James T. Richardson
NEW RELIGIONS AND CHILD ABUSE ACCUSATIONS: SOCIAL PROBLEM OR SOCIAL CONTROL?
by James T. Richardson, J.D., Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies
Director, Center for Justice Studies
University of Nevada, Reno
Paper prepared for presentation to the annual meeting of the Australian Sociological Association, held at Macquarie University, Sydney, December 10-12, 1993.
The paper is a revision of one presented earlier at the biannual meeting of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion, Budapest, Hungary, July, 1993.
The revision was done while on sabbatical as a Visitor at the University of Sydney Law School, Department of Jurisprudence, the support of which is appreciated.
Social control efforts concerning new religion movements - popularly known as "cults" - have taken many forms in the U.S. and elsewhere over the past two to three decades that such groups have become defined as a social problem in some societies. This paper will outline some of the earlier efforts at social control attempted by detractors of such groups, and discuss the use of a major new tactic, child abuse accusations, which might be termed the "ultimate weapon” or "nuclear bomb" of social control efforts against newer and more exotic religious groups.
EARLY HISTORY OF SOCIAL CONTROL EFFORTS
When some of the new religious groups first came to public attention in America in the late 1960s they were initially viewed as a curiosity, even a positive one, because many thought it better for young people to be living in communes in Northern California than to be in the streets demonstrating against the Viet Nam War or racism in American society. However, the tide soon turned, as Americans became aware that some of the groups were quite "high demand," and that they were serious about changes in lifestyle and careers, while promoting beliefs and values some of which were quite different than those that were dominant in America.
The shift in thinking about the groups was in large part related to the target population for such groups - young, relatively we11 educated and affluent youth in America (see, for instance, Wuthnow, 1978; Richardson, et al. 1978). The social location of most participants in the new groups meant that their families were well positioned to bring attention to this new social problem, that of young people joining new religions, and to cause problems for the new groups. In short, some disenchanted parents knew just what "buttons to push" to gain attention from politicians, bureaucrats in governmental agencies, and, most importantly, the media.
Some groups, particularly the Unification Church ("Moonies") and the Children of God, attracted early negative attention from some parents who did not want their sons or daughters giving up promising careers and a "normal" lifestyle to begin missionary activities and fundraising on the streets of America, or even worse, to be sent away as missionaries to foreign countries. Thus, the "anti-cult movement" was born in America, as groups of concerned parents and sympathizers coalesced in various locales in America to counter what they were now defining as a major social problem (Shupe and Bromley, 1980).
The media was predictably very sympathetic with these early efforts, and began to frame stories around the theme of "cults stealing children," and "destroying families." This framing of so-called "cult stories" had a predictable effect, leading to very negative feelings about such groups among the populace in America (see Richardson and van Driel, 1989; Richardson, 1992; and Bromley, 1992, for reports of public opinion surveys about the new religions) Thus began a long saga of efforts at social control of the new religions, as parents and others in the ACM experimented with efforts to get authorities to exercise some control over these now much-reviled groups.
Efforts to exert direct influence or control over newer religious groups had some impact, most notably in furnishing grist for the media mill to turn out stories about cults stealing children or causing misery for families. Thus, media coverage of special legislative or congressional hearings or statements by politicians or others on the "cult problem" presented the anti-cult view usually quite faithfully in stories. However, such attacks were not immediately successful in terms of getting the state to exercise direct control over the activities of exotic religious groups. A major inhibitor for such control has been the First Amendment protection afforded religious groups. Although not inviolate, this protection has had a deterrent effect on governmental agencies, particularly as compared with what has happened in other Western societies which have not been "hindered" by a constitutional protection like the U.S. freedom of religion (see Richardson and van Driel, 1994).
However, as has been noted elsewhere (Richardson, 1994), there has been a gradual buildup of state control of minority religions in the U.S., with the legal system showing a willingness, over time, to allow much more control of the groups. Thus, for instance, traditional rights to proselytize and raise money have been inhibited through action by authorities that has been often sustained in the courts. Other actions have been allowed by the courts, as well, such as allowing the imposition of zoning laws to efforts of some newer groups to build communes or "churches" in certain area where residents did not want them. Allowing civil suits to proceed against the groups by former members, many of whom have been deprogrammed, has also had a major impact on the groups, with a number of multi-million dollar civil judgements being rendered by juries (Anthony, 1990, Richardson, 1991; Bromley and Robbins, 1993).
Tactics which have been used against the new religions often have been based directly or indirectly on accusations of "brainwashing " and "mind control" of recruits, and allegations of illegal or immoral actions involved in how the groups raise and spend money. Both these areas of concern center around alleged exploitation of participants, who are often young adults. These two areas of concern being promoted by opponents of the groups have gained prominence within media accounts of the groups, which have typically been "atrocity tales," and public opinion research reveals that such views of the new religions as exploitative have become widespread (Bromley and Breschel, 1992; Richardson, 1992).
Such claims of exploitation have underpinned social control efforts by state authorities that have taken several specific forms. Included have been direct legal actions by federal authorities such as the Internal Revenue Service, which has sometimes revoked tax exempt status, or refused to grant it to some of the newer groups. Sometimes the IRS has charged newer religious groups huge bills for past due taxes, charges that have taken significant resources to fight, usually unsuccessfully. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has often refused to allow members and leaders of newer religious groups to enter the country, and has made efforts to deport some of those who have managed to get into the U.S.
The Federal Justice Department has decided not to bring federal kidnapping charges against people who have kidnapped members of newer religions for purposes of "deprogramming” them. The Justice Department also was responsible for the decision to bring tax evasion charges against Reverent Moon, when he ^id not declare income on his personal taxes for some dividends from stocks and bonds-that were claimed to be the Church's, but held in his personal name (a not uncommon way to handle church finances in America). (The Justice Department was also ultimately responsible for the tragedy that happened at Waco recently, when extremely heavy-handed tactics were used against a group, that while not particular new, was still a minority religious group.)
The U.S. Congress has also gotten into the act, holding hearing and issuing reports on the new religions, which are often referred to as "cults." The tragic death of Congressman Leo Ryan in Guyana occurred during an investigation of the People's Temple group, which although not a "new religion" in one sense (Richardson, 1980), was lumped with other so-called "cults" in the media at the time. Other groups such as the Unification Church has also been a major focus of Congressional attention over the years, with special hearings- and reports being made. Indeed, it was because of the efforts of Senator Bob Dole that the investigation of the Unification Church was begun by the IRS which culminated in the tax evasion case against Rev. Moon.
State governments have also entered the fray, with a number of state legislatures issuing reports about the "cult menace," and making many efforts to pass legislation limiting the activities of such groups. Such efforts have usually not been directly successful, again because of the protections afforded minority religions under the U.S. Constitution. However, such efforts helped "educate" the populace and set a tone for dealing with such groups by others, including state agencies. State level efforts have perhaps been some of the most damaging of newer religious groups, if only because much attention is paid to state politics in the various states, since it usually deals more with directly local concerns and the people involved may be known to the general public who read the media accounts.
Perhaps the most "successful" attempt to deal with one of the newer religious groups occurred in the state of Oregon, where the combined efforts of state government, coupled with key assistance from some agencies of the federal government, resulted in the demise of the large Rajneesh community that had settle in Eastern Oregon in the early 1980s (Richardson, 1990). The State Attorney General issued a directive that all state agencies were not to cooperate with the group, based on the notion that to do so would violate the U.S. and state constitution prohibitions against the establishment of a state religion. This creative legal theory was officially adopted by Oregon, eventually sanctioned by the federal court system, and was a major part of the reason why the group eventually withdrew, after a spate of illegal actions by group members prompted in part by the attacks by the state against the group.
Local authorities have also gotten into the social control of new religions act in several ways. Zoning laws are usually local, and thus are set and enforced by local authorities. Efforts to live or locate in certain areas has often been contested, with considerable success. Solicitation laws are also sometimes local, and thus, when a group wants to raise money, it must work with local authorities. Such laws are not supposed to discriminate between religious groups, and solicitation has usually been allowed under precedents established decades ago in the law. However, in recent years the legal system, up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court, has allowed some creative legal theories to prevail which have had the effect of disallowing many forms of solicitation, for instance in airports or shopping centers, on the street, and in public gatherings. Local police also are sometimes involved in efforts to deprogram members of such groups. They have often "turned their heads" and avoided any effort to stop an abduction and deprogramming of group members, even though such actions were taken by parents and hired deprogrammers without the support of the person being deprogrammed. Again the legal system has sanctioned such actions by usually refusing the charge people with kidnapping, or, when such charges are brought, the deprogrammers are usually not found guilty by juries. The defendants in such cases having used a creative "choice of evils" defense to extricated themselves from the legal dilemma. They simply claim that it would be greater evil to leave a person in the group than to kidnap them out, and public sentiment has allowed that defense to prevail in most such cases.
NEWER SOCIAL CONTROL EFFORTS
In spite of all these efforts at social control, some of the groups have persisted and even thrived. Indeed, some of the groups have been able to turn the opposition to them to their advantage, interpreting it as a sign of prophecies being fulfilled and that they must be doing something right if such powerful entities are attacking them (Barker, 1983). The attacks have also had the effect of letting some potential members know about the existence of the groups, and that they stand in opposition to a society that is not viewed favorably by all its members.
However, the attacks have had some negative impact on some of the groups and on the idea of participating in a newer religion in general. There does not appear to be the level of interest among young people that seemed the case in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in part because the target population itself is smaller, but also because of the negative sentiment expressed in many ways about such experimentation. Nonetheless certain of the groups have managed to maintain themselves, and even grow and spread around the world more in the face of such negative attention.
As the groups have continued to exist, they have experienced the predictable effects of membership getting older, and have become somewhat "domesticated” (Richardson, 1985). Individual members have formed families, and many have had children, some quite large numbers of them because some groups (but not all) did not sanction birth control. As the groups with children have been forced to focus more and more of their efforts inward in order to support their growing families, they have usually become much less radical in terms of the activities and behaviors in which they might have engaged in their earlier years when not inhibited by family concerns. Having children has often been a notorious way of causing people to live more ordinary and thus respectable lives.
But, even as some of the groups have "settled down" to more normal forms of existence, as they worry about supporting their families and earning a living, they have become vulnerable to a major new form of social control tactic against them. The very presence of children in some of the groups makes them vulnerable to Western society's growing concern about the welfare of children (Best, 1990). Newly developed child protection bureaucracies swing into action when child abuse is alleged, often accompanied by the authority of representatives of police agencies. Such agencies are quick to respond to such claims, as they are trying to justify their existence, expand their role, and, of course, attended to the goal of stopping child abuse.
The enforcement of new mandatory reporting and investigation laws means that the power of the state can be unleashed against anyone, including a newer religion, simply by someone making a claim that child abuse is occurring. Thus, it has become quite commonplace to accuse newer religious groups and their members of child abuse, which brings into play a wide range of enforcement mechanisms associated with the newly developed laws and regulations in the area of child welfare.
We have seen a spate of cases of child abuse type charges being brought against a few individual members of minority religions. Perhaps the most well known are situations involving the withholding of modern medical treatment of ill children, based on religious beliefs. The Christian Scientist Church has borne the brunt of such charges, as the change in public sentiment about welfare of children has over-ridden exemptions placed in many state and federal laws explicitly allowed the use of such "spiritual healing" (Richardson and Dewitt, 1992). However, the new tactic of social control against newer religious groups involves a quite different type of claim (Wentzel, 1990).
The new claim is that all children in certain groups are being harmed, just by being in a group which has beliefs and practices believed by some to be harmful to children.
This collective level accusation of child abuse is something new, and the laws in the U.S. and some other countries are not designed to deal with it, as will be shown. Such laws were designed to deal with individual perpetrators of child abuse, not with the idea that child abuse was occurring just by the child existing in certain circumstances. Indeed, the laws concerning child abuse were deliberately designed to avoid saying that child abuse resulted from living in poverty.
Such a position would have led to many lower class people being branded as child abusers by societal authorities, just because of limited family resources. Such a position also would have implied that society needed to do something about poverty, a position which those designing such laws usually were not intending.
Such collective level accusations of child abuse against newer religious groups have taken many forms. Accusations of child abuse have been made because some groups home school their children because of group beliefs that public school systems are too secularized and even evil. Accusations have been made that children are abused, because of the fact that corporal punishment was being used on them (Wentzel, 1990). Indeed, there have been a few very widely reported cases of children dying after having been beaten by parents who were members of a group that believed in corporal punishment. Such isolated cases have fueled the emotions of the general public, encouraging control agents to exert themselves more in terms of collective child abuse accusations. Accusations of child abuse have also been made simply because of the low living standard that exists in some of the religious groups in which there is not enough money to support a typical middle class type of existence and lifestyle, including eating habits. Such accusations are problematic, of course, because in American society huge numbers of children live in poverty without the blessing of being members of newer religions, so obvious selective treatment questions can be raised about using such claims against poorer religious groups.
The "ultimate weapon" or "nuclear bomb" of such collective child abuse accusations are, of course, those involving claims of child sex abuse. Such charges have been brought in recent years against a number of different religious groups in several different countries (Wentzel, 1990; Richardson, 1993.). Most newer religious groups are vulnerable to such claims, if only because they live communally. Attitudes toward communal living are not generally positive in American society, and many people seem to assume that communal equates to sexual freedom, if not license. This attitude is in some sense a product of history, as Some of the communal experiments of the 1900s in America certainly involved well known different approaches to sexuality. Also, the sexual revolution associated with the hippie generation of the 1960s was seen by all on television and in movies, and perhaps even personally on the streets of America. The idea of a hippie commune in the minds of many Americans was a place where sex was carried on with little or no restraint.
New religious groups living communally in the 1960s and 1970s were often accused of sexual deviance, even if some of the groups kept strict control of sexuality through rigorously enforced rules about cross sex contact and sex outside of marriage. Some even practiced a form of celibacy for members who were not married, and limited sex between married couples to procreative purposes only. Yet the rumors persisted that newer communal religions were engaged in strange sexual practices involving sexual license, not control.
One reason the rumors persisted, of course, is that there was some truth to the rumors with specific groups among the newer religious phenomena that were attracting such attention. This should not be surprising, of course, as groups gained members from a generation that was experiencing the sexual revolution, with different values and practices associated with sexuality than had been the case in America. Some of the new religions developed very creative ways to integrate a more experiential approach to religion, including an emphasis on sexuality, with belief systems usually not associated with strongly held belief systems, such as Christian fundamentalism. One well known, even notorious group, the Children of God, promoted a Christian fundamentalist belief system, but practiced a quite open and flexible sexual ethic, justifying it theologically in quite creative ways (Richardson and Davis, 1983). The group allowed sex between unmarried members, did not practice strict monogamy within marriage, and for a time even sanctioned the use of sex as a recruitment tool, referred to as "flirty fishing."
This group has become relatively "domesticated" in recent years, becoming much more normal and even changing its name, perhaps in part to escape from this rather lurid past (Richardson, 1994). But these older practices were a part of the group's history, well chronicled in its literature, and apparently there is still some sexual "sharing" among adult members even today. This history makes this particular group especially vulnerable to claims that sex abuse is occurring with the children in the group. Other groups are also vulnerable to such claims, however, if they have children at all. And they are more vulnerable if they live in relative poverty, do home schooling of children, or practice corporal punishment.
CHILD ABUSE CHARGES AGAINST THE FAMILY
Some ex-members of the COG, along with other group detractors such as participants in the "Anti-cult Movement," have laid charges of child sex abuse against this group in a number of countries, causing the group and its members considerable difficulty. This has happened within the past three years in Argentina, Spain, Australia, and France, and has resulted in relatively large scale raids on communal homes on "The Family" (which is the new name of the Children of God). Several hundred children have been taken in these raids and placed as wards of the state. The raids have nearly always resulted in the children being returned to their parents, but only after considerable turmoil, time and expense. The situations in France, Argentina, and Australia have not been fully resolved at this time, although there are signs that the cases will eventually work out to the favor of The Family in most instances.
An interesting aspect of these developments in that apparently a quite similar pattern has been followed in each country, including involvement of some of the same types of groups and people, circulating information and accusations. Also, governmental officials in each country have responded somewhat similarly, with large scale action plans, raids in the early dawn hours, and much media attention. The organization and dissemination of the accusatory information across societies is of interest to scholars of comparative legal studies. Also, the readiness of governmental structures to respond so positively to accusations of child abuse suggests a confluence of interest between those making the accusations and those receiving them. The fact that most of these accusations have ultimately failed when examined in court suggests, however, that this tactic may also not be as successful as some would like.
This paper will offer brief descriptions of what has happened in each of the countries named, pointing out similarities and differences in the episodes. Also, some consequences of the episodes will be discussed, and conclusions drawn about the long term impacts of these developments.
A large number of police, motivated by accusation of child abuse, including sexual abuse, staged a raid on a communal home of The Family in Buenos Aires in October, 1989. Adults in the commune were taken into custody, and children were placed as wards of the state. Some of the police carried machine guns with which they threatened members of the group during the raid, which was carried out without any warning, but with attendant electronic and print media representatives present. There was a claim that drugs were found on the premises, but counter claims that members saw police planting a bag of white powder in the dwelling after they arrived.
Investigations by social workers and physicians revealed no evidence of sexual abuse or abuse of any kind. The children passed educational tests with high scores, impressing judicial authorities and teachers performing the tests. Officials of the court who visited the home after the raid went away impressed with the atmosphere of the home and the way the children were being educated.
As a result of the testing and investigations, all criminal and civil charges were eventually dropped against the group and its members. The children were returned to their parents and the authorities made positive statements about the group and its child rearing methods.
In July, 1990 police and social workers in Barcelona raided the communal home of The Family, arresting 10 adults and taking 21 children from their parents and placing them in state custody, where they were held for 11 months in state institutions. During the time of the incarceration of the children they were not allowed any contact with their parents for the first two months, and were subjected to numerous examinations by psychologists and others. When parents were allowed to visit the children they did so under tight supervision, and were not allowed to read the Bible to the children or to leave a children's edition of the Bible with the children.
After eleven months the children were released to their parents, but with direction by the court to enroll them in public schools, forcing the abandonment of the home schooling program used by The Family. Also, an order was entered requiring each individual family to live in its own residence. Both these preliminary orders struck directly at the communal lifestyle of The Family.
The strong action taken by authorities in the case was provoked by complaints filed with authorities from ex-members of the group, accusing it of child neglect and aberrant sexual practices, including sex with young children. Apparently there was assistance offered in developing these complaints by anti-cult organizations in Spain and from elsewhere, especially from Britain. The episode of the arrest of the adults and taking of the children was a media sensation, with large amounts of coverage in all forms of mass media.
The outcome of this situation was a dramatic rejection of the actions of the police and child care authorities. While in custody for the 11 months a series of examinations by independent psychologists had led to the conclusion that the children had suffered no harm except from the forced separation from their parents. The psychologists indicated that there was no evidence that would justify a declaration of neglect which would allow the continued separation of parents and children. Tests on educational level of the children revealed no negative effects from the home schooling which they had experienced.
When the case was finally decided by the court system it was a total victory for The Family. In very strong language the President of the panel of judges hearing the case absolved The Family members of all charges civil and criminal, and criticized the authorities for the way the entire episode had been handled. The Judge alluded to the Spanish Inquisition when discussing how the authorities had acted in the case, and referred to the conditions in the institutions to which the children were sent as like Soviet concentration camps. The judge, in his 43 page ruling, went on to state that there was no evidence that the children had suffered any harm from the communal lifestyle or the home schooling which they had experienced. He said that the psychiatric reports were unanimous in concluding that there was no mental illness of any kind, or any type of psychosis or psychopathology present in the children. He went on to rule that there was no proof that The Family had engaged in any fraud in their fundraising or "provisioning" of goods needed for the group's needs. And he stated that the group was not a threat to the internal security of Spain.
Thus, The Family found themselves in a much stronger position after this situation than before. They are now considering taking civil action against the authorities and others involved in this episode.
In May of 1992 simultaneous raids were made against several communal homes of The Family, in Australia, located in Melbourne and in Sydney. A total of 153 children were taken into custody, amidst an immense amount of publicity about accusations of aberrant sexual behavior in the group homes. In Sydney the case has since been resolved, after a lengthy trial in which one representative of the Department of Community Services spent 31 days in the witness box trying to explain and defend why the DOC had taken the action it did, but with relatively little success. The settlement of the case involves a withdrawal of all charges by the DOCS of sex abuse, coupled with an agreement by The Family to allow some of the children's home schooling.
In Melbourne the case remains unresolved to date, mainly because the state has refused to furnish legal aid to the group's parents. The judge in the case has stated that he will not proceed until the group members have adequate legal representation, so the case' is at impasse. In the meantime, however, the children are still technically wards of the state, and they cannot be moved without permission from the court.
The cases have resulted in a costly embarrassment for most of the legal and police authorities involved in the pre-dawn raids. There has been much negative publicity directed toward the DOCS handling of the cases, and complaints about the cost of the lengthy proceedings in the cases. Civil actions may be filed against some of those responsible, in an effort to seek redress for the aggressive actions taken by governmental authorities.
The most recent action concerning child abuse accusations and The Family has occurred recently in France. At 6 a.m. on June 9th, 1993 two Family communes in Lyon and Marseille were raided, as well as some private homes of associate members. Some 90 children were taken in the raids, and all adults in the communes were arrested and held for 48 hours. As many as 200 police were involved in the raids, and some were heavily armed with automatic weapons.
The raids were provoked by accusations of child abuse and promotion of prostitution being brought by groups and individuals opposed to the Family and its activities. At the time of this writing the case has not been resolved, although the children have been returned to their parents in Lyon (but not in Marseille), and all adults have also been released.
CONSEQUENCES AND CONCLUSIONS
There are practical problems associated with the tactic of accusing religious groups of child abuse. The major one, as noted earlier, is that the laws are not designed to deal with large scale collective accusations of child abuse. Individuals are charged with child abuse, not groups. When all the children of a group are taken into custody, the implication under the law is that they were all abused, which requires specific evidence that each individual child was in fact abused, as well as knowledge about who the abusers were. The communal and somewhat isolated nature of the groups in questions makes it very difficult to gather such information, even if the accusations were all true, and yet the law requires it, if the charges are to be maintained. But, laws about "collective child abuse" opens a can of worms that will probably not be opened in the near future, just because of the implications of such laws.
Using the legal system in the way that has been described herein also has another serious problem. Such actions bring in third parties who may not fully share the perspective of the governmental child care workers or the anti-cultists promoting the child abuse view of life in the new religions. The relative independence of the judiciary in many of the countries involved may interfere with joint efforts to both expand the scope of influence of governmental agencies responsible for children, as well as the interests of those groups desiring to see new religions controlled more effectively.
Using the court system also carries with it the possibility that the way the episode and the religious groups themselves get framed by the media may change. Prior to the specific episode the media may not have paid any attention at all to a particular group. If there was attention, then it was usually negative, repeating "atrocity tales" about the groups and its activities. The tactics of the law enforcement and child care officials, as they take action against a group, then bring the media spotlight to bear on the group, in a nearly totally negative way. The charges being brought are aired frequently, and accepted as true by the media and their readers, listeners, and viewers. Especially if the charges include sex abuse of children, there is a glare of publicity that lasts for some time, making most citizens aware of what has happened and what is being said about the group and its actions.
But, the very form that the action of social control has taken means that eventually the case will be heard in public in legal proceedings. Such proceedings usually require investigations by professionals, witnesses who are sworn to tell the truth, and a chance for group members (the parents and children) to tell their side of the story. Reports from professional psychologists, psychiatrists and others are thus made a part of the public record and reported in media accounts. Testimony of the parents and some of the children may also become very well known through being presented under the spotlight of great media attention. And, a judge hears all this and eventually decides what to do about the charges.
In nearly all instances described in this paper the judge has decided generally in favor of the group, although sometimes after lengthy proceedings and investigations. To date there have been no rulings that the children should become permanent wards of the state and never returned to the parents. (The French case and the case in Victoria, Australia are both unresolved at this time, of course.) This development was not anticipated by those seeking to obtain control of the children (governmental child care functionaries), police authorities who directed and participated in the raids or those attempting to get the state to exercise more control over such groups (detractors and anti-cultists). Time may therefore reveal that the latest tactic of social control was not been successful, on either the short or long term.
Indeed, some might claim that the tactic of child abuse accusations against new religions has often back-fired in that the groups have had some judges and other professionals such as educators or therapists make strong positive statements about them and their child care methods, and their education methods. There has been considerable publicity of such statements in some countries, which undercuts the general negative tome of media treatments of new religions.
Also, the media in some instances have shifted the frame of reference of the entire episode, and have produced coverage sympathetic to the groups, and, critical of the way governmental agencies have acted concerning the accusations of child abuse. Instead of focusing on "evil cults engaged in child sex abuse, the frame has been become one of "bungling bureaucrats harming families.” This is particularly evident in some of the Australian coverage of the lengthy proceedings in New South Wales. Thus, some journalists have, in effect, "changed sides," a development which may have lasting impact of the way such groups are treated in the media of a given country.
This is a crucial development because the media serve an important mediating function between the new religious groups and the general public. A very small percentage of citizens have had direct contact with one of the new religions. Nearly all information about the groups held by the general public has been given them through the mass media. To date, in most countries involved in this study, the media about new religions (often called "cults" or "sects") has been typically negative, even if varied somewhat by group and country (van Driel and Richardson, 1988a, 1988b, van Belzen and van Driel, 1990). If media outlets alter the message being sent out, then this should impact views held by the public. We need research done in countries where these episodes have occurred, to see if in fact there has been a change of perception on the part of the general public concerning the new religious groups in question, and even new and minority religions in general. Only after such research can we understand some of the long term impacts of the this most recent tactic of those seeking to control or eliminate newer religious groups.
Another consequence worth discussing concerns the loss of face suffered in some of these episodes by governmental agencies and functionaires. The agencies and their representatives have sometimes "taken a beating" while testifying in the case, and then later in media discussions of the episode. As indicated, framing media stories around the notion of bureaucratic incompetence has sometimes developed, which is a dramatic shift of the limelight from the group and its child care practices and lifestyle to the actions of the group's accusers. Public opinion research to find out if perceptions of such public agencies and officials as being engaged in overreaching would be of value in assessing the long term impacts of these episodes.
Certainly the episodes and their outcomes will have both long and short term consequences for the two major protagonists in such events. The Religious groups themselves have suddenly been made aware that they and their members can suffer mightily at the hands of authorities of the state in which they reside. To have your children snatched from you in pre-dawn raids with large numbers of armed police makes this point better than perhaps any other event short of death. This cannot but effect the way the group defines itself, as well as the way it thinks of governmental authority in general and agents of the state specifically. Also, it seems reasonable to assume that the groups will exercise more care in the future about how they relate to children in the group. In some instances, court ordered continued scrutiny of group child rearing methods will insure that the group is aware that others are watching, and remind the parents that some think of their children ultimately as owned by the state. Child rearing methods may indeed change significantly. Research on this issue needs to be done, to see if, in fact, the groups may have, in a sense, "won the battle but lost the war," as they modify their child care and educational policies because of the tactics being used against them in recent years involving child abuse accusations.
An interesting issue is whether the outcomes of this situations will have much impact on those whose information and requests led the governmental agencies to take the actions they did. Will the individual ex-members or other detractors be negatively impacted by the outcomes? Or will they simply fade away, without any personal consequences. It is clear that this tactic is not as successful as might have been originally thought, given the increasing levels of concern about children in many societies. However, to date there have been no counter legal actions that would impose any penalties on such detractors. None have been charged with perjury, and none have been sued in civil actions for the damage that has been caused through the raids and arrests.
Only time will tell if making accusations of child abuse against new religions continues to be a tactic used much in the future. If a different outcome is obtained in France or in Victoria than has been the case elsewhere, then this will encourage those opposed to the new groups and their lifestyles to continue this tactic. If French legal authorities end up acting taking a similar position as in most other countries where the tactic has developed, or if the Victoria case is settled in a manner similar to what happened in New South Wales, then this could well be the death knell of such an approach to social control of new religions.