Their targets used to be university students, but today fringe religious groups are believed to be recruiting school-aged children. Lynne Wallis reports.If one of your pupils became distant, distracted and antisocial, your first thought might be that they were experimenting with drink or drugs. But religious cults pose another danger to young people, and one from which it can be equally difficult to extricate them.
Although the notion of children being lured into fringe religious organisations might seem far-fetched, it does happen. In the past few years, there have been numerous scares with such groups attempting to gain a foothold in UK schools.
This year, it was discovered Narconon, the Scientology-linked group, has been invited into British schools to lecture pupils on drugs, and the organisation's outpost in East Grinstead - known as the Effective Education centre - attempts to coach mainstream teachers in some of the precepts of Scientology, which advocates a form of self-help invented by its founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Scientology reportedly teaches that mankind are the product of an explosion by an alien warlord called Xenu. It has won extra exposure with its support from Hollywood idols Tom Cruise and John Travolta, which critics believe give the organisation a bigger profile and added attraction to young people.
In 2000, schools in Birmingham were put on red alert after reports that groups linked to the International Church of Christ, a fundamentalist Christian organisation, had been contacting schools offering to perform songs and sketches.
And in 1994, three staff were fired from the Bridgewater School, an independent school in Salford, after they were recruited into a bizarre religious cult called Livewave, whose founder, John Yarr, kept a harem of 30 women (the son of footballer Eric Cantona was a pupil and there were fears children could be targeted too).
While there is a degree of debate about what exactly constitutes a cult - INFORM, the Home Office-funded charity, stresses that not all new religious movements are damaging to their members - cult-watchers warn families to watch out for aggressive recruiting techniques and attempts to part young people from their family, friends and ultimately their cash.
There are an estimated 500 such groups operating in the UK according to the Cult Information Centre (CIC).
Laura Sutton, now l7, knows all about the tactics of such groups. While still at school in the north of England she was targeted by a member of the Children of God, an apocalyptic Christian cult renowned for its use of so-called "flirty fishing" in the past, where new members were approached by attractive converts who offer love and sex to reel them in.
She had just finished her exams in June when she was approached by a 24-year-old man in a shopping mall. She was depressed at being single while all her friends had boy-friends, and when the man, Shalip, happened to bump into her again the following day, the couple began a relationship that lasted for two weeks.
Jane, her mother, became very alarmed after learning the young man was a member of a religious group known as "The Family". "She is normally so cautious and careful, and yet this man had a hold on her I couldn't understand," she says. From looking at her daughter's emails, Jane discovered that Shalip had been in her daughter's bed in the family home and "love-bombed" the teenager, a term cult-watchers use to describe the constant sending of affectionate messages. By the time Shalip went to Mexico two weeks after they met, Laura had fallen in love and the pair were in close contact.
Jane challenged Shalip on whether he was overstating his feelings for her daughter as a way of getting her to join the group but the man denied it and said he genuinely loved her daughter. He also said that sexual activity was confined to full-time members of The Family, implying that there was no sexual relationship with her daughter.
Jane alerted her child's school, having discovered the unsavoury practices of the cult on the internet. Laura went on a school trip to Spain in July, and amid concerns that there could be an attempted kidnap while she was away, teachers kept a close eye on her, confiscated her passport, and talked to her mother daily to reassure her. "Kidnap is quite normal in these situations and after what I'd read I was terrified," Jane says. "I realised I was lucky though because normally the first a parent knows of a child's involvement is when they disappear."
Despite daily "love-bombing" emails, Laura's feelings for her beau cooled and she wrote to him finishing their relationship at the end of the summer. She has now applied to Cambridge University to study English.
"The relief was incredible," Jane says. "She had lost so much weight and seemed almost trancelike at times. She had fallen totally in love with someone whose real aim was to get her into a cult, but the advice we sought and the action we took saved her.
One of his final emails revolted me - it was all about how my daughter could become a 'hooker for Jesus'." It seemed Shalip had wanted Laura to indulge in "flirty fishing" herself.
Judith Marmont, a teacher and child protection officer at Laura's school, said that staff had been worried by the girl's predicament. "She looked unhappy and she wasn't interacting with the class. Her friends were concerned about how she was cutting herself off, the classic behaviour of someone being recruited into a cult."
They took their lead from Graham Baldwin, an exit counsellor who runs Catalyst, a group that helps people who have left cults and fringe movements, and he advised staff to keep asking Laura questions about the group. They asked: What did she know about them? What were their motives? What did she know of Shalip?
Sarah Miore, an information officer for the Children of God, who now call themselves The Family, denies that the group use flirty fishing to recruit people. "That practice stopped in l987," she says.
Ian Haworth, from The Cult Information Centre, would like to see cult awareness on the curriculum. He was recruited himself after signing up for a quit smoking course in the 1970s that turned out to be a front for a religious group. Within days he had resigned from his job as a communications consultant to join the movement.
"If schools prepare their pupils for what is likely to happen to them if they get recruited, then it's not only protecting them for their school and university years but for the rest of their lives," he says. "Pupils need to be made to understand that 'cults want me'. Everyone thinks it happens to someone else, but it can happen to anyone. No one 'joins' a cult - they are targeted and recruited using very sophisticated, tried and tested techniques."
He addresses about 50 schools a year on the subject, including Eton College. But the vast majority of takers are still private schools with the funding to pursue what is still regarded as an "add-on" subject (wealthier pupils are also seen as richer pickings for cults).
Cult awareness has decreased partly, Ian says, because members have ceased to be visible. "They are more likely to wear smart suits now than weirdo hippy gear or funny outfits associated with 1960s and 1970s groups, and their low visibility makes them more dangerous."
Teenagers can be vulnerable to such groups, which can seem more attractive than the mainstream religions, particularly when celebrities are involved. It may be difficult for them to distinguish between beliefs such as the fashionable and ostensibly harmless Kabbalah, an esoteric offshoot of Judaism, espoused by Madonna, and more sinister groups.
Audrey Chaytor has run a help group for families and former cult members since two of her daughters were recruited as Scientologists. "Sadly, it always seems to take a disaster to happen first before headteachers see cults as the threat they are," she says.
Some names have been changed.
Strategies to spot and help pupils who have been recruited
- If a pupil has become withdrawn and secretive, distant from their family and friends, and begun using cult jargon, they could be at risk.
- Prompt the pupil with questions about their new acquaintances. What do they know about this organisation? What are their motives?
- Do not be angry or confrontational, accuse them of being in a cult, being "brainwashed", or ridicule their beliefs. It will only alienate them further.
- Engage the help of organisations specialising in counter-cult work, but make sure to verify their credentials.
Who are they?
- Scientology. Founded on a self-help system created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, it advocates eliminating negative mental states by a process called "auditing". Famous supporters include Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
- Children of God. A new-age Christian movement founded in the 1960s, which used "flirty fishing" to recruit new members using sex.
- The Moonies. Otherwise known as the Unification Church, this sect prizes marriage and made the Guinness World Records in 1992 after a mass wedding of 30,000 couples.
- International Church of Christ. A non-conformist Christian sect that has been banned from some campuses because of its aggressive recruitment techniques.
- ISKCON. The Hare Krishna movement was popularised by George Harrison, the ex-Beatle, but was later sued by a group of former members for child abuse in 2000.
- The Cult Information Centre, 0870 777 3800, www.cultinformation.org.uk.
- The Family Survival Trust helps ex members and families. Call 0845 603 7121 or visit www.fair-cult-concern.co.uk.
- Catalyst, a charity that helps former cult members. Call 020 8545 6920.
- You can also read Cults: a practical guide by Ian Haworth, pound;3.99, Cult Information Centre.