Encyclopedia of Social Work

19th Edition

National Association of Social Workers

Washington, DC

1997 Update

Preface and Acknowledgments to the 1997 Update

This update of the 19th edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work has been made possible by advances in technology. Because the 19th Edition was produced both in print and CD-ROM formats (as The Social Work Reference Library), it has been possible to revise many of the entries in that edition in the CD-ROM format, as well as to add new entries. The new entries are also being made available in printed format, to supplement the print version of the 19th Edition.



Cults

Susan P. Robbins

Interest in and concern about cults have been typified by controversy since cults first emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The relatively new, small, nontraditional religious groups that proliferated during this period rapidly began to attract the attention of the public and the media (Beckford, 1985; Robbins, 1992). The 1993 armed confrontation in Waco, Texas, between the Branch Davidians and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms generated new public concern about cults. As Beckford (1985) observed, the term "cult" is controversial, and its popular use usually carries pejorative connotations. Cults generally are portrayed as small, unorthodox, possibly dangerous fringe groups whose members are influenced by a charismatic leader (Woodward, Fleming, Reiss, Rafshoon, & Leonard, 1993).

A basic dilemma in examining the phenomenon of cults is that of definition. Traditional distinctions between churches, denominations, sects, and cults have proved problematic in the recent study of new religions, because scholars often disagree about appropriate designations for various groups. Although numerous typologies have been proposed (Anthony & Ecker, 1987; Bird, 1979; Stark & Bainbridge, 1985; Tipton, 1982; Wallis, 1984; Wilber, 1983), there is no single framework for analysis that is currently accepted (Robbins, 1992). Despite varying definitions and typologies, cults are seen as essentially deviant and controversial because of their unconventional beliefs and often total separatism from traditional lifestyles (Beckford, 1985; Robbins, 1992; Shupe & Bromley, 1991).

The new forms of religious consciousness that grew out of the counterculture of the 1960s spawned a wide variety of groups and philosophies. Most scholars now refer to these as "new religious movements" (NRMs) to avoid the pejorative connotation of the term "cult." However, as Beckford (1985) and Robbins (1992) observed, there are no universally accepted distinctions between NRMs and other religious groups.

Although many NRMs are rooted in traditional Western religions, the influence of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religions all provided impetus for the formation of new groups such as the Divine Light Mission, the Unification Church, the Rajneesh Foundation, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Children of God, and the Satanic Church. Other groups, such as the Human Potential Movement, Synanon, and the Church of Scientology are less explicitly religious and were derived instead from developments in modern secular culture (Glock & Bellah, 1976). The terms "cult" and "NRM" are usually applied to controversial groups that have attracted publicity and notoriety (Beckford, 1985).

Because of the problem in defining which groups qualify as cults, it is difficult to obtain accurate information about their prevalence. Estimates of the number of NRM groups reported in the media range from 700 to 5,000 (Woodward et al., 1993). The reliability of these estimates is questionable because they are most often provided by cult-watch organizations that are hostile to NRMs. Estimates of the number of people involved in NRMs are conflictual as well. There have never been reliable data on the actual number of recruits, despite assertions about a massive recruitment effort (Beckford, 1985). According to West and Singer (1980), between 2 million and 3 million Americans are involved in cults. In contrast, Shupe and Bromley (1991) contended that the number of communal NRM members has never exceeded 25,000 at any given time. They argued that the expansion in the definition of the term "cult" to include quasi-therapeutic groups, independent fundamentalist churches, and militant political movements has contributed to misleading estimates.

Although estimates vary, most researchers agree that only a very small portion of the young adult population becomes seriously involved in NRMs (Beckford, 1985; Robbins, 1992). Furthermore, NRMs have been found to have low recruitment and high defection rates. Approximately 75 percent of new converts defect within the first year. Studies have shown that those who do join are typically Caucasian, middle-class, young adults in their late teens and early twenties, and approximately 65 percent to 75 percent are male (Barker, 1984; Beckford, 1985; Galanter, 1989; Shupe & Bromley, 1991; Wright, 1987).

Negative stereotypes of cults as dangerous, extreme, and destructive began to emerge in the mid-1970s. The rise of new religions led to the formation of anticult groups, composed initially of parents concerned about their children's NRM affiliations (Robbins, 1992; Shupe & Bromley, 1991; Victor, 1993). The Jonestown, Guyana, tragedy of 1978, in which charismatic leader Reverend Jim Jones led his devout followers to death by murder or suicide, is widely cited as a turning point in the consolidation of anticult sentiment. Cults, from that point on, were seen "through the lens of Jonestown" as groups of people that were brainwashed into submission and led by a manipulative fanatic (Victor, 1993, p. 9). Public tolerance for NRMs quickly vanished once they were labeled as authoritarian, totalistic, dangerous, destructive, fanatic, and violent.

Religious upheavals in society are not new. When viewed from a historical perspective, negative sentiment about NRMs parallels earlier concerns about religious groups such as Mormons, Roman Catholics, and Christian Scientists. Thus, any meaningful analysis of NRMs and the opposition to them must include an understanding of their cultural, structural, and political contexts (Beckford, 1985; Glock & Bellah, 1976; Jenkins, 1992; Wright & D'Antonio, 1993).

Contemporary Knowledge Base

The cult controversy today is embodied by a polemical debate involving social and behavioral scientists, cult members, former cult members, anticult organizations, therapists, police, and the media. Contemporary knowledge about cults is derived from these often diverse points of view.

The controversy originated in conflicts between cult members and their distraught families who became alarmed about the theologies, practices, and often communal lifestyles of these new religious groups. Even though most converts were legal adults who claimed that their participation was based on free choice, family members levied charges of kidnapping and brainwashing. Police, legislators, psychiatrists, and clergy were unable to offer concrete assistance because of issues of religious freedom (Barker, 1984; Beckford, 1985; Shupe & Bromley, 1991).

Anticult Organizations

As media reports drew national attention to the emerging NRMs, parental concerns and anticult sentiment coalesced into a grassroots anticult movement (ACM). Anticult groups began to coordinate local and regional activities and, by the 1980s, the movement achieved greater organizational stability. Several predominant organizations such as the American Family Foundation, the Citizens Freedom Foundation, and the Cult Awareness Network emerged as ACM leaders.

ACM organizations in the United States have been expressly organized to combat the destructive influence of NRMs and assist those who are adversely affected by them. In addition to monitoring and exposing NRMs as dangerous and destructive, ACM groups actively lobby against NRMs and provide family members with information and services such as counseling, deprogramming, and forums in which family members are able to express their feelings and concerns (Beckford, 1985; Shupe & Bromley, 1991). According to Beckford, ACM organizations "present the most hostile and damaging image of NRMs. . . [and] actively exploit opportunities to publicize their case against cults" (p. 116).

Early ACM groups relied heavily on the services of "deprogrammers" who, for a fee, would forcibly abduct, restrain, and deprogram cult members at the request of their families. Deprogramming was invented by Theodore Patrick, Jr., a community action worker with no formal professional training or academic credentials (Bromley, 1988). Alleging that cult members were victims of brainwashing achieved through the use of drugs, hypnotism, and other forms of coercive mind control, deprogrammers claimed to be able to break cult-induced trances (Shupe & Bromley, 1991). Deprogrammers use a wide variety of techniques, methods, and behaviors. Some rely on coercive, traumatic, vigilante-style operations and engage in marathon confrontations, whereas others use relatively innocuous, noncoercive techniques. The use of noncoercive techniques led to a more current practice termed "exit counseling" (Robbins, 1992; Shupe & Bromley, 1991; Wright & Ebaugh, 1993). As the ACM grew and became more sophisticated, the use of deprogrammers gave way to the new and growing authority of credentialed mental health professionals.

There is now an alliance among established ACM groups and sympathetic social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, social scientists, lawyers, and police. The resulting proliferation of professional newsletters, journals, monographs, and seminars on destructive cultism has given greater credibility to ACM ideology.

Therapist and Client Reports

The prevalent view of mental health professionals who treat former cult members parallels the negative stereotypes espoused in ACM ideology. Clients are labeled "cult victims" or "cult survivors," and therapists rely heavily on psychiatric terminology and diagnoses such as dissociative states, posttraumatic stress syndrome, multiple personality disorder, and cult-imposed personality syndrome to explain the causes, processes, and effects of NRM membership (Mulhern, 1991; Shupe & Bromley, 1991; Victor, 1993). There is also a growing concern among therapists that sexual abuse and exploitation of women and children are central features of most cult environments (Jacobs, 1984; Jenkins, 1992; Victor, 1993). Clinical reports of persistent psychological problems caused by previous cult involvement include depression, loneliness, dissociated states, obsessive review, and uncritical passivity (Galper, 1982; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982; Ross & Langone, 1988; Singer, 1979). These problems are generally attributed to the effects of brainwashing, coercion, or high-pressure recruitment tactics (Addis, Schulman-Miller, & Lightman 1984; Clark, Langone, Schacter, & Daly 1981; Singer, 1979). Recovery is presumed to be a lengthy process, requiring the assistance of trained professionals. Beckford (1985) and Robbins (1992) have pointed out, however, that not all clinicians agree with these views (see Galanter, 1980; Galanter, Rabkin, Rabkin, & Deutsch, 1979; Gordon, 1988; Kuner, 1983; Ungerleider & Wellisch, 1979).

Client reports about horrifying cult experiences originally came from people who were removed from cults against their will and subjected to coercive deprogramming (Beckford, 1985; Bromley, 1988; Wright & Ebaugh, 1993). Although deprogramming continues to be used, contemporary therapeutic techniques rely on more professional methods such as rehabilitation, reentry counseling, and exit therapies, such as promoting voluntary reevaluation and exit counseling. In contrast to deprogramming, these methods are assumed to be noncoercive and voluntary. However, as Wright and Ebaugh (1993) suggested, they may or may not be coercive, depending on the willingness of the client and the orientation of the therapist. Although they use a wide variety of techniques and methods, most exit therapies parallel anticult ideology in their stereotypical portrayal of cults as destructive (Robbins, 1992; Wright & Ebaugh, 1993).

Critics have suggested that public concern about destructive cultism has created an opportunity for mental health professionals to impose a medical model that defines unconventional religiosity as pathology. It has also allowed therapists to develop prestigious roles as cult experts (Robbins, 1992; Shupe & Bromley, 1991).

Media Portrayals

The news media play a seminal role in the general public's understanding and perception of cults. As Beckford (1985) reported, the media have depicted cults as problematic, controversial, and threatening from the beginning. Far from being unbiased, the media tend to favor sensationalistic stories over balanced public debates (Beckford, 1985; Richardson, Best, & Bromley, 1991; Victor, 1993). Rowe and Cavender (1991) found that the choice of sources determines the perspective that the media presents.

Newspaper and magazine reports on cults rely heavily on police officials and cult "experts" who portray cult activity as dangerous and destructive. National television talk shows typically feature cult survivors who give terrifying accounts of their victimization (Richardson et al., 1991; Rowe & Cavender, 1991; Victor, 1993). When divergent views are presented, they are often seen as less credible and are overshadowed by horrific stories of ritualistic torture, sexual abuse, and mind control. Furthermore, unfounded allegations, when proved untrue, receive little or no media attention. Thus, negative stereotypes of cults are perpetuated through uncritical and sensationalized reporting (Bromley, 1991; Wright, 1991).

Empirical Studies

A growing body of literature suggests that NRMs are characterized by an "impressive diversity" that has been "consistently denied or ignored in anti-cult sentiment" (Beckford, 1985, p. 7). Studies of NRMs have shown that their metaphysical assumptions, ideological views, doctrines, organizational structures, range of social relationships, and material resources are quite varied (see Beckford, 1985; Bromley & Hadden, 1993; Glock & Bellah, 1976; Jenkins, 1992). Research on religious conversion has a long history and has produced a wealth of data. Studies on the process of defection and disaffiliation, however, are relatively new (Wright & Ebaugh, 1993).

In contrast to the view that brainwashing and coercive tactics are routinely used and are necessary for indoctrination, the literature suggests that affiliation and conversion are based on complex social and psychological processes and factors (Barker, 1984; Bromley & Richardson, 1983; Lofland, 1977; Lofland & Skovnid, 1981, 1983; Lofland & Stark, 1965; Long & Hadden, 1983; Snow & Machalek, 1984; Snow, Zurcher, & Ekland-Olson, 1980; Stark & Bainbridge, 1980). It has been widely acknowledged that some NRM groups use coercive, manipulative, and deceptive tactics. However, coercion models provide a limited explanation and are not well supported by the numerous studies on affiliation and conversion (Barker, 1984; Bromley & Richardson, 1983; Robbins, 1992).

Researchers have distinguished among recruitment, conversion, and commitment. Recruitment entails joining a group, whereas conversion is a radical transformation of identity and belief. Commitment may vary in intensity, even among those who are converted (Balch, 1985; Greil & Rudy, 1984b; Robbins, 1992). Wright (1991) pointed out that some groups demand higher levels of commitment than do others.

Among the various factors related to conversion are


· an openness to accepting new ideology

· a pattern of seeking (spiritual, religious, philosophical, or self-fulfillment)

· a "turning point" that coincides with group contact

· forming affective bonds within the group

· neutralizing affective ties outside the group

· interacting intensively with group members.

Conversion is also aided by encapsulation (physical, social, or ideological), a process that draws clear boundaries between members and nonmembers and aids in neutralizing bonds with nonmembers (Greil & Rudy, 1984a, 1984b). Research on the role of social networks has also shown interpersonal ties to NRM group members and the absence of countervailing networks to be important factors. The consensus of the numerous studies on conversion is that most recruits voluntarily join NRMs.

Disaffiliation from an NRM may involve one of several processes. It may be initiated by the member (exiting); the group (expulsion); or external agents such as relatives, friends, or counselors (extraction) (Richardson, van der Lans, & Derks, 1986). Wright and Ebaugh (1993) observed that disaffiliation, like conversion, involves complex, multidimensional processes and dramatic shifts of identity.

Research has consistently shown a high rate of turnover and voluntary defection among members of NRMs. In fact, voluntary exit is the most common form of disaffiliation (Barker, 1984; Beckford, 1985; Jacobs, 1984; Robbins, 1992; Wright, 1984). These data have raised serious questions about claims of brainwashing, psychological coercion, and the popular belief that converts need to be deprogrammed. Wright (1991) found that the full range of psychological problems attributed to NRM involvement (depression, dissociated states, obsessive review, and so forth) is also found in the literature on marital dissolution.

Studies on voluntary exits have shown a wide variety of exiting patterns (Beckford, 1985; Robbins, 1992; Wright, 1987). Deterioration of affective bonds within the group, disillusionment with the group's ideology or leadership, dissatisfaction with imposed social restrictions, and family disapproval are important factors in voluntary disaffiliation (Jacobs, 1984; Wright & Ebaugh, 1993; Wright & Piper, 1986).

Differences have been found between members who exit voluntarily and those who have been coercively extracted and deprogrammed. Voluntary defectors are more likely to view their involvement positively, report pleasant memories and rewarding experiences, and feel wiser for the experience. Some experience ambivalence, but few claim they were brainwashed. In contrast, ex-members who have been deprogrammed are more likely to report feelings of alienation, anger, and hostility toward their former groups, and claims of brainwashing are common (Beckford, 1985; Lewis, 1986; Solomon, 1981; Wright, 1988; Wright & Ebaugh, 1993). Several researchers have concluded that stereotypical anticult attitudes are a result of deprogramming rather than negative cult experiences. Some have even suggested that forced intervention and deprogramming may be harmful (see Galanter, 1989; Levine, 1984; Wright & Ebaugh, 1993). (See Robbins, 1992, and Bromley & Hadden, 1993, for a complete discussion and critique of the literature on conversion and disaffiliation.)

Methodological Issues

Research on NRMs has been criticized for numerous methodological problems. The use of ambiguous terminology is prevalent, as are problems involving sampling biases, the use of small samples, a lack of control groups, overgeneralization, and unwarranted causal inferences (Balch, 1985; Robbins, 1992). Two distinct sources of bias permeate most NRM research. First, there are the problems inherent in retrospective interpretation. Because most studies rely on retrospective reports from converts or ex-members, these accounts are likely to reflect thoughts and feelings about the current situation as well. Given the dramatic shift in identity that occurs during conversion and disaffiliation, biographic reconstruction raises serious questions about validity. Client reports are generally regarded by researchers as being unreliable, because successful treatment entails acceptance of the idea that clients have been victimized through brainwashing, trauma, conditioning, and mind control. Wright and Ebaugh (1993) have cautioned that retrospective accounts should be treated as "topics of analysis, not just objective data of past events" (p. 121).

The second type of bias is linked to the interpretive framework used by the researcher. Shupe and Bromley (1991) observed that the medicalization of religious conflict has led to a countermobilization of social science and religion scholars who are sympathetic to NRMs. Much of the research centers around attempts either to prove or to debunk allegations of brainwashing and destructive cults. In this regard Stone (1978) noted that reports of NRMs "may tell us more about the observers than about the observed" (p. 143).

Satanic Cults and Ritual Abuse

Perhaps the most controversial issue arising from the cult debate is that of satanic, ritual abuse. Reports of widespread, organized satanic cults engaging in horrifying rituals began to emerge in the early 1980s. A secret underground cult network was purportedly sponsoring satanic activities that included, among other things, ritualistic torture, sexual abuse, and human sacrifice (Bromley, 1991). Firsthand accounts of satanic ritual abuse came from two primary groups: (1) adults in psychotherapy who claim to have "recovered" previously dissociated memories of being abused in transgenerational cults and (2) young children who were allegedly victims of satanic abuse while in day care (Jenkins, 1992; Jenkins & Maier-Katkin, 1991; Mulhern, 1991; Victor, 1993). Although accounts of transgenerational cult abuse vary, most share common themes and are based on recollections of sexual abuse during early childhood by parents or caretakers. Recovered memories typically include being drugged, brainwashed, and forced to watch or participate in satanic rituals, and this early abuse is alleged to be preparation for a later role in young adulthood as a "devil's bride" or "breeder" who delivers babies solely for the purpose of satanic sacrifice.

By the late 1980s reports of a new crime wave that linked violent crimes to occult practices and satanic worship became common (see Larson, 1989; Raschke, 1990; Schwarz & Empey, 1988). Religions with African and Hispanic origins such as voodoo, Santeria, and Brujeria became linked to satanism because of their use of ritualistic magic and animal sacrifice (Kahaner, 1988).

In an action similar to the response to the religious cult scare of the 1970s, small subgroups of conservative religious leaders, members of family-based groups, mental health professionals, and local law enforcement officers formed a coalition to confront the threat of satanic cults. Claims of ritualistic abuse and kidnapping were disseminated through police and mental health conferences and literature; fundamentalist books, articles, and radio programs; and the mass media (Bromley, 1991; Crouch & Damphouse, 1991; Jenkins, 1992; Victor, 1993).

Satanism, as defined by these groups and portrayed in the media, includes a variety of diverse practices such as kidnappings, ritual sexual abuse, sacrifice of children, cannibalism, blood drinking, animal mutilations, and grave desecrations. In addition, a causal link is proposed between teenage murder and suicide and interest in occult symbols, clothing, and books; heavy metal music; and fantasy games such as Dungeons & Dragons (Bromley, 1991; Lyons, 1988; Victor, 1993). Teenage occult involvement is portrayed as being progressive, beginning with music and fantasy games and leading to satanic graffiti, cemetery vandalism, robbery, animal killing, and murder of humans (see Pulling, 1989).

Four levels of satanic involvement are commonly identified in workshops and literature disseminated by local police and mental health professionals:


1. Dabblers are typically teenagers or young adults who listen to heavy metal music and are interested in occult or satanic games and imagery.

2. Self-styled satanists are criminals who explain or justify their crimes with satanic themes or rationales.

3. Organized satanists are members of organized satanic churches such as the Temple of Set or the Church of Satan.

4. Covert satanists are part of an international network of multigenerational satanists who engage in kidnapping, child abuse, and human sacrifice (Blimling, 1991; Bromley, 1991; Hicks, 1991).

Despite widespread allegations of organized satanic crime, there is no corroborating evidence that such crime exists (Blimling, 1991; Bromley, 1991; Jenkins, 1992; Lyons, 1988; Melton, 1986a; Richardson, et al., 1991; Victor, 1993). Reports of organized satanic ritual abuse, abductions, murders, and animal mutilations have resulted in numerous and extensive police and FBI investigations, all of which have consistently failed to discover conclusive physical evidence to support these claims (see Bromley, 1991; Lyons, 1988; Victor, 1993).

Charges of satanic child abuse made by children, their parents, and ritual abuse experts are often bolstered by testimony from physicians. Current research has shown, however, that many of the alleged physical "symptoms" of ritual abuse are present in nonabused children as well (Nathan, 1989, 1991a). Police investigations and subsequent court proceedings have failed to find any evidence to support charges of satanic abuse in day care settings (Bromley, 1991; Lyons, 1988; Nathan, 1991b; Victor, 1993). Similarly, no physical evidence has ever been found to support the claims of ritual abuse survivors who have "recovered" memories of satanic murder and ritualistic human sacrifice. To date, neither the FBI nor the police have been able to document even one organized satanic cult murder in the United States (Lanning, 1989a, 1989b; Lyons, 1988). In a recent empirical study, Goodman, Qin, Bottoms, and Shaver (1995) investigated both the sources and characteristics of more than 12,000 satanic ritual abuse allegations made in the United States since 1980. They found "no hard evidence for intergenerational satanic cults that sexually abuse children" (p. 48).

In a survey of existing evidence, Melton (1986b) concluded that contemporary satanism takes two forms: (1) open satanic groups that pose no public threat and (2) small ephemeral groups that are transitory and that are composed primarily of teenagers and young adults. The latter are often involved in crimes such as murder, rape, and drug trafficking. Authorities point out, however, that the causal link between crimes committed by self-proclaimed satanists and ceremonial satanic worship is tenuous at best (see Lyons, 1988; Ofshe, 1986; Victor, 1993).

Bromley (1991) observed that proponents of satanic conspiracy theory pose an argument that is virtually irrefutable. The lack of evidence is seen as proof of the successful clandestine operation of the cult. Thus, "sensational claims" of cult survivors are transformed into irrefutable "truths" (Victor, 1993, p. 129). Because of lack of verifiable evidence, the current satanism scare has been dubbed by researchers to be a myth, the result of panic and contemporary legend, and numerous authors have directly compared it to the witch hunts of earlier eras (Bromley, 1991; Jenkins, 1992; Jenkins & Maier-Katkin, 1991; Rowe & Cavender, 1991; Victor, 1993). Ritual abuse experts, however, eschew the need for concrete evidence and firmly believe in the existence of a conspiratorial organized underground satanic network (see Beere, 1989; Braun, 1989; Braun et al., 1989; Kaye & Kline, 1987). In a systematic rhetorical analysis of satanic ritual abuse claims, deYoung (1996) concluded that the persistence of such claims is the product of their persuasive warrants rather than compelling facts. She noted that despite the lack of evidence, "these implicit 'self-evident truths' resonate well with recent cultural concerns about the vulnerability of children to abuse, and the satanic cult menace" (p. 70).

Recovered Memories

The issue of satanic ritual abuse is embedded in an even more controversial debate about the nature, validity, and accuracy of memories involving traumatic events. Adult clients who have "recovered" previously amnesic memories of ritual abuse in their childhood are a primary source of reports. This controversy, in turn, is part of a larger debate about recovered memories of incest and sexual abuse in general.

Recovered memories typically involve terrifying flashbacks, body memories, and images that some therapists believe are real, if not exact, memories of abuse that occurred years or decades earlier. Unhappy adults, mostly women, report memories that surface during therapy, while attending self-help conferences, or while reading popular books about incest recovery. Some memories surface spontaneously with no apparent stimulus. Contemporary explanations of repressed memory rely heavily on current psychiatric theory that attributes such phenomena to trauma-related and dissociative disorders. Some contend that different physiological processes are involved in encoding traumatic memory and regular memory (see Wylie, 1993b). Both the clinical and social scientific research communities remain divided on this issue.

Professional Debate

Proponents strongly believe in the veracity, if not the accuracy, of recovered memories. Although specific details may be vague or contradictory, therapists note that the emotional anguish expressed by their clients is real. They argue that society is just now discovering the true extent of childhood sexual trauma, reports of which had historically been attributed to irrational, hysterical women who could not separate fact from fantasy (Wylie, 1993a). A growing body of professionals now believes that childhood sexual abuse underlies much contemporary psychopathology (Ellenson, 1989; Rose, Peabody, & Stratigeas, 1991; van der Kolk, Brown, & van der Hart, 1989).

Failure to believe reports of ritual abuse has been compared to earlier professional skepticism about child sexual abuse (Sexton, 1989). Cult therapists contend that recovered memories of ritual abuse should be believed because they remain unchanged while the client is under hypnosis and the memories are internally consistent. They note that survivors who have never met give similar accounts of satanic abuse (Mulhern, 1991).

However, not all clinicians who accept the theory of dissociated sexual trauma believe satanic ritual abuse allegations. Skeptics cite extensive research demonstrating that memory is reconstructed and is often subject to inaccuracy, alteration, distortion, and fabrication (Cole & Loftus, 1987; Lindsay & Read, 1994; Loftus, 1993; Zaragoza, 1987). Controlled studies on hypnotic age regression have shown that memories evoked under hypnosis can be erroneous. Furthermore, people who meet the diagnostic criteria for multiple personality disorder have been found to be easily hypnotized and highly suggestible while in a trance state (Mulhern, 1991).
Critics contend that therapists, either consciously or unknowingly, evoke false memories of abuse through their therapeutic techniques (see Goldstein & Farmer, 1994; Ofshe & Watters, 1994; Pendergrast, 1996; Wakefield & Underwager, 1994; Yapko, 1994). These critics assert that it is the therapists, rather than the alleged abusers, who are victimizing their clients with unsubstantiated theories and personal agendas. They note that there is little or no evidence that sex abuse causes the array of psychiatric symptoms attributed to it. Furthermore, studies on verifiable traumas have consistently shown that vivid (but not always accurate) memories of traumatic events are common (Leopold & Dillon, 1963; Malmquist, 1986; Pynoos & Nader, 1989; Strom et al., 1962; Terr, 1979, 1983). Similarly, studies have shown that people usually remember their past abuse (Femina, Yeager, & Lewis, 1990; Loftus, Polonsky, & Fullilove, 1994; Williams, 1994).

In addition, the empirical evidence on posttraumatic stress does not support the theory of repressed or dissociated memory. In a thorough review of 60 years of research on repression, Holmes (1990) concluded that the concept of repression is not supported by reliable evidence. Critics fear that uncritical acceptance of recovered memories may result in societal disbelief in genuine cases of abuse (Loftus, 1993; Mulhern, 1991; Wylie, 1993a; Yapko, 1993).

Several studies (Briere & Conte, 1993; Herman & Schatzow, 1987; Loftus et. al. 1994; Williams, 1994) have been widely cited as evidence for repression. Close examination of each of these studies has revealed serious methodological limitations that restrict their ability to fully support such claims (Lindsay & Read, 1994; Loftus, 1993; Pope & Hudson, 1995; Robbins, 1995). Examples of methodological limitations include the use of composite cases and nonrepresentative samples, poor specification of methodology, possible suggestion during therapy, little or no amnesia in most cases, and the failure to use follow-up interviews in prospective studies when subjects do not acknowledge abuse when asked by a researcher. Without a follow-up interview it is impossible to determine whether failure to disclose abuse is due to repression, normal forgetting, the wish not to disclose a remembered event that is painful, or normal infantile amnesia.

It is well documented that events prior to the age of two or three are rarely retained in adulthood, and memories up until the age of five are generally sketchy. This phenomenon, called "infantile amnesia," is developmentally based and unrelated to trauma (Fivush & Hudson, 1990; Loftus & Ketcham, 1994; Usher & Neisser, 1993).

Longitudinal research by Femina et al. (1990) has established the importance of a follow-up interview. In her study, those who initially denied or minimized their past abuse to the researchers acknowledged in a second "clarification" interview that they remembered their abuse but chose not to disclose it for a variety of reasons.

Several more recent studies (Grassian & Holtzen, 1996; Herman & Harvey, 1996; Kluft, 1996; Whitfield, 1996) have also claimed to substantiate the phenomenon of repression or dissociation through later corroboration of the trauma. The retrospective nature of each of these studies imposes methodological limitations that render such claims questionable. This does not mean that childhood abuse cannot be forgotten and later recalled. The question that remains unanswered is whether this is a result of repression, dissociation, or more common processes involving delayed recall that are unrelated to trauma. There is a pressing need for carefully designed studies to test the existence and prevalence of repression. Pope and Hudson (1995) have suggested that future studies use a prospective design such as that used in the Williams (1994) study, have strict criteria for inclusion, and use clarification interviews similar to those used by Femina et al. (1990). To date, there are no studies that conclusively demonstrate the existence of repression or the type of dissociative amnesia that is hypothesized by traumatologists.

Mulhern (1991) observed that "cultified" therapy sets up a preexisting belief filter that interprets all client responses as evidence of ritual abuse. In this context, recovered memories depend more on the beliefs of the therapist than on the history of the client. Similarities in ritual abuse stories have been attributed to a "rumor panic" involving a cross-contamination of ideas spread by fundamentalist groups, the media, ritual abuse training seminars, and therapists and clients themselves (Bromley, 1991; Jenkins & Maier-Katkin, 1991; Lyons, 1988; Mulhern, 1991; Victor, 1993).

In the absence of corroboration it remains difficult, if not impossible, to determine the validity of recovered memories. According to Wylie (1993a), the truth lies "all across the spectrum, from one extreme to the other" (p. 73). It is possible that some abuse allegations are fully accurate, some are partly accurate, and some are totally false. Currently there are no widely accepted standards for determining the circumstances or conditions for accepting reports of abuse that are based solely on recovered memories. The American Medical Association (AMA) has already developed policies related to the use of hypnosis and memory enhancement techniques to recover memories of childhood sexual abuse. In June 1994 the AMA Council on Scientific Affairs recommended amending a policy on memory enhancement to state that "The AMA considers recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse to be of uncertain authenticity, which should be subject to external verification. The use of recovered memories is fraught with problems of potential misapplication." (AMA, 1994, p. 4).

In June 1996 the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) issued a practice statement on the evaluation and treatment of adults with the possibility of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, developed by the NASW National Council on the Practice of Clinical Social Work (National Association of Social Workers, 1996). This statement cautions social workers to:

· establish and maintain an appropriate therapeutic relationship with careful attention to boundary management

· recognize that the client may be influenced by the opinions, conjecture, or suggestions of the therapist

· not minimize the power and influence he or she has on a client's impressions and beliefs

· guard against engaging in self-disclosure and premature interpretations during the treatment process

· guard against using leading questions to recover memories

· be cognizant that disclosure of forgotten experience is a part of the process but not the goal of therapy

· respect the client's right to self-determination. (p. 2)

False Memory Syndrome

Further complicating this debate are criminal and civil charges that clients are often encouraged to file against family members as part of their recovery process. In response, families who contend that they have been falsely accused have joined together with professionals to form the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, a support and advocacy organization. The foundation also promotes and sponsors scientific and medical research on memory, suggestibility, and repression and disseminates the results to the legal and mental health professions and the general public. Members charge that parents and children have become innocent pawns in a profit-oriented sex abuse industry. Their position is bolstered by people who have recanted abuse accusations, claiming that their therapists pressured them into telling melodramatic stories of ritual abuse that never happened (Jaroff, 1993; Ofshe & Watters, 1993).

Wylie (1993a) observed that the polarization of professional opinion makes it unlikely that this controversy will be settled by research or discourse. In-depth discussions of this debate can be found in Calof (1993), Crews (1995), Loftus (1993), Mulhern (1991), Pendergrast (1996), Robbins (1995), Wylie (1993a, 1993b), and Yapko (1994).

Implications for Social Work Practice

Social workers who work with either cult members or their concerned families should first become acquainted with the full range of clinical and social scientific literature on the topic. Too often, clinicians receive training or information that only stereotypes cults as destructive and supports the prevalent anticult movement ideology. The scant social work literature on this topic reflects these negative cult stereotypes (see Addis et al., 1984; Bloch & Shor, 1989; Goldberg & Goldberg, 1982). Because of the polemical debate that has shaped research and practice, social workers must be fully informed to evaluate critically these disparate ideological positions and the adequacy of the research that supports them.

Practice should always be guided by a commitment to social work values and ethics. Specifically, the affirmation of client dignity and individuality and the right to self-determination are essential. Weick and Pope (1988) suggested that self-determination entails a belief in people's inner capacities to know what they need to fully live and grow. Thus, an appreciation of individuality must concomitantly include a respect for diversity in lifestyles, cultures, and religions.

In addition, social workers need to be fully aware of their own biases about NRMs to prevent them from interfering with treatment. A priori assumptions about the destructive nature of cults may lead to an ideological stance that devalues diversity. The imposition of one's personal values and beliefs is antithetical to self-determination and may engender resentment from clients (Hepworth & Larson, 1993).

Because most new converts are young adults, it is not uncommon for NRMs to recruit on college campuses. Students who are considering joining such groups should be encouraged to learn about the group's beliefs and the degree of commitment required. Some groups require converts to sever ties with friends and family members and may require substantial donations of money or possessions. Blimling (1990) suggested that soapbox forums be used to provide an opportunity for NRMs to express their beliefs in a setting in which their views can be openly debated and challenged.

Social work practice with cult members or their families may entail a variety of social work roles including consultant, counselor, therapist, advocate, mediator, and educator. It is important to recognize that the goals and desires of families seeking assistance often conflict with those of their children, who may wish to maintain their cult affiliations.

Bloch and Shor (1989) suggested that in working with concerned families, the initial role should be one of consultation. Given the diversity that characterizes NRMs, the social worker should have specific knowledge about the group involved. Parents of cult members often hold stereotypical images of cults and need accurate information about the beliefs, practices, and structure of the group their child has joined. Thus, the educational component should be an explicit part of consultation.

Most NRM groups frequently rely on various forms of encapsulation to weaken bonds between members and nonmembers, and families often feel confused, afraid, and helpless when the cult member begins to sever family ties. In addition, parents may overtly disapprove of the specific religious beliefs, practices, and lifestyle their child has chosen. A counseling or therapeutic role may be necessary to aid parents in coping with their feelings about their child's cult involvement. Bloch and Shor (1989) stressed the importance of receptivity and flexibility in reaching out to an estranged child.


Most cult members defect on their own; few seek professional help in severing cult ties. More commonly, parents, friends, and anticult groups attempt to pressure cult members into reevaluating their cult involvement. Sometimes exit counseling occurs after a member has already defected (Wright & Ebaugh, 1993).

When working with either current or former cult members, the label of "cult victim" should be avoided because it engenders a predisposition to view the cult experience in a negative light and will likely set up a barrier to effective and accurate assessment. It is especially important to be sensitive to the client's own perceptions about his or her cult involvement. Because some groups do use manipulative and deceptive recruitment techniques, it may be necessary to explore feelings of betrayal or disillusionment. Assessment should include not only the extent of involvement, but the degree of commitment as well (Wright, 1991). Intervention strategies should be based on mutually negotiated goals and should not be coercive.

When working with clients who have possible recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, it is critical that social workers adhere to NASW guidelines in this area. In addition to maintaining current skills and knowledge in the areas of trauma and memory, social workers must develop a treatment plan that is "based on a complete psychosocial and diagnostic assessment," which includes an evaluation of the client's "total clinical picture including symptoms and level of functioning" (NASW, 1996, p. 2). It is also important to be cognizant of legal issues and issues related to risk management.

Finally, as Mason (1991) cautioned, social workers should be careful not to assume dual roles of investigator and therapist. If allegations of child abuse, ritual abuse, or cultic crime surface, they should be referred to the proper authorities for investigation.

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Further Reading

Beckford, J. A. (Ed.). (1986). New religious movements and rapid social change. London: Sage Publications.

Choquette, D. (1985). New religious movements in America: An annotated bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Richardson, J. T. (Ed.). (1988). Money and power in new religious movements. New York: Edwin Mellen.

Shupe, A. D., & Bromley, D. G. (1985). A documentary history of the anti-cult movement. New York: Edwin Mellen.

Terr, L. (1994). Unchained memories: True stories of traumatic memories, lost and found. New York: Basic Books.

Wright, L. (1994). Remembering Satan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Susan P. Robbins, DSW, is associate professor, University of Houston, Graduate School of Social Work, Houston, TX 77204-4492.

For further information see: Adolescence Overview; Behavioral Theory; Child Abuse and Neglect Overview; Child Sexual Abuse Overview; Clinical Social Work; Cognition and Social Cognitive Theory; Conflict Resolution; Ecological Perspective; Ethnic-Sensitive Practice; Families: Direct Practice; Goal Setting and Intervention Planning; Interviewing; Intervention Research; Mass Media; Sectarian Agencies; Social Work Profession Overview; Victims of Torture and Trauma.

Key Words
cults
new religious movements
recovered memory
satanic ritual abuse

Note: The sections "Recovered Memories" and "Implications for Social Work Practice" were updated by the author in 1997.