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THE DEFEAT OF ANTICULTISM IN THE COURTS
For many years the legal struggle between minority religions and their critics went back and forth in the courts, so that, throughout the 1980s, it appeared to longtime observers as though the conflict had reached a kind of stasis. It was thus somewhat surprising when, in the 1990s, the scale tipped decisively in favor of the new religious movements. The defeat of anticultism in the courts took place in two distinct arenas: First, mind control/coercive persuasion/brainwashing was rejected as a theory that could have a bearing on the outcome of any legal case. Second, the Cult Awareness Network was sued out of existence in the wake of a deprogramming-related lawsuit. Subsequently, the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) name, mailing address, and phone number were purchased by the Church of Scientology.
The Fishman Decision
For many years, Dr. Margaret Singer, a clinical psychologist, had been the most weighty expert witness in court cases involving the notion of coercive persuasion, popularly known as "brainwashing." Part of her legitimacy as an expert derived from her association with other psychological researchers who had examined American soldiers released from POW camps following the Korean War. Singer had testified in such prominent cases as Katz, Mull, and Molko-Leal, to name just a few.
Her demise as an expert witness began, ironically, with an effort of Singer and some of her colleagues to legitimize the anticult position on mind control within the psychological profession. This group had formed a task force on "deceptive and indirect methods of persuasion and control" within the American Psychological Association (APA). This task force submitted its report to the Board of Social and Ethical Responsibility for Psychology of the APA. The report was rejected by the Board in May of 1987, with the statement that "in general, the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach needed for APA imprimatur." Task force members were explicitly warned not to imply that the APA in any way supported the position the report put forward.
The other document that would be brought forward to discredit Singer was an amicus brief filed by the APA and twenty-three scholars in support of the Unification Church in the Molko-Leal case. Singer had already testified in this case, and the foreword to the amicus brief cast a harshly critical comment in Singer's direction: "APA believes that this commitment to advancing the appropriate use of psychological testimony in the courts carries with it a concomitant duty to be vigilant against those who would use purportedly expert testimony lacking scientific and methodological rigor." The wording at the end of this statement clearly
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echoes the decision of the APA board to reject to task force report, although this brief had been filed before the report had been rejected.
These two rejections subsequently led to the rejection of Singer as an expert witness in a series of cases, culminating in U.S. v. Fishman in 1990. Stephen Fishman had argued that his criminal behavior, mail fraud, had been caused by the Church of Scientology's mind control/thought reform techniques to which he had been subjected. U.S. District Court Judge D. Lowell Jensen reviewed the scientific status of Singer's theories - as well as the related ideas of sociologist Richard Ofshe, whom the defense had also called as an expert witness - in some detail. Ofshe was rejected out of hand as an expert witness. Singer, on the other hand, could testify as a mental health professional, on the condition that she not "support her opinion with testimony that involves thought reform, because the Court finds that her views on thought reform, like Dr. Ofshe's, are not generally accepted within the scientific community." This turns out to be a benchmark decision, which is subsequently used to disqualify Singer and Ofshe from testifying in other cult cases.
Singer and Ofshe then sued the APA and the ASA, alleging that these two organizations had conspired with twelve individual scholars to discredit them. On August 9, 1993, a federal judge threw their suit out of court. They refiled an almost identical suit in state court in California, but this new suit was thrown out in June 1994. Upon appeal, the case was dismissed with prejudice. With this last dismissal, "cultic mind control" was finally demolished in the courts.
The Scott Case and the Demise of the Cult Awareness Network
For many years, the Church of Scientology had invested its legal resources into fighting various governmental agencies - most recently, a host of cases involving the Internal Revenue Service. In 1993, the IRS halted all Scientology-related litigation and extended unqualified recognition to the church and its various affiliated organizations. This action had many different spin-off effects, including the freeing of Scientology's legal resources to fight other enemies. It was thus almost inevitable that the church would turn its big guns on the Cult Awareness Network.
Despite public statements to the contrary, CAN regularly referred worried parents to vigilante deprogrammers. It was in this practice that Scientology found the weak point which eventually brought the organization down. In a criminal case in the state of Washington, deprogrammer Rick Ross and his associates had been referred to the mother of Jason Scott by the Cult Awareness Network. Scott, a member of a Pentecostal church, had Teen handcuffed, silenced with duct tape across his mouth, abducted, and
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forcibly held against his will for days in a failed attempt to destroy his beliefs. The Church of Scientology supported this case in a number of ways, such as by supplying witnesses against Ross and CAN.
When the criminal case failed to convict Ross, the Church helped Scott file a civil suit against his kidnappers and the Cult Awareness Network. The jury in this new case found the conduct of some of the defendants "so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency … atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community," and approved a $4.875 million verdict against Ross and CAN. When the defendants moved to have the verdict set aside as "unreasonable," U.S. District Judge John Coughenour denied the motion, stating:
The court notes each of the defendants' seeming incapability of appreciating the maliciousness of their conduct towards Mr. Scott…. Thus, the large award given by the jury against both 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.
The Cult Awareness Network initially filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, hoping to continue its operations. However, CAN was finally forced to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy in June 1996. When CAN's resources were auctioned to raise money for the settlement, the Church of Scientology purchased the Cult Awareness Network name, phone number, and post office box address.