Presentation of J. Paul Lennon at the International Cultic Studies Association’s Annual Confererence June 25, 2022 at 2: 00 pm
Notes for ICSA Presentation:
Catholic Cults in our Midst?
Catholic Orders and Movements accused of being Cult-like
I begin with two examples of problematic Catholic groups:
The first one re a group in the USA circa 1940s:
A short excerpt from the article: I grew up in a Catholic Cult I had to tell my story before I could accept that.[i]
By Patricia Chadwick
“Mom,” my daughter said in a take-charge tone of voice that reminded me of myself. “There are two things I have to tell you.” It was our first time seeing each other since I shared the manuscript of my memoir with her a couple of months earlier.
“First,” she said, “you need to stop everything until you finish your book. And second, you have to accept the fact that you grew up in a cult.”
I had been working on the book, Little Sister[ii] for eight years, and my daughter, then a junior in college, knew the story of my upbringing within the Saint Benedict Center. [Saint Benedict Center was founded by Catherine Clarke in 1940 as a meeting place for Catholic college students in the Boston area.] I had been taking her to visit my childhood home her entire life.
Her words struck me full-on, and I could answer only one of her demands. “I’m working day and night on it, darling, and I’m almost there,” I replied. But her description of my childhood caught me completely off guard. A cult? My home was a cult?
After the publication of my book, I began to share my story at libraries and clubs and on radio shows around the country. I came to realize that my listening audience agreed with my daughter: I had been brought up in a cult. The signs that I had overlooked were now staring me in the face: blind obedience to an absolute authority, centralized financial control, paranoia about the outside world, separation of families, scorn for those who left the cult. Why had I missed what now seemed so evident?
The Second example is from a present day powerful Latin American Catholic group.
Victims’ lawyer says scandal-plagued lay group could soon be dissolved[iii]
Mar 26, 2022
CRUX |Senior Correspondent
ROME – One of the lawyers defending victims of a scandal-ridden Peruvian (CATHOLIC) lay group has voiced confidence that the civil case he is leading against several of its members will move forward, and he believes the organization could soon be dissolved.
Speaking to Crux, José Ugaz, a named partner with the Benites, Vargas & Ugaz law firm in Peru, said they are “very interested in the dissolution of this institution, which has had a criminal vocation among the highest ranks of its leadership.”
“We also know that at the level of the church, this is being evaluated and it’s possible that the church will make a decision in the coming months,” he said.
The group in question is the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV), one of the largest and most prominent Catholic lay groups in Latin America. It was founded by Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari in the 1970s.
Figari, who is accused of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses, including of minors, was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2017 and prohibited from having further contact with members of the group or making public statements on the matter. He is now living in exile.
The criteria I have used to identify “cult-like”, coercive, high demand, high control, harmful groups are the classic ICSA, Langone et al. Other interesting approachs would be to apply Steven Hassan’s BITE model, Janja Lalich’s, or other reputable criteria to identify groups of concern.
- The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader (alive or dead) and regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s)
- The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and its members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
- The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
- The leader is not accountableto any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
- The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before they joined the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
- The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
- Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and to radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before they joined the group.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money.
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
- Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
- The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.
Note: # 7
Based on the behavior of some Catholic priest founders, I suggested the parenthesis be ommitted. Dr. Michael Langone agreed.
The method is simple, even simplistic: apply criteria commonly accepted in the psychological and cultic fields to the modus operandi, functioning -rather than the modus credendi– of certain Catholic institutes and associations. The results are tentative and open to further discussion. Hopefully, they will be, at least, thought- provoking.
What may be unique about this study is that the groups in question are mostly mainstream Catholic, many are numerous and international, and possessing official Church approval. They are not, per se, maverick or rebellious associations. In fact, many have sprung up as a reaction against progressive movements and are fiercely loyal to the pope, Tradition, orthodox doctrine and Catholic authorities. What do you think?
List of Groups
Here is a list of groups I have studied to some extent:
- American Charismatic Communities
- French Charismatic Communities
- The Opus Dei
- Focolareand the official Catholic Church today
- Communione e Liberazione
- The Neo-Catechumenal Way
- Legionariesof Christ and its Regnum Christi Lay Movement
Smaller Questionable Catholic Groups
Questionable Catholic Groups in Europe
Some lesser-known Catholic groups
the Arch-conservative Pedophile
Miles Christi (Soldier of Christ)
Sodalitium Christianae Vitae (Sodalits)
Example of Method applied to a Group
Legionaries of Christ and its Regnum Christi Lay Movement
Questionable aspects of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi Movement immediately spring to mind:
(cult-like charasteristic #)
- Multiple abusing founder to whom old-guard members still profess veneration and presently attempt to reinstate.
- Leadership cadre appear to have assimilated his modus operandi, including the end justifies the meansand manipulative procedures.
- Main focus on recruiting
- Obsession with fundraising.
As early as 2002, this writer formulated his critique of his former religious order and presented it at an I.C.S.A. conference in Enfield, CT, USA. The presentation was overshadowed by the testimony of Legion early member and Marcial Maciel’s sexual abuse victim, Juan Jose Vaca. However, Lennon’s analysis was accepted by I.C.S.A [iv] for inclusion in its archives, and also appeared on the www.regainnetwork.org page. When the Legion sued Lennon and ReGAIN in August 2007, it demanded this essay be taken down as part of the settlement. The areas pin-pointed by Lennon were:
Besides all the written rules, the Legion operates in the context of several unwritten, undergirding principles, such as
(cc # )
- Do not question the Legion Way and what you are told by your superiors. Never publicly or privately express Dissent.
- One Clearly Defined Meditation Method was imposed on all members, which led to mind-numbing. Members’ time was constant non-stop and strictly regulated, allowing no down time for personal reflection. Lennon stated: “The Legionary’s daily regimen is a constant stream of activities, prayer exercises, and formulas designed to keep him constantly enthused about his calling to the Legion.”
- The essay also illustrated the myriad of rules, norms, and recommendations that dictated in great detail how members should think, act and feel, etc.
Scientific Note: Carmen Almendros[v] from the University of Madrid and International Cultic Studies Association, in her initial studies of the harmful effects of high-demand groups included former members of Opus Dei, Legion of Christ, Regnum Christi and other groups. Several of the Big Seven have come to the attention of ‘cult-watchers’ such as Steven Hassan and Rick Ross, I.C.S.A. and can be searched on their web pages.
The Heralds of the Gospel, case study
The writer was contacted by a former member of this organization in 2014 who expressed his concern after a female friend had just taken her perpetual vows there. He was surprised that this controversial group was approved by the Vatican. A cultish association, TFP, after the death of its founder, transformed itself into the Church-approved Heralds of the Gospel
Wikipedia: “The Heralds of the Gospel (Portuguese: Arautos do Evangelho; Latin: Evangelii Praecones, abbreviated to EP)  is a Roman Catholic International Association of Pontifical Right based in Brazil. Founded by Msgr. João Scognamiglio Clá Dias, the organization is active in 78 countries.
The Heralds of the Gospel are a successor organization to the original Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, and claim heritage to the beliefs of its founder, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. They were created on 21 September 1999 but were only recognized as an “International Association of Pontifical Right”, the first established by the Holy See in the third millennium, on the liturgical feast of the Chair of St. Peter, 22 February 2001.”[vi]
Known for their outfit: a short tunic, with a big red and white cross on the chest, and boots like those of jockeys (see photo), the Heralds have spread to 78 countries, have many vocations, involve thousands of young people, and were supported by Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodè, at the time Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Religious.
The group is under Vatican investigation.
Among other reports which started the Vatican investigation, are the letters and videos sent to Rome by Alfonso Beccar Varela regarding strange exorcisms. For at least thirty years there were rumors of the existence within TFP and then the Heralds, of a sort of secret society, “Semper viva”, involving the cult of Donna Lucilia Corrêa, Plinio Corrêa’s mother, and João Scognamiglio Clá Dias. A cult that the Church does not allow.
The videos uploaded by Alfonso Beccar Varela are frequently moved to other addresses as the Heralds are undertaking legal actions in Brazil to delete them for violating copyright laws. The images show exorcisms performed with formulas not approved by ecclesiastical authority, but above all the footage show (Lennon: improper) encounters between the founder and some priests.
The Minor Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary of Fatima, the Heralds of the Gospel’s church in Embu das Artes, São Paulo (Wikimedia Commons/Webysther Nunes)
Vatican Intervention of Heralds of the Gospel[vii]
- Vatican orders Apostolic Visitation (euphemism for “investigation”) of Heralds in 2017
On 23 June 2017, the Holy See Press Office published a press release expressing how the Congregation, in agreement with the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, had called for “an Apostolic Visitation of the Association known as Heralds of the Gospel, of which the International Public Association of the Faithful of Pontifical Right, Heralds of the Gospel, the Society of Priestly Apostolic Life, Virgo Flos Carmeli, and the Society of Female Apostolic Life, Regina Virginum, are members”.[viii]
· Pope approves Commissioner for “Heralds of the Gospel”[ix]
The Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life announces the Pope’s decision following an investigation of the Association begun in 2017. The Pontifical Commissioner appointed for the Association founded by Msgr Scognamiglio Clá Dias, is Brazilian Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis.
The Vatican stated in this regard: “The reasons for the Apostolic Visitation, and the decision to appoint an Pontifical Commissioner for the Heralds, are linked to shortcomings concerning the style of government, the life of the members of the Council, the pastoral care of vocations, the formation of new vocations, administration, the management of works and fundraising.”
- Heralds dispute the validity of the appointment of the Commissioner on technical/canonical reasons:
“The Commissioner is invalid,” says President
On October 17, the President of the Heralds of the Gospel, Felipe Eugenio Lecaros Concha (Chilean, 60 years old), along with his General Council, received the visit of Don Raymundo Damasceno Assis and Dom José Aparecido Gonçalves de Almeida, appointed commissioner and assist for the “Heralds International Public Association of the Gospel”. The report had access to the minutes of the meeting. In it, the President addresses the following initial words to the prelates:
“We revere you as bishops of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, and as such both are the object of our consideration, but we must declare that we do not recognize Your Eminence as ‘Commissioner’ of the Private Association of Herald stalwarts of the Gospel, which I am the legitimately elected President.”
The President of the Heralds of the Gospel states that the decree notifying the Association Commissioner is simply invalid, and gives the reasons…[x]
- Vatican orders all students at Heralds schools to be sent home at end of academic year [xi]
Vatican City — in a decree dated June 22, 2021, The Holy See instructed the ultra-conservative religious order, the Heralds of the Gospel, to close their boarding schools and send the students home …
Denouncing the “rigid discipline” and the isolation of families, who were gradually cut off from the young boarders, the Vatican decided that, to prevent “abuse of conscience and control”, minors “admitted in any capacity” to the Heralds or living in their houses, colleges and convents, should return “to live with their families and in the care of their parents” before next June.[xii]
- Heralds appeal Vatican order to close schools[xiii]
The Heralds of the Gospel filed an appeal to the decree of Aug. 15 (2021), expressing their disagreement to Cardinal Braz de Aviz and noting that “none of those responsible” for the association “was called to address the complaints” nor were they “granted the possibility of defense.”
The Heralds also noted that the parents who made the decision to send their children to these homes weren’t heard from, and that the people who complained to the Holy See for the most part were not parents of minors.
Those same people, the Heralds’ press office stated, also filed a complaint with the Brazilian civil authorities and the case investigating the physical and psychological abuse of minors “was already adjudicated and dismissed” by the Sao Paulo Court of Justice Aug. 24.
These accusations, “already examined in civil court, were inadmissible,” the Heralds’ press office stated.
Common Characteristics of Harmful Catholic Groups
Help for Concerned Parents, Family, Friends and Prospective Members of Questionable Groups:
As a help to concerned parents and prospective members, instead of a summary, the author will present his list of cult-like characteristics. Besides Tydings’ consideration, the writer has sifted through classical cult characteristics in the psychological and sociological fields (Langone-Tobias, et.al), Catholic attempts such as Peter Vere’s Sifting the Wheat from the Tares[xiv]. The criteria described in the French language book, From Bondage to Freedom, reviewed here have also been most helpful. Based on over thirty years study and experience interviewing and counseling former members and their families of mostly Catholic harmful groups and on the research of the Catholic groups here, the author presents some specific applications of those common “scientific” criteria helpful in examining potentially harmful groups:
- Abusive founder and/or leaders-leadership, including but not limited to abuse of power, exploitation and sexual abuse of members and followers.
- Manipulative/deceptive/ aggressive recruiting of members (young, idealistic, inexperienced, in life transition…),
- Unscrupulous fundraising and fraudulent money-management, “financial irregularities.”
- Insufficient or faulty Discernment of calling and life path.
- Foreclosure (Premature major commitments made suddenly or too early, without due deliberation): for example, giving up all earthly belongings, inheritance, going on a faraway mission, rashly embracing celibacy and the priesthood.
- Isolation from family, friends, and previous support system; exclusion of “outsiders” and former members.
- Systematic Control of Behavior, Information, Thoughts and Emotions (see Steven Hassan’s B.I.T.E. model.
- Leaders’ excessive authority and influence, demanding blind obedience: they directly represent God and speak in his name. Members put them on a pedestal and want to please.
- Superiors and or “spiritual directors” tell members whether or not they “have a vocation,” a special call from God from all eternity binding them to this concrete lifestyle in this specific group.
- Directors’/superiors’/spiritual directors do not explore or respect candidates’ and members’ sexual orientation.
- May tell them to remain single or marry, and whom to marry…
- Want to control when, where and the how a member can leave.
- Black and White thinking prevails; “no half measures”; with selective scripture quotes to bolster: “He who is not with me is against me.” No room for questioning or doubting.
- Emphasis on Discipline, with Unreachable Goals of Holiness or Perfection -often fleshed out in a multiplicity of rules- which lead to obsessive-compulsivity, guilt feelings and low self-esteem. (Naturally, you are going to fall short).
- Community Confession and Shaming (“Chapter of Faults”) may be used; public humiliation; leaders harshly criticize members in public, “make an example” of them. Members are expected to snitch on each other.
- Elitist and Us Vs Them, siege mentality. “We are special, chosen by God”, “others would not understand,” Critics “hate and are out to destroy us, the Catholic priesthood, the Church, His Holiness the pope” …
- Heavy-handed retention: Loss of vocation, sure damnation. Straight to hell! You won’t make it on your own out there. You will fall into serious sin and vices. You are betraying Jesus. Turning your back on God!
- Ostracism/shunning, emotional cut-off and despising exiting and former members: “failures,” “unfaithful,” “traitors,” “disgruntled old men,” “envious,” “vengeful”
- Opponents are harassed, threatened, pursued, and even sued in the name of God, Jesus, Truth, Charity…
Lennon remarks how most definitions of harmful groups contain the mention of a charismatic leader. It is his contention that even when harmful groups are often founded by “malignant narcissists”, such groups are harmful essentially because of their damaging structure and, specifically, by their Modus Operandi, i.e., methods used in recruiting, retaining members and treating dissidents, “throw-aways” and “walk-aways” which often survive the founder. Though at the beginning there is usually the charismatic abusive founder, such abusive behaviors of the founders or leaders are the sirens that alert outsiders to gather more information and examine more carefully the harmful structures and the functioning or Modus Operandi, that perpetuates the various forms of abuse.
A Work in Progress:
This is a work in progress. In my booklet I have studied a smorgasbord of Catholic orders and movements loosely based on their importance, size, notoriety and relevance. There are many other groups in the Catholic Church of which I am unaware or only partially aware and knowledgeable about.
Naturally, I would also like to know whether I have overlooked any other works that have covered the same material!
- If you are concerned about a group that is not mentioned, I would suggest you apply the above criteria; if the group fits a good number of the criteria, then it requires further study: information gathering, articles, questioning by “cult-watch” associations, visiting their centers, testimonies of former members… For Catholics, this could entail discussing the group and your interest with a mature priest or religious…
- Is there a group that is not covered and that you believe should be?
- I would also be obliged if you would let me know so I can give it my attention.
- Are you particularly interested in one of the groups covered?
- Do you know more about one of these groups than I do?
- If so, would you share your info with me, or prefer to write your own study, or co-write with me?
I prefer to be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org to begin our communication
[ii] Little Sister, a Memoir: https://www.amazon.com/Little-Sister-Patricia-Walsh-Chadwick-ebook/dp/B07NF7VZYR/ref=sr_1_1?crid=MMQPYF14AFJ5&keywords=Little+Sister+by+Patricia+Chadwick&qid=1648437095&s=books&sprefix=little+sister+by+patricia+chadwick%2Cstripbooks%2C122&sr=1-1
[xiii] Spanish language article in Religión Digital : https://religion.elconfidencialdigital.com/articulo/vaticano/heraldos-evangelio/20210914030211042283.html?fbclid=IwAR2hgg38rTNSNlvL2GMAnfgN8Pfploc5s1ttQSBarnhgO22EcyZAH-8F2sQ