have somebody phone you once or twice a week while you’re going through your exams, just to make sure you’re OK?” He said fine, and that happened.

After the exams were over he was found with his throat cut from ear to ear and, again, some said it was murder, some said it was suicide. The police said it was suicide. His family suggested it was murder. Perhaps you could say the family would, but his father was a doctor and said there wasn’t enough blood at the site where his body was found for it to have been suicide.

If cults are rising in the UK, what can be done to curb this? What preventative measures can be put in place?

​The sooner the government realizes what cults are all about, they will then realize how much more can be done to combat terrorism. Not just the terrorist groups that are operating abroad, but also those that are radicalizing people in this country. If we start to recognize what cults are about and apply it in this area then we can perhaps be a lot more effective in trying to help people who want to come back to this country from Syria, or wherever they’ve been to, and return to normal and then be great sources of information.

Ex-members of cults are great sources of information. People who are perhaps captured as extremists can be counseled back to reality as well, so a lot can be done in that area. I think a lot needs to be done in terms of public education on this topic, but it all starts with the government recognizing what’s going on. I think there needs to be an educational program in general to help British society become aware of how cults operate, what to watch out for and, therefore, avoid, and how to help current and former members to back to reality.

Cults and Common Sense

By Fr Dwight Longenecker
Courtesty of

One of the creepiest things about religion is the tendency for those involved to drift into cult-like behaviors. How can you tell if a religious group is operating like a cult? It’s difficult because the people in a religious group can behave like a cult without them becoming a full blown, identifiable religious cult.

What groups am I thinking of? It could be a small local group or a large international group. It could be a parish or a school. It could be a study group or an ecclesial community. The difficulty is that cult like behavior is often very similar to authentic and Spirit filled Christian communities. A cult will often look like a good, authentic and dynamic Christian community. In fact, the cult will often out do the authentic Christian community in certain respects. Sometimes the cult will feel more authentic, more dynamic, more spiritual and more “filled with the Spirit.”

How can you tell if a parish, a school, a community or a religious group are becoming cult like? Again, it is very difficult because some groups that have cult-like behaviors remain at a low level of these behaviors.

So what are the danger signs? First of all, if a religious community or a religious leader seem too good to be true–guess what? They’re usually too good to be true. That’s because group cult behavior conspires to cover up and hide away anything that tarnishes the glossy image of that “wonderful community” that all the members want so much to believe in. This is the first sign of a cult: everything is too wonderful and everyone is ready to tell you how wonderful it all it. The cult will invariably have an amazingly good public relations operation. They will present a good and glossy front with 100% participation of all involved. This being the case, if your priest is a man who’s faults are obvious. Maybe you should be grateful. He’s real. He’s not trying to con you.

The second thing to watch out for is the leadership. The leadership of a cult will invariably be selective and exclusive. There will be a public face of the leadership, and that person will unfailingly present the nice, glossy and polished face of the organization. The public face will be squeaky clean and wonderful. If it is a personality based cult there may be no other leadership. However, if there is a board of directors or trustees, they will remain in the background. You may not know who they are. Their meetings will not be public. They may even have a vow of secrecy about their meetings. They will call this something nice like “a confidentiality agreement.” This means they cannot discuss what goes on behind those closed doors. There may not be a formal leadership group at all. Instead the leader may simply have an inside circle of friends and confidantes who nobody really knows because they never have any meetings as such. The decisions are all taken in private. The leadership will be tightly controlled and it will be by invitation only. If you encounter non-transparent leadership in this way. Don’t be surprised and be suspicious.

A third trait of a cult is that complete loyalty is demanded of the followers. Dissent and criticism is not permitted. Those who dissent will be marginalized, excluded from decision making and demonized. If the leaders cannot get rid of the dissenters they will be isolated and given a name. They will be “the troublemakers” or “the grumblers”. The dissenters from within will be considered the most dangerous ones and you will find that there are divisions–those who are loyal followers and those who are suspected of being “disloyal” or “rebellious”. The disloyal and rebellious ones will be deemed “unspiritual” or “difficult”. In extreme cases the dissenters will become scapegoats and all the negativities of the group will be projected on to them.

A fourth characteristic of a group that has become a cult or is behaving in a cult like manner is that there will be a persecution complex. A group of outside forces will be identified who are “the enemy”. A little fortress will be built in which all those on the inside are the “faithful ones” while all those on the outside will increasingly be demonized and feared. There will be no real effort to build bridges or get to know those on the outside. There will be no real effort to treat the outsiders as real people. Instead they are the enemy to be kept at arms’ length and against whom the faithful will usually project their fears and suspicions. At worst the enemy will have all the sins and fears and dark negativities projected on them.

The problem is that when a group is becoming cult like it does so innocently. Nobody sets out to establish a cult. Instead, unconsciously certain individuals start to behave in this manner and they support one another. The leadership starts to create an unrealistically wonderful religious atmosphere and those who want and need that sort of religious group will support it and feed the flames. The faithful will set the leader up on a pedestal and declare him to be wonderful and the leader (who needs and likes the adulation) will encourage their hero worship. Those who object or suspect what is happening will be automatically excluded or marginalized by those who wish to perpetuate the super wonderful world they are setting up for themselves.

It all stinks to high heaven, and I know how it works because in over fifty years of working in a range of religious groups I have seen these behaviors develop within parishes, within home prayer and praise groups, within schools, in colleges and in independent churches.

What’s the antidote? One of the antidotes is actually the Catholic parish system. If we all went to our local parish and put up with the priest we didn’t happen to like and the people who were just there because, like us, they lived there–we would be more realistic and we wouldn’t fall into personality cult problems.

Another antidote is common sense. If something or someone seems to be too good to be true. They are. Common sense pops pomposity’s balloon and brings things down to earth. A third antidote is open-ness to criticism and dissent. A real servant leader and a truly service based group will value all members and be strong enough to listen to dissenting voices. They will treat criticism as positive feedback and be open not only to dissent but to outsiders. A fourth antidote is confession. Cult members and cult leaders never admit their mistakes and will never be able to make a true, honest and open confession or apology. If your leader or community members cannot say “sorry” you’ve got problems.

Finally, real religion is just that. It’s real. It’s humble. Remember the word “humility” comes from the word “humus” which means “earth”. Real religion is down to earth. It’s humble and oh yes, “Humus” is also the root for “humor”. Real religion always knows how to have a laugh. If a group or a person can’t laugh at themselves–be suspicious. If they take themselves or their movement or their spirituality with utmost seriousness–beware.

The Abuse Continues for The Girls of Immaculate Conception Academy

This story was originally posted on the 49 Weeks Blog. We feel it is important to resurrect it in order to shed some light into the abuse and continual abuse of the Legionaries of Christ. ReGAIN will continue to advocate for, and support all former members of the Regnum Christi and Legionaries of Christ.

49 Weeks

The consecrated at Immaculate Conception Academy are still actively recruiting highschool-age girls to attend the Precandidacy (despite assuring us they are no longer recruiting).

They have placed a recruitment poster on their Facebook page. We were pretty upset when we saw that, and began posting comments sharing our experiences regarding the Precandidacy. Our comments quickly kept disappearing, and we were soon prevented from posting anything further on their page. At least ten former Precandidates have had their comments deleted and were blocked from commenting further on the page.


Here is a sample of what was posted then deleted within minutes (this comment was by Sarita):

I understand fully that both the PC and RC are in a time of transition and reform. But in order to fully correct all of the severe mistakes that have been made in the past, who better to help in that process than the alumni of the Precandidacy? Many of us are quite concerned that the PC is still actively recruiting even though the Movement is in such a period of upheaval.

Each one of the alumni that have posted on this page have had their comments deleted and have been blocked from this page. Is this the spirit of the Regnum Christi Renewal? In my past experience, RC has characterized all former members who have had a negative experience as bitter and angry and have done everything to shut down our concerns (eg. the ReGAIN website that was sued). By both deleting and blocking your former alumni, it seems that this attitude has not been rectified. If this is not a place where former alumni can air our opinions, both positive and negative, where else can we go? To date, RC has not publicly reached out to former PC’s who have been hurt by their experiences in the Precandidacy.

I understand by posting this comment I will most likely be blocked, but I truly feel strongly about the well being of all PC’s, both past, present and future. I sincerely hope that your search for peace during this renewal will lead to a holy and healthy life for all members.


I (Megan) was less diplomatic, and deserved to have my comment deleted, but enjoyed posting it nonetheless,

The PC has a proven track record of abuse. They shouldn’t be raising kids. RC and LC were started by a guy who raped his own sons as well as the little boys others trusted to his care. The entire system was developed to protect him from the consequences of his sins. The PC has taken healthy, generous, loving, faith-filled young women and maimed them over and over and over and over. There is no meaningful reform for an organization based on lies and corruption. I have no problem with adults participating in such a rotten organization, but RC and LC have no business being involved in children’s lives.

Immaculate Conception Academy has since posted this comment, “The is a page dedicated to promoting the activities of ICA. It isn’t a place for criticism and venting. Inappropriate comments will be deleted and people who persist in that sort of posting will be blocked.”

We find it interesting that ICA allows comments from one former PC and a couple parents who extol the heavenly aura of luminescent holiness at the PC, but anyone who wishes to leave a more realistic account of life there is deleted and blocked.


Most of us who were blocked received a version of this message from one of the consecrated working at ICA:

I am a consecrated woman of Regnum Christi and I help to manage the page for Immaculate Conception Academy. I have been working there this past year.

I understand that you have suffered and are suffering because of your past involvement in Regnum Christi and I truly wish that weren’t the case… I am also aware that you are a part of the discussion group for current and former members. I have felt confident that the discussion group can be productive and bear much fruit in helping us with our renewal process. I have been taking note of many of the good observations and comments that have been made, especially since I am now working at Immaculate Conception.

I noticed your recent comments on one of our posts and I want to remind you that this page is for people who “LIKE” Immaculate Conception. I am totally open to all discussions about various topics regarding the program, but our page is certainly NOT the forum for such discussions. For this reason, I have had to remove your comments.

Thank you for your understanding. God bless.


Most of us responded, but we all loved Frances’s response.

I’m not really sure what the purpose of this email is. To show me how open minded and open to discussion ICA has become since I went there? Hmmm, I find it odd then that you are furiously deleting posts and blocking those of us who speak the truth, from our hearts, about our time at ICA. What are you trying to hide? The truth? Why? So that your beloved “recruitment” numbers stay up?

Don’t you think the PC would be flourishing if it was God’s will? Why are you promoting a school that has contributed in such a negative way to the lives of SO MANY of it’s alumni? Is this your “Apostolate”? Do you think you are doing God’s will? If so, God help you, you are only driving people further from him.

Have you ever use the site Yelp? What good would it be if all the reviews on the site were good? Would you feel like you were getting an objective view of a restaurant or nail salon… NO, which is why such sites exist. Which makes me think. You can make it your personal mission to start deleting and blocking comments on the ICA Facebook page, but here’s a hint: I work in social media, and the internet is my oyster.

Let me leave you with this. I pity you, because you probably believe what you are doing is good, and I will give you the benefit of the doubt for that. But I assure you, one day you will realize the gravity of leading people into an organization founded on evil and lies, and you will be begging God for forgiveness for all the souls you led astray. Or else you’ll be completely indifferent to him like the majority of those who suffered through the PC. Either way, when you are in your night prayer today, and your meditation tomorrow morning, and someone else is “praying” for you, try to remember when the last time you made YOUR OWN rational, human, FREE decision. But don’t think too hard, THEY MIGHT NOTICE. Your job isn’t to think, it’s too obey. And if you leave, they’ll just replace you with another complacent robot.

Hmmmm, and now let’s think back. What kind of regimes were open to discussion, and which ones block out all dissent? You must be besties with Kim Jong Il and Castro. Lucky you.


And Katie’s response.

Dear –
I have to say I’m surprised you’re taking comments down. Some of you still consecrated are saying “we’re open to dialogue” but not allowing it on a site, no matter what the purpose, shows me you aren’t. Honestly, saying “it doesn’t fit the purpose of the site” is a poor excuse. What are you afraid of? Are you afraid someone will read it and decide not to send their child to the convention or summer program? The best way to test the validity of something is to let EVERYONE who wants to say something say it, and then weigh the comments. How many positives vs. how many negatives. Let the girls and their parents decide for themselves.

Knowing what I know now about ICA and RC, I would not go to the PC, also I would not let my daughter or anyone I know go. Why? It’s not what it’s advertised to be. A group that says “we’ll help you discern God’s will” turns into a manipulating, mind controlling, experience that DOESN’T result in girls able to discern, or even see what a vocation looks like because they are so stressed, so anxious, and can’t think for themselves because whatever they DO think, can’t be right unless it’s from their director.

I am aware of some changes that have been made at the PC and in consecrated life. Great! Keep them coming! However, I strongly believe that while RC is under reform they need to CEASE recruitment. If they TRULY care about the people who are showing interest, they would say “you know what, we’re cleaning house, we are happy you are feeling called, but in good conscience we can’t let you join right now because it’s not stable and it wouldn’t be in your best interest. Give us a few years to figure out who we are and what we’re about, and then check back. In the meantime, check out some of the other orders in the church that share so many of our similarities and are STABLE, and have been around for YEARS and have had time to work out all the issues they had.”

I urge you to re-think your decision to take down the comments. I believe if you REALLY care for the girls thinking of coming and really want to HELP RC reform and become TRULY transparent, you will let anyone who comments, comment and let the cleansing of RC and the PC run it’s course.

God Bless you too.

Feel free to stop by the Immaculate Conception Academy Facebook page (If it is still active) and share your thoughts about their program.


Sara’s Story

This is one of a thirty part exposé on the Children of the Legion. This group of women, then girls, in the Regnum Christi, share their stories of abuse, neglect and the aftermath of being children in the Regnum Christi. For a complete list of stories to date, view Children of the Legion.

It’s been over 10 years since I left RI and I’m still trying to process and get over a lot of the anger and bitterness that I feel towards RC. When I started 9th grade, I was really excited about my new “vocation”. A month or two into 9th grade I started to notice a difference in how certain girls were treated (looking back, it was the “leader girls” being groomed for positions). I felt like I could never be one of those sparkling popular girls so I retreated into myself.

Continue reading Sara’s Story

Utilitarianism Of The Regnum Christi Movement

Using People, the Church, and Fear for Their Own Ends
By Giselle Sainte Marie

The act of faith is of its very nature a free act. Man, redeemed by Christ the Savior and through Christ Jesus called to be God’s adopted Son, cannot give his adherence to God revealing Himself unless, under the drawing of the Father, he offers to God the reasonable and free submission of faith. It is therefore completely in accord with the nature of faith that in matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of men should be excluded (Second Vatican Council Documents, Declaration on Religious Freedom, no. 10).

Continue reading Utilitarianism Of The Regnum Christi Movement

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