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EnlightenNext was an organization, founded by self-styled guru Andrew Cohen, that aimed to facilitate spiritual awakening. Cohen’s most devoted students meditated for hours—at times, months—on end, were often celibate, and lived together. However, what started as an idealistic venture quickly turned into a complicated, often-sinister world that revolved around Cohen. The story of EnlightenNext’s rise and fall begs a deeper question: How do otherwise well-intentioned and rational people end up in a cult? In this documentary, The Atlantic talks to former members, as well as Cohen himself, about their stories in order to uncover the life span of a new religious movement that, after 27 years, collapsed nearly overnight.
In her first live television interview, Rachel Jeffs, daughter of Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the FLDS Church, tells Megyn Kelly TODAY viewers about life inside one of the country’s most notorious polygamist groups. She says her father sexually abused her “way more times than I can even count.”
An Associated Press investigation has found that a secretive evangelical church has used lies and intimidation to bring in and keep children. Ex-members of Word of Faith Fellowship say the kids are exposed to sometimes violent church practices. (Nov. 13)
SPINDALE, North Carolina (AP) — As a court-appointed advocate for two foster boys, it was Nancy Burnette's job to ensure they were in good hands. So as part of her casework, she visited Word of Faith Fellowship, the evangelical church they attended with the couple seeking to adopt them.
What happened next haunts her: In the middle of the service, the chanting and singing suddenly stopped, Burnette said, and the fiery pastor pointed at Burnette, accusing her of being "wicked." ''You are here to cause strife!" she recalled Jane Whaley shouting, as she sensed congregants begin to converge upon her. "You don't think these kids are supposed to be here!"
Terrified, Burnette left, but not before promising the boys, ages 4 and almost 2, that she would return — a promise she ultimately could not keep.
"What I didn't know was how hard Word of Faith would fight — and the tactics they would use — to keep the kids," Burnette told The Associated Press.
That was not the only time Word of Faith Fellowship's leaders and members have used positions of authority, intimidation or deception to bring children into the church's folds or keep them from leaving — often at Whaley's behest, according to dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of court records, police reports and social services documents obtained by the AP.
As a result, children have been introduced to sometimes violent church practices that run counter to the North Carolina laws designed to protect them, the AP found.
The state promotes "family preservation," designed to prevent the "unnecessary placement of children away from their families." But the AP found that some young congregants have been separated from their parents for up to a decade — bounced from family to family — as leaders strive to keep them in the church.
In addition, three single mothers told the AP that a longtime Word of Faith Fellowship member who was a county court clerk bypassed the foster system and eventually won permanent custody of their children, even though a judge called the clerk's conduct inappropriate. Two of the mothers said the clerk approached them and offered to temporarily keep the children while they served their jail time.
The AP interviewed a dozen former congregants who said they had personally witnessed the three children living with the clerk being subjected to intense screaming sessions called "blasting" aimed at casting out demons, or being held down, shaken or beaten.
Even as she battled desperately for her young son, one of the three women had told a judge that, if she could not have him, the boy would be better off in foster care due to the church's abusive nature.
A lawyer for Whaley, Noell Tin, disputed the AP's conclusions.
"The notion that church members separate children from their parents at Ms. Whaley's urging is preposterous," he said. "The idea that a thriving and diverse church like the Word of Faith Fellowship functions in this manner is an insult to its members."
Under Whaley's leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship has grown to about 750 congregants in North Carolina and a total of nearly 2,000 members in its churches in Brazil and Ghana and through affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.
As part of an ongoing investigation into the church, the AP already has cited dozens of former members as saying congregants were regularly punched and choked in an effort to "purify" sinners. Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers, they said — even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken and sometimes smacked to banish devils.
Now, the AP has uncovered numerous instances in which Word of Faith leaders turned children against their parents, with the children then taken in or adopted by other church families. Ex-members told the AP of at least two dozen such cases, which they attributed to the church trying to keep minors from leaving the congregation.
One former congregant, for example, said Whaley pressured her into lying about her sister being abusive when the woman wanted to depart with her four children, leading to a protracted custody battle that resulted in the kids living with a prominent minister.
Another former follower told the AP he was separated from his biological family as a teenager and locked up for months until he began referring to another church couple as "mom and dad."
Once thriving Church of Scientology faces extinction, says cult tracker
Unable to change with the times, the controversial belief system is doomed to fail.
Stephen Kent knew he’d become a threat when the Church of Scientology sent no fewer than 16 letters to University of Alberta administrators demanding he stop disparaging the church.
“They wrote letter after letter to different levels of administration—from the president on down—to curtail my activities, to silence me, to get me somehow sanctioned,” said the sociologist and cult expert.
It’s not surprising when you consider Kent has been tracking the tactics of the church since the early 1980s. As a post-doctoral fellow at McMaster University, he began collecting stories of confinement, sexual assault and coercion not widely known at the time.
Since then he’s amassed one of the world’s biggest collections of testimonials and documents on Scientology, and last year co-edited a book with former student Susan Raine, now a professor at MacEwan University, called Scientology in Popular Culture.
Kent has also become a top go-to expert for media commentary. Just last month he was quoted in the Irish Times when the newspaper discovered the church had sent thousands of pamphlets to Irish schools under the guise of a human rights organization—just one recent attempt in a concerted campaign to infiltrate Irish society and promote the doctrine of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
But in Kent’s view, the strategy may be just a desperate ploy to stay alive. There has been significant opposition to Scientology in Ireland, he said. The last census revealed its membership at just 87, reflecting a more global public relations crisis that has been plaguing the church for years.
"Historically, most new religions die, and it's fairly clear now that Scientology is on a downward path,” said Kent.
The seeds of Scientology
The Church of Scientology was created by Hubbard in 1954, developed from ideas he presented a few years earlier in Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. A form of self-help psychology, the book was a populist challenge to questionable psychiatric practices of the time, such as lobotomies and electroshock therapy.
Although the principles of Hubbard’s therapeutic process have never been accepted by science, said Kent, they initially held considerable appeal as “the poor person's psychoanalysis.”
Hubbard claimed people could free themselves of the trauma and neurosis associated with painful events of the past—what he calls engrams—by answering a series of questions in “auditing” sessions, the content tested by a lie detector, or e-meter. After enough of these sessions, so the theory goes, the debilitating engrams are erased, and the person reaches a state of being “clear,” capable of fulfilling their full potential.
To avoid charges of practising medicine without a licence, Hubbard rebranded his pseudo-therapy as a religion—calling it Scientology—and proved adept at exploiting celebrity culture to promote it.
“Movie stars in Hollywood had significant status, and Hubbard realized these people influenced popular consumer trends,” said Kent. “He figured out early on that getting media endorsements from key celebrities would be beneficial for his organization."
By the ‘60s and ‘70s, Scientology’s membership exploded with the countercultural movement, emphasizing self-knowledge, spiritual fulfilment, a distrust of established medical science and aspirations towards world peace.
Celebrity backlash, secrets revealed
"Scientology had its heyday in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s,” said Kent, “but then the controversy started," as stories started to leak about abuse within the movement and the exorbitant donations required of its members to reach higher levels of spiritual purity.
Much of Scientology’s recent decline, however, can be attributed to a number of high-profile celebrity defections over the past decade, including by Canadian director Paul Haggis, singer Lisa Marie Presley and actors Leah Remini and Jason Beghe.
Remini especially has been a tenacious and vocal critic. First recruited at the age of nine, she left the church in 2013 and has since published a revealing memoir and hosted a documentary series called Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, exposing many of the organizations failings.
But the main cause of Scientology’s downfall, said Kent, is the growing influence of the Internet. "Critics started posting material—including some of the church's own confidential documents—and former members started telling their stories.”
Some countries, such as Germany and France, have taken a firm stand against Scientology. The German government views it as an abusive sect masquerading as a religion, and France has classified it as a dangerous cult.
"With so much criticism of Scientology and so many of its secret documents available either in whole or in part, the impetus for continued membership is greatly diminished," said Kent.
The curious irony in all of this, he added, is that the trends Hubbard exploited so successfully when he created Scientology in the 1950s—emerging communications technology and the power of popular culture, especially celebrity recruitment—are the very forces conspiring against it now.
"Celebrities helped boost Scientology’s image in its early days, and now they're helping to diminish its appeal internationally.”
Mired in 1950s beliefs
But beyond its image problem—documented in the 2015 HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief—the most destructive seeds of Scientology’s demise were sown in its inception, said Kent. Based as it is on “fixed revelation,” or the unalterable word of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology is unable to change with the times and is therefore doomed.
One case in point is the inescapable homophobia that lies at the heart of the church, said Kent. Hubbard classified homosexuality as a sexual perversion, writing in Dianetics that “the sexual pervert is actually quite ill physically…. He is very far from culpable for his condition, but he is also far from normal and extremely dangerous to society.”
Since then, Scientology has tried to “backpedal and respin its position on homosexuality,” said Kent, adding that nonetheless, “Hubbard's statements on it are fairly clear.
"Any group that has a fixed revelation has great difficulty adjusting to change,” Kent explained. “What you see with the books is greatly upgraded glamorization of the covers and the marketing. But the content is still rooted in Hubbard in the ‘50s.”
His doctrine is so fixed, in fact, that the Church of Scientology began transcribing his texts onto stainless steel plates in the 1980s, placing them in titanium capsules in underground vaults. Located in a remote desert location, the vaults are accessible only through a secured tunnel.
“Compare that with the Mormons, for example, who have a doctrine of ongoing revelation," said Kent. In 1890, for example, Latter-Day Saints president Wilford Woodruff received a revelation to ban polygamy, resulting in a policy change that partly made possible Utah’s acceptance as a state in 1896. And in the 1970s, the Mormons abandoned their position that black people are branded with the mark of Cain.
“It’s been able to adjust to the times," said Kent.
The Church of Scientology still has significant wealth, including lavish properties around the world, "but from what I can see, nobody is in them,” said Kent. “And there are some that have closed down because they just don't have the staff."
In the end, the U of A never did cave to legal pressure from the church, said Kent.
“In all instances, university officials responded professionally and appropriately, and in no way interfered with my activities,” he said.