First in a series of four

There is nothing weird, weak or sinister about Donna. To meet her is to know that anyone can be snared by religious abuse.

Exploitation with religious trappings happens not only in exotic cults. Much of it now occurs in fringe Christian assemblies marked by overtight mastery and deception. Experts say it may include sexual assault but encompasses broader manipulation.

Flattered and snared

A 1986 graduate of a Portland high school, Donna long ago left the assembly that recruited her — the New York City Church of Christ. This group, not affiliated with the mainline Church of Christ, replicated from the controversial Boston Church of Christ.

Donna, whose real name is being withheld for privacy, held a job at the Archdiocese of Portland Pastoral Center in the 1990s, after her recovery.

Raised a Methodist in North Portland, she left to attend Barnard College in New York in the fall of 1986.

“I was a very typical freshman,” she said, her fine features crinkled a bit, revealing pain at the prospect of telling the story. “And I realized I really missed having a church.”

After a class in early 1987, a friendly woman struck up a conversation with Donna. The woman seemed enthusiastic about Donna’s abilities, which thrilled the first-year student. Before the conversation was done, the woman had coyly extended an invitation to a non-denominational Bible study to be held in another student’s room.

Donna intended to skip but was convinced to attend by a last-minute phone call from the insistent woman.

“I was really flattered by the attention,” Donna said.

The meeting, at which there were 12 women, proved thrilling. “It was the most interesting discussion of the Bible I had ever heard — all these young people excited by the Bible.”

In the course of two weeks, the general enthusiasm gradually gave way to tribalism. Donna enjoyed her new friends and was kept on the run with meeting after meeting. Leaders at first had discussed living a life in accord with the Bible. They then offered a shower of complicated biblical interpretations and taught that only full-fledged members of their group were bound for heaven.

“Everything was backed up with intricate Scripture arguments,” said Donna. “You had to be a Bible scholar to beat it.”

Mind control

After two-and a half weeks of intense orientation, she embarked on a three-year involvement. To hold on to Donna and others like her, the group used a well-documented set of mind-control tactics.

She was saturated with ground rules and was kept so busy that she did not have time to ask questions or think critically. Every night was filled with a church activity.

Outside influences were blocked and dissent squashed quickly. Like all new recruits she was assigned a senior member as “a big sister in the faith.” This person, called a “discipling partner” was meant to answer questions and give encouragement. As Donna found when she rose in the ranks, this spiritual companion also was a spy for leaders.

“If you didn’t want to do it their way, a spiritual companion would step in and put on the pressure,” said Donna.

Donna was expected to give all the money she could to the group. She obeyed.

“The more I got involved, the more I bought into the group’s mindset,” Donna said.

She rose in the ranks and was trained as a recruiter and became privy to the tricks of the trade. Disgruntled Catholics were an especially good target, because young Catholics often respond to promises of freedom from rules.

The New York City Church of Christ was not above using sex appeal to attract membership. “They do whatever they think will work the most,” said Donna. “They use psychology. For example, the females would invite male recruits to a co-ed group.”

Signs of trouble

Donna gradually began to separate from old friends and was encouraged to live with people in the group instead. Leaders directed her to date someone on the inside.

“There was definitely encouraging and pushing people together — matchmaking,” Donna said. “Leaders were saying, ‘This is God’s will’ even when some people probably didn’t want to do it.”

Donna gave up cherished activities like dance. Her grades plummeted. At orders from church leaders, she stayed in New York over the summers instead of going home to Portland.

Her parents were concerned. Donna seemed different. The couple invited their daughter to join them at the Oregon Coast to spend the Christmas of 1989. Donna’s parents also had invited a corps of experts and counselors to give Donna information about the New York City Church of Christ. At first, the intervention terrified Donna, but slowly she felt a breath of fresh air in the respect and autonomy offered by the exit counselors.

In the course of recovery Donna found how damaging the church had been. She tried to take the Graduate Record Exam but could make no sense of the questions. Four years earlier, she had cruised through college entrance tests.

“‘What’s the matter with my brain?’ I wondered. ‘It’s not working.’ I just couldn’t think anymore. I hadn’t thought for three years.”

Donna saw counselors and worked on crossword puzzles to restore her mental alacrity. She also began to dance again. “One friend said to me, ‘You just got hit with a really big stick,’” she said. “‘We all get hit by these sticks in life and you just got hit by a really big one. You’ll get better.’” Donna eventually finished a degree in psychology, returning her GPA to its old form.

‘Less freedom, not more’

“I’m sorry to say that there are many Christian cults that are mainstream looking,” said Marcia Rudin, former director of the New York-based International Cult Education Program and one of the founders of the anti-cult movement. “They are recruiting people who have no desire to drop out of society or be counter-cultural. They have no desire to be radical. They are just looking for something very substantial religiously and these groups look promising. It can happen to anyone.”

Abusive religious groups frequently represent themselves to the public as innocuous churches or therapeutic organizations, but quietly nurture goals to achieve financial or political power, plus domination over the lives of followers.

“Religion is a front,” said the late Adrian Greek, an expert in abusive religious movements in Oregon. “They’re scam artists out to promote their own particular view of the world and get power for themselves. They may start out sincere, but then this con side of them just takes over.”

Greek, who was interviewed before his death in 2018 at age 90, started investigating Oregon’s manipulative religious groups with his wife Anne in the mid-1970s. Anne died in 2003, after the couple had established a resource center for victims in Portland and had a hand in getting a national help center started.

The Greeks estimated that 300 destructive religious movements carry on business in Oregon.

The fringe movements use basic lures, from promises of happiness to flattery and sex appeal. “In most cases we must say people do not join,” Adrian Greek said. “They are recruited. They are manipulated. There is misinformation. The difference between destructive groups and a legitimate religious group is, the work of the destructive groups leads to less freedom, not more.”

‘Split-level religion’

In initial contact with prospective members, recruiters seldom discuss religion or doctrine. First, they appeal to idealism and the human need for affiliation and companionship.

“These groups are successful because they are meeting or claim to be meeting personal or social needs. The appeal has to do with the sense of spiritual family that they provide,” said Ronald Enroth, a retired professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif. Enroth spent decades studying manipulative religious movements.

People who are recruited into manipulative religious groups often are caught in a weak moment, whether it be the fear of freshman year or the shock of divorce. They want the down to be an up and they want to live a meaningful life.

“These fringe churches appeal to people in crises,” said Enroth. “Then comes the indoctrination. There is a split-level religion. The face worn at recruitment and then another level they don’t want the public to know about.”

Northwest vulnerable

Mind abuse of the level foisted by Jim Jones in Jonestown and David Koresh in Waco could happen in Oregon, experts say. Already, there are assemblies socked away in the woods and suburbs.

A group called Lifespring left Oregon in the 1980s after a man drowned when trying to prove his valor by swimming across the Willamette River. Another member leapt off a building in Eugene in a fit of enthusiasm or depression.

The Bride of Christ group in Wasco County was founded by a man who was “born again” after serving a sentence for incest. The congregation once had 100 members in Madras and Tygh Valley. Male cult members departed the group residence during the day and left cars and wives behind with the pastor.

The Northwest attracts people who don’t seem to need tradition, said Kent Burtner, former director of the Cult Resource Center in Portland. Burtner, who attends St. James Parish in Molalla and St. Therese Parish in Northeast Portland, was a board member of the original Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network. “I am not antagonistic of people in these groups. I am pro-people making their own choices,” said Burtner. “All I’ve said is, ‘Hey you folks out there in the Northwest marketplace, there are some crooks running around.’”

Abusive religious leaders keep members in the group with hardline dogmas and unspoken expectations that discourage members from asking hard questions and exploring reality. In the Unification Church, for example, members who ask questions or criticize the church are told they are possessed by evil spirits.

One characteristic of an abusive religion, said Burtner, is elevating doctrine so that it eclipses personal experience. “A person who is hit by thought control has their real self tiled over,” he said.

By contrast, mainline churches tolerate a certain amount of diversity and have in place a kind of court of appeals, said Adrian Greek. The Catholic Church, for instance, has its parish councils, its debating theologians, its diocesan offices. It has a millennia-old tradition of reconciliation.

In abusive religious groups, members frequently find themselves separated from family, economically dependent on the new organization and isolated from healthy alternatives. Leaders demand long hours of meditation, deprive new recruits of sleep, speak in soothing hypnotic tones, make acrobatic leaps in logic and apply heavy doses of guilt. Diet also can be designed to keep new members docile.

“These are all ways of short-circuiting people’s faculties,” said Burtner. “You may spend five or six evenings a week doing things so you have no time to process. Leaders limit the capacity to think and reflect.”

Cult middle-managers often tell recruits that family members are not true believers and may try to interfere with the group, said Burtner, a former Dominican friar who has counseled more than a thousand abusive religious group members and their families since 1969.

“It’s normal people who get involved in abusive religious movements; it’s not some psychological weakling in a corner,” said Burtner, who at 6-foot-5 appears anything but weak. “We all hit emotional lows. It doesn’t even have to be as severe as a death or a lost job. It could be a bad day or a cold.”

The best weapon against being recruited into an abusive church, Burtner said, is a rational mind that can ask lots of questions.

NEXT ISSUE: Narcissism is a hallmark of religious abusers

Once called cults

Religious abuse comes at the hands of sects or leaders that use religion to control the minds, spirits, bodies and money of members. In the past, controlling and abusive groups were categorized as cults. Many counselors now call the phenomenon “spiritual abuse.” Whatever the wording, these faith groups, small or large, pose dangers to rational thought and free will, the factors that distinguish them from Catholicism and other mainstream faiths.