Cult Awareness Network
|CAN, the Cult Awareness Network|
Logo, (Old) Cult Awareness Network
|Executive director||Cynthia Kisser|
|Key people||Cynthia Kisser, Patricia Ryan, Louis Jolyon West, Margaret Singer, Priscilla Coates, Rick Ross|
|Former name||FREECOG, Citizen's Freedom Foundation (1971)|
The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was an organization created by deprogrammer Ted Patrick that provided information on groups that it considered to be cults, as well as support and referrals to exit counselors and deprogrammers. It was founded in the wake of the November 18, 1978 deaths of members of the group Peoples Temple and assassination of Congressman Leo J. Ryan in Jonestown, Guyana, and was shut down in 1996, though its name and assets were bought and used by the Scientology organization in bankruptcy proceedings who used the name as the title of the unrelated organization, New Cult Awareness Network.
CAN and its representatives were known for being highly critical of Scientology, Landmark Education, and other groups and new religious movements, referring to some of these groups as "destructive cults".
Cynthia Kisser, the then executive director of CAN, was quoted in the controversial 1991 TIME article, "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power". These comments and other forms of criticism from CAN garnered the attention of the Church of Scientology and Landmark Education, and both separately began litigation proceedings against the organization.
CAN was driven into bankruptcy when a court found CAN guilty of having conspired to violate the civil rights and religious liberties of Jason Scott, a Pentecostalist, who had been forcibly kidnapped and subjected to a failed "deprogramming" by Rick Ross, a CAN-referred deprogrammer. The court ordered CAN to pay a judgement of US$1 million. The large award was intended to deter similar conduct in the future; the court noted that the defendants were unable to appreciate the maliciousness of their conduct towards the deprogrammee, and portrayed themselves, throughout the entire process of litigation, as victims of the alleged agenda of the opposing counsel, Church of Scientology attorney Kendrick Moxon. Subsequently, the organization was bought out in bankruptcy court by Church of Scientology attorney Steven Hayes in 1996. As a result of a legal settlement with Landmark Education, CAN agreed not to sell copies of Outrageous Betrayal, a book critical of Werner Erhard, for five years after it emerged from bankruptcy proceedings. Following its bankruptcy, the files of the "Old CAN" were made available to scholars for study and transferred to a university library. Since then, academics who published a joint paper with Kendrick Moxon and later others referencing their work have stated that the "Old CAN" covertly continued to make and derive income from referrals to coercive deprogrammers, while publicly distancing itself from the practice.
The CAN predecessor, Citizen's Freedom Foundation ("CFF"), was founded in the wake of the 1978 Jonestown mass murder-suicide, and was run for a time by Patricia Ryan, the daughter of US Congressman Leo J. Ryan (D-Millbrae, California), who died from gunfire while investigating conditions at the Jonestown cult compound in Guyana. CAN evolved out of the CFF, of which deprogrammer Ted Patrick was "the prime force in organizing." The organization was originally headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. The "Old CAN" collected information on many controversial organizations and religious movements. Actor Mike Farrell was one of the members of the board of advisors of the "Old CAN", and Dr. Edward Lottick served as president. In 1990, the Cult Awareness Network established the "John Gordon Clark Fund", in honor of psychiatrist John G. Clark, who had given testimony about Scientology and other groups. The fund was established to assist former members of destructive cults. By 1991, the Cult Awareness Network had twenty-three chapters dedicated to monitoring two hundred groups that it referred to as: "mind control cults."
The "Old CAN" also became the subject of controversy. Galen Kelly and Donald Moore, both of whom were convicted in the course of carrying out 'deprogramming', are linked to the "Old CAN" by detractors Anson D. Shupe, Susan E. Darnell, and Church of Scientology attorney Kendrick Moxon. Shupe, Darnell, and Moxon charge that the "Old CAN" deliberately provided a distorted picture of the groups it tracked. They claimed it was "a Chicago-based national anticult organization claiming to be purely a tax-exempt informational clearinghouse on new religions". In 1991, Time magazine quoted then CAN director Cynthia Kisser in its article "The Thriving Cult of Greed and Power". Kisser stated: "Scientology is quite likely the most ruthless, the most classically terroristic, the most litigious and the most lucrative cult the country has ever seen. No cult extracts more money from its members". This quote has since been referenced verbatim in other secondary sources discussing Scientology.
The Cult Awareness Network provided referrals to activist members who provided lists of deprogrammers, which in turn provided referrals to deprogrammers. Deprogrammers relied upon CAN to provide a steady supply of paying customers.
These referrals resulted in a "kick-back" to the organization, in form of a 'donation'
According to the (Old) Cult Awareness Network's executive director, Landmark Education and the Church of Scientology were the two groups for which CAN received the highest number of inquiries from concerned relatives – twenty-five per month per group. In an interview, CAN's executive director emphasized that the label "cult" with regard to Landmark Education was not important; but rather greater scrutiny of its practices was needed. Specifically, CAN stressed concerning characteristics, such as "the long hours during which the participant is in the organization's total control, receiving input from only one source, removed from any support system except for the seminar group itself". In 1994, Landmark Education Corporation sued the Cult Awareness Network for US$40 million, claiming that CAN had labeled Landmark Education as a cult. The case itself involved a dispute over the legality and applicable usage of what Matthews termed "cult indoctrination procedures". CAN later settled and made a statement that it did not consider Landmark Education a cult, as part of the settlement agreement.
During the litigation proceedings between Landmark Education and the Cult Awareness Network, Landmark Education spent months attempting to compel legal journalist Steven Pressman to respond to deposition questions aimed at obtaining the confidential sources he used for research on his book about Werner Erhard, Outrageous Betrayal. Though the deposition questions were brought under the pretext of compelling discovery for use in Landmark Education's lawsuit against CAN, Pressman concluded that the deposition questioning was mainly a form of harassment. The discovery commissioner who entered an interim order in the matter, commented that "it does not appear that the information sought [from Mr. Pressman] is directly relevant or goes to the heart of the [CAN] action, or that alternative sources have been exhausted or are inadequate". The action against Pressman was dropped after the Cult Awareness Network litigation was settled. As a result of the Cult Awareness Network settlement with Landmark Education, CAN agreed to cease selling copies of Outrageous Betrayal for at least five years. From the resolution of the CAN board of directors: "In the interests of settling a dispute and in deference to Landmark's preference, however, CAN now agrees not to sell the Pressman Book for at least five years after CAN emerges from bankruptcy". CAN's executive director maintained that the purpose of Landmark Education's lawsuits was not to recover lost funds, but to "gag critics". Along with Scientology, Landmark Education was granted access to Cult Awareness Network's files, which contained phone records and data on individuals who had previously sought information on these groups.
Church of Scientology's response
The Church of Scientology had long characterized the Cult Awareness Network as both an opponent of religious freedom and a "hate group". In 1990, a woman named Jolie Steckart, posing as Laura Terepin, applied to volunteer for the (original) Cult Awareness Network. Bob Minton later hired a private investigator to look into this, and in 1998 discovered that she was actually a "deep undercover agent", who was managed by David Lee, a private investigator hired by the Church of Scientology. Steckart had also attempted to infiltrate the Scientology-critical organization Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network or "FACTnet".
In 1991, over fifty Scientologists from across the United States filed civil suits against the Cult Awareness Network, many of whom used the same carbon copy claims through influence from the Los Angeles, California law firm Bowles & Moxon. In addition, Scientologists filed dozens of discrimination complaints against CAN, with state human rights commissions in the United States. The Cult Awareness Network, which ran on a budget of US$300,000 per year, was unable to cope with this amount of litigation. By 1994, it had been dropped by all of its insurance companies, and still owed tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Kendrick Moxon, chief attorney for the Church of Scientology, had stated that the lawsuits were brought to address discrimination against individuals who wanted to reform the Cult Awareness Network. These fifty individuals had all simultaneously tried to join the organization. When the Cult Awareness Network's executive director turned down the applications for fear that the new Scientologist applicants would overtake control of CAN, they sued in separate lawsuits claiming religious discrimination. Though Moxon handled the litigation for all of the lawsuits, the Church of Scientology maintained that it did not provide the financial backing for the suits. Moxon did acknowledge that his firm Moxon & Bowles had represented the plaintiffs in the case at virtually no charge, and that Scientology churches "helped a little bit, but very little", with the litigation costs.
Daniel Leipold, the attorney who represented CAN in the suits, believed that the Church of Scientology did indeed have a role in the financial backing of the suits, stating, "for every nickel we spent, they spent at least a dollar". Leipold also stated that when he began to take statements from some of the Scientologist plaintiffs in the process of his defense of CAN, "Several of the plaintiffs said they had not seen or signed the lawsuits, even though the court papers bore their signatures". One Scientologist plaintiff told CAN attorneys that he could not recall how he initially got the contact information of CAN officials, or who had asked him to write to the organization. Another Scientologist later fired his lawyer and asked a judge to dismiss his own case against CAN, saying that Eugene Ingram, a private investigator for the Church of Scientology, had paid him three hundred dollars to have lunch where he agreed to be a plaintiff and signed a blank page for Church of Scientology attorneys. CAN attorney Leipold stated, "Scientology planned, instigated, coordinated and sponsored a plan to subject CAN to multiple lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions in order to overwhelm and eliminate it or take it over and control it". Frank Oliver, who was until 1993 an operative in the Church of Scientology's Office of Special Affairs division (OSA), asserted that his last assignment with the OSA branch was to assist Kendrick Moxon in developing a special unit to target the Cult Awareness Network. Oliver stated that this unit was tasked with recruiting plaintiffs to sue the Cult Awareness Network, with the intention that these lawsuits would put CAN out of business. In 1995, members of the Church of Scientology picketed the home of ex-Scientology staff members Robert Vaughn Young and Stacy Young. A Scientology spokeswoman called it "a peaceful First Amendment demonstration to protest the Youngs' involvement with the Cult Awareness Network". In a 2005 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a Church of Scientology spokesperson stated that the Church was not responsible for the litigation leading to CAN's bankruptcy.
Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige appeared in his first ever interview with the media on the program Nightline on February 14, 1992, and was interviewed by Ted Koppel. Miscavige stated that he believed Scientology did not "lend itself well to the press", and he criticized a piece on Scientology that aired on Nightline shortly before his interview. In his criticism of the piece, Miscavige asserted that Nightline correspondents had only interviewed members of CAN, stating, "For instance, something that isn't mentioned in there is that every single detractor on there is part of a religious hate group called Cult Awareness Network and their sister group called American Family Foundation. Now, I don't know if you've heard of these people, but it's the same as the KKK would be with the blacks. I think if you interviewed a neo-Nazi and asked them to talk about the Jews, you would get a similar result to what you have here." Koppel then posited the notion that others critical of Scientology were less apt to come forward and speak publicly due to fears of potential recrimination from the Church. In 1994, the Cult Awareness Network opened a counter-suit against the Church of Scientology, eleven individual Scientologists and the Los Angeles law firm of Bowles and Moxon.
Jason Scott case
In 1995, CAN, Rick Ross and two of Ross's associates were found guilty of negligence and conspiracy to violate the civil rights and religious liberties of Jason Scott, then a member of the Life Tabernacle Church, a small United Pentecostalist congregation in Bellevue, Washington. A CAN volunteer had referred Ross to Scott's mother, endorsing his ability as a deprogrammer. The mother thereupon retained Ross's services. The 18-year-old Scott was forcibly kidnapped by Ross and his associates, held captive and subjected to a failed deprogramming attempt; in the end, he was able to escape and call the police, who arrested his captors. Ross was ordered to pay more than US$3 million in damages; CAN, having referred Ross to Scott's mother, was ordered to pay a judgement of US$1 million. The court found that CAN volunteers had routinely referred callers to deprogrammers. Addressing the defendants, United States District Judge John C. Coughenour said:
Finally, the court notes each of the defendants' seeming incapability of appreciating the maliciousness of their conduct towards Mr. Scott. Rather, throughout the entire course of this litigation, they have attempted to portray themselves as victims of Mr. Scott's counsel's alleged agenda. Thus, the large award given by the jury against both the CAN and Mr. Ross seems reasonably necessary to enforce the jury's determination on the oppressiveness of the defendants' actions and deter similar conduct in the future.
CAN appealed the decision but a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the award, two of the three judges finding against CAN, with the third judge dissenting. The full 9th Circuit court then voted against reconsidering the case. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a final appeal by CAN in March 1999.
Ross had been involved in hundreds of interventions with members of various religious groups over a 15-year period. The large damage award, plus a large number of additional civil tort cases brought against CAN by the Church of Scientology, drove the "Old CAN" into bankruptcy in 1996, and its assets, including records, names and phone numbers, ended up in the hands of Scientologists.
Ross went into bankruptcy as well, but emerged in December 1996 when Scott reconciled with his mother and settled with Ross for five-thousand dollars and 200 hours of Ross's services "as an expert consultant and intervention specialist". Scott fired his attorney Kendrick Moxon the next day and retained long-time Church of Scientology opponent Graham Berry as his lawyer instead.
After Scott fired Moxon, Moxon filed emergency motions in two states and alleged Scott had been influenced by supporters of CAN to hire Berry as his lawyer. "He's really been abused by CAN and disgustingly abused by this guy Berry", said Moxon in a statement in The Washington Post. Moxon, who had argued in the case that Ross and associates had hindered a competent adult's freedom to make his own religious decisions, immediately filed court papers seeking to rescind the settlement and appoint a guardian for Scott, whom he called "incapacitated". That effort failed.
Scott stated that he felt he had been manipulated as part of the Church of Scientology's plan to destroy CAN. According to the Chicago Tribune, Scott and his relatives felt Moxon was not paying enough attention to Scott's financial judgment, and was instead focused on a "personal vendetta" against CAN. "Basically, Jason said he was tired of being the poster boy for the Scientologists. My son has never been a member of the Church of Scientology. When he was approached by Moxon, he was lured by his promises of a $1 million settlement, so he went for it", said Scott's mother Katherine Tonkin in a statement to the Chicago Tribune.
60 Minutes special report
In 1997, two years after the Scott case, CBS News aired a 60 Minutes special on the case. Amongst other things, it discovered that a signatory who had responsible for one of the most damaging affidavits against CAN had renounced his testimony. 60 Minutes also reported that a private investigator could find no evidence regarding CAN's alleged use of deprogrammers. Given this evidence sociologist Stephen Kent concludes that the case against CAN was "weak".
Congress record statement on Waco
In a 1996 joint hearing before the United States Congress on the Waco Siege entitled: Activities of Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Toward the Branch Davidians, it was stated into the record that publicists for the New Alliance Party had circulated a report to Congress and the media called "What is the Cult Awareness Network and What Role Did it Play in Waco?" Testimony was also entered into the record stating, "Their report relied on Linda Thompson, organizations created or funded by the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church" and a "long-time cult apologist".
Demise of the "Old CAN"
The Jason Scott case brought about the demise of the "Old CAN", marking the end of the cult wars—at least in North America. Controversies surrounding new religious movements continued, but the debate thereafter largely moved to other arenas than the courts.
The Jason Scott case in 1995 demonstrated the ongoing involvement of the "Old CAN" in deprogramming referrals. Also, in 1993, deprogrammer Galen Kelly's trial following another botched deprogramming attempt had revealed that the "Old CAN" had, contrary to its stated policy, paid Kelly a monthly stipend during the 1990s.
At the 2000 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Sociologist, Anson Shupe and Susan E. Darnell presented a paper co-authored with Church of Scientology attorney Kendrick Moxon, based on their analysis of the files of the "Old CAN", and raising various allegations against the way the "Old CAN" was operated. Shupe, Moxon and Darnell repeated these allegations in a 2004 Baylor University Press publication entitled New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, edited by Derek Davis and Barry Hankins. They expressed the view that the "Old CAN" could reasonably be described as a criminal organization operating in large part for the profit to certain actors, and that it cultivated a hypocritical and deceptive public persona. They alleged that despite public denials, the "Old CAN" operating policy included routine referrals to coercive deprogrammers, citing, among others, FBI wiretap evidence documenting frequent, casual contact between coercive deprogrammers and Cynthia Kisser, the executive director of the "Old CAN". They further alleged that the "Old CAN" operated as a money laundering scheme, with coercive deprogrammers expected to "kick back" to the "Old CAN" part of the fees they charged families, in the form of direct or indirect donations. Other allegations made by Shupe, Darnell and Moxon included irregularities in finances suggestive of personal enrichment by some "Old CAN" officials, as well as the use of legal and illegal drugs by deprogrammers during deprogrammings, and occurrences of sexual intercourse between deprogrammers and deprogrammees. Shupe and Darnell expanded on these topics in their 2006 book Agents of Discord, referencing their prior work with Kendrick Moxon.
The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements (Oxford University Press, 2004, edited by James R. Lewis) states that the "Old CAN" countered fiscal challenges by soliciting donations for referrals. In a chapter co-authored by David G. Bromley, Anson Shupe, and Susan E. Darnell, the Handbook states that exit counsellors or deprogrammers either made donations themselves, or had client families make donations to the "Old CAN", and that these donations made up as much as one-third of "Old CAN" revenues. While the "Old CAN" was set up as a tax-exempt organization serving educational purposes, coercive depogramming referrals remained an integral part of its economy and response pattern, a contradiction that was concealed, but not resolved by the "Old CAN" publicly renouncing deprogramming while covertly engaging in referrals. Ironically, the authors state, the "Old CAN" was finally "undone by the same kind of civil suit strategy it had employed against NRMs [new religious movements], in a case involving the same type of coercive practices it accused cults of employing".
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