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CIFS Conference:
‘Cults in Australia: Facing the Realities’
Edited transcript of speech
given by Mr Tom Sackville
CANBERRA, Parliament House
CIFS
November 2 2011

Conference Report and Video

 

National Cult Information and Family Support (CIFS) Conference
"Cults in Australia: Facing the Realities"

Mr Tom Sackville - President of FECRIS

 

Thank you very much, it's lovely to be here.  Let me start with something that seems to be fashionable, a risk assessment.  The risk I have taken is getting straight off a plane, appear before a distinguished audience like yourselves and make some sense. 

The second is your risk that you have taken in allowing an ex-politician, you could say in ‘12 Steps terms', a recovering politician, to stand at the microphone.  We have a habit of longing to taking the opportunity and going back to our old habit of haranguing audiences – I might be still talking an hour on.  But I promise you that’s not a danger in my case.
 
 
criminalising the exploitation of people who have been brainwashed

 

When I was first in a government job, I was PPS, Parliamentary Private Secretary or bag carrier to a minister from the Northern Ireland office. 

So, slightly presumptuously, I went along to the security section in a secret place in Whitehall, presented myself, and told them, “Look, there I am living in Bolton, just across the water from Belfast, with a young family.  Is there any particular security precaution I ought to take?”.  This rather large Royal Ulster Constabulary sergeant looked me up and down and replied 'Mr Sackville, we would recommend continued anonymity'. 

I tried to stick to that and ever since, so thankyou for letting me loose here today.  Let me just start by telling my own story, as a way of explaining the rather sad history of why we haven’t made really any progress on cults in the UK.  You in Australia are , as in many things, rather ahead of us on this.  I will try to illustrate how I became involved. 

dislike for exploitation of decent people

Unlike many in the anti-cult world, I have not been personally touched by cults.  The reason I got involved was I have always had a distinctive dislike for exploitation of decent people by shysters.  Whether it's people traffickers, drug dealers, charlatan “healers”, whatever, I hate to see trusting people being taken for a ride.  Also, I think I was always vaguely aware of cults. 

When I became an MP people from what is now the Family Survival Trust, which used to be called FAIR came to see me and told me what was going on, and I kind of saw it, just like that.  What really upset me was the fact the government was clearly doing nothing about it.  So here were all these people who were being harmed just the way drug addicts are harmed, or people who are victims of any sort of exploitation, but the government had no view on it at all. 

One of my first memories of joining a delegation led by two members of our upper house.  One was the late Lord Rodney, whose daughter had sadly been sucked into some cult in America: he was running the now extinct Parliamentary All Party Committee on Cults.  The other was the great Lord Denning, who lawyers among you will know as a legendary figure on the English bench: having been involved in a famous cult trial, he remained horrified by what he had seen and heard. 

So the three of us went off to see the Home Secretary.  I could see right away they had been briefed by civil servants just to humour us.  He wasn’t going to do anything.  Worse still, the absurd junior minister present came out with some nonsense about a friend of his whose daughter wanted to go into a nunnery, demonstrating at a stroke complete lack of understanding of what we had come to talk about. 

What was significant about that time was that it followed closely on a decision by the British government to appoint as their adviser on cults one Dr Eileen Barker, who ran a unit in the London School of Economics called INFORM.  This they believed meant they had as a source of advice an “expert”.  But they must already have known her to be essentially uncritical of cults. 

Dr Barker is still there, funded by government, except during a short break when as the relevant minister for a short time.  I cancelled her grant (it was reinstated immediately I was out of the way).  I also banned all terms like New Religious Movement from any correspondence and replaced them with 'cults'.  That sadly only lasted a year: ours was a dying administration.  The fact of INFORM becoming the government's advisor has really informed government policy ever since.  They have maintained a policy of having no policy, which then affects the behaviour of every government department involved.  What an absolute contrast to MIVILUDES in France, where you have every government department represented.  This is what we should all be aiming at. 

Behind this policy of inaction is the idea that it's too complicated to make a distinction between two organisations like the Church of England and the church of Scientology.  Civil servants have strings of initials after their names, but apparently not quite enough for this purpose.

doing something would mean listening

So that is where we are: we have what we in the Family Survival Trust and a lot of other family organisations would call a “cult apologist” making policy and influencing policy, not just in the UK but perhaps more importantly in other countries.  Dr Barker provides the intellectual basis for official inaction.

Now the last time I checked Inform was getting a grant of 120,000 pounds sterling a year from the government.  They are also getting grants from the Metropolitan Police, the World Council of Churches and other bodies.  None of whom do anything, as far as I know, for cult victims or their families.  So you may wonder what’s going on.  Could Kafka have dreamed up such a scenario? It is till going on today.  The cynic in me tells me that years ago, our Home Office decided it was easier to do nothing.  We are still paying the price.

Doing something would mean for example listening to demands for something like the 'About-Picard Law'.  This piece of legislation puts the lie to the idea that it is not possible to make a legal distinction between what is a cult and what is not a cult, by (in effect) criminalising the exploitation of people who have been brainwashed. 

But such a thing has not even been considered in the UK.  And the effect on the ground of the government’s refusal to recognise the cult issue problem is that all those government departments like Health, Education and Social Services who should be taking action when cult problems come up, are looking over their shoulders and finding there isn’t a policy, and that they have a perfect excuse for inaction.  As a result it's very difficult for victims ever to get any help from NHS mental health services, very difficult to get Social Services involved with the welfare of children, or ask Education to investigate a breach of the Education Act.  The officials concerned are not bad people, they’re just not sensitised to the fact there is a problem, or in some cases have decided not to be. 

Where are we? Not even at first base, which I think is a baseball term, but probably has some other undertones.  Whatever it is, we’re not there anyway.  I would suggest however that you are there, or getting there.  When I just listened to your informal workshop on lobbying just now, I was deeply envious. 

So let me just tell you a little anecdote to illustrate where we are.  A few years ago it became clear that we discovered that the Home Secretary, Ruth Kelly was a senior member of Opus Dei, while being nominally in charge of policy on cults for the British government.  The people in the University of Navarre where all this sort of thing started in Spain, must have been laughing all the way to the bank,.  But there we are.  I recently went with Audrey and others from the Family Survival Trust went to see the present minister in some slightly Marxist sounding department called Communities, Nationalities, or Subspecies, or something like that.  The minister was very polite and all that, but I could see that he had been briefed merely to concede nothing.

Then the real truth came out: he was a member of the Baptist church and he had been listening every Sunday to reports of persecution by people like us in Eastern Europe on Baptists.  Wonderful! So it appears that ministerial appointments, when it comes to cults, leave a lot to be desired. 

the British people

Those are the facts, such as they are.  Allow me now to treat you to a few more subjective opinions as to the reasons for our having done so badly over the years in trying to get cults up the political agenda. 

Now one of them could be the nature of the British people.  Is there something particular about us, that we are particularly sceptical and jaundiced? Well, if you woke up every morning to a 60% chance of rain you would probably get a bit like that.  We see Australians as 'can do', you know, maybe its the sunshine. 

We have been on that little island a long time, maybe too long and perhaps have become overly cynical.  Being a member of the European Union (my apologies to George Fenech) doesn’t help our mood either: we are beginning to realise we have no control any more over our destiny.  Of course this may change. 

It is true that we often don’t take things as seriously as we should.  We particularly don’t take religion seriously.  And perhaps when people don’t religion seriously it's quite likely they wont take pseudo religion very seriously either.  We are also a very secular country.  We do know that the people in Sweden and places think they are secular, they don’t know the half of it - we are really.  Our national church suffers 98% absenteeism, it’s worse than Monday morning in the car industry in the old days. 

Seriously, have a look at how this great Church of England was founded: I don’t know if any of you remember this? It happened because one fun loving monarch, named Henry the Eighth, had ambitions of the sort we won't mention in a family audience with regard to the daughter of one of his courtiers, Thomas Boleyn.  The wily old fox Boleyn had already put his older daughter into bat with the monarch without any matrimonial result.  So this time he was going to make sure there was no fun and games till they got married. 

This put Henry in a difficult position, and so in order to get what he wanted he had to actually abolish the then Church, with its allegiance to Rome and start his own, all in order to get a legal divorce.  I am telling this story to illustrate we could be forgiven, with a church that was started for such frivolous reasons, for being a touch secular.  You may ask, what do we take seriously in Britain? An interesting question – football perhaps.  Cricket? No I promised not to mention cricket on this trip.

our politicians

Now the second group of people who might be responsible (and technically are) are our politicians.  Having once been a politician I feel free to say what I like about my former colleagues.  We are by and large, a self selecting sub-species composed of attention seekers, who probably lacked something early on in life, perhaps maternal warmth, or who had very little success at teenage discos. 

Whatever it was, something went wrong for them , so they projected this into this rather maverick and unstable profession.  So how do you deal with that? How do you find a way of getting to them.? The answer is that you try and bring them things which could provide them with the instant gratification of being seen to do something, or call for it to be done.

The trouble with cults is that they are not a single central issue you can get behind.  Cults give rise to a whole series of individual family tragedies around any country: unless you can get victims and their families to coalesce, and you're doing a great job as I said, you can not bring politicians something that gives them an early return. 

Not all politicians are like that.  Some do want to right wrongs and change the world, but I fear that they are in the minority. 

Another minority, and one in which I like to feel I am part, are those politicians who just couldn’t find something useful to do with themselves in their twenties, and suddenly found this rather maverick vocational thing, which if nothing else in my case, finally got my parents off my back.  But largely they're in the first category: you need to remember you should always got to help politicians get what it is they want.  What do politicians want? Headlines, if possible supported by photo ops, and any sort of recognition or approval from the people who will elect or re-elect them. 

the civil service

There is a third possibility, my favourite, that the civil service is the problem.  Politicians try to hide the fact have as the process of government gets more and more complicated, and its scope ever wider, in the more abstruse policy areas they have little input, or even no input at all.  Things are continually served up to them, oven ready, by civil servants.  When I was with the Department of Health as minister I had twenty six discrete and separate responsibilities, so everything from blood service to hospitals to family planning.  There was little time to think – I just waited for them to bring me problems.  And that’s exactly how they want it. 

On cults, the decision to do nothing and pretend the problem didn’t exist was probably taken almost entirely by officials, without much consultation. 

Is there a hidden agenda here? Not really.  But let me tell you something about civil servants.  As a group they are courteous, clever, educated, civilised people.  While our children are playing Death Ray II, theirs are working their way through Bach’s Preludes and Fugues.  Their main aim is order and calm, to get through the day without incident, and catch the 4.55 home to a nice suburb: likewise glide through their careers in to the nirvana of that rather generous index-linked pension.  Neither of these aims is consistent with dealing with litigation from unpleasant cults, or listening to distraught parents demanding action over sequestered children.  Linking up with an reassuring academic from the world of Comparative Religion was greatly more to their taste, and ticked most of the boxes.  Not exactly an agenda, but a criminally negligent cop-out, certainly.

international civil servants

Now when you get to international civil servants you get deeper in to the mire.  Both George Fenech and I have attended something called the OSCE, which is meant to be a UN backed human rights body, which meets in places like Warsaw and Vienna.  The last time I was there, George was there.  He will remember, there were about 40 people around the table discussing religious freedom.  Apart from the French ambassador who was representing George, the Russian ambassador, the German ambassador, and me representing FECRIS, every single person around the table spoke either on behalf of, or in some way as an apologist for cults. 

It was extraordinary.  Here you have a tax payer funded UN body on human rights, which has pretty much been taken over and infiltrated by human rights abusing cults themselves.  There were people from Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, from all sorts of different countries all complaining they were being bullied by anti cultists.  And the people running the meeting, the actual officials of the UN body actually tried to stop me using the word 'cult', presumably because they had been got at.  Whether they had actually believed what the cults told them, or whether something more sinister at work, I still don’t know.  We are in a difficult position..  And we have a long way to go to turn it around.  Our best bet is to combine, atstate, national , or like FECRIS, regional level..  FECRIS is now wider than Europe.  I very much hope CIFS will become an affiliate member of FECRIS.  You already are? Good. 

It is particularly important that FECRIS manages to make some headway in particular with the European Commission.  We in Britain don’t like the Commission much, but it is in effect a law making body, which we signed up for, and accord proper respect.  Only the French, and now possibly and Belgians have done anything out of Europe about this.  We really need a Europe wide policy.  That means lobbying.  That means systematically lobbying officials in Brussels, and all who sit in the European Parliament.  . 

So it's not a particularly satisfactory situation, in Britain or anywhere else.  My advice to you is this: it is important that, if you have an anti-cult body, then that is what it remains.  Opposing cults is an absolute.  Do not waste time with academics trying to see every side of the question, apologists, fellow travellers, and all those who are involved but don’t seem to understand cults are bad, and what they do is bad, full stop.  None of these people are going to do anything for parents who have lost a beloved child I to a cult.

we are all hugely appreciative

Take MIVILUDES: if it didn’t have at the helm someone like George, who really understands the problem and is really passionate about the need to confront it, it would never retain the same vigour that it now has.  It is very important that individuals who understand this remain at the forefront of the struggle. 

I would like to just pay a tribute, although he's not here with us now, I had all these paeons of praise to Senator Xenophon.  But what he did in taking up the cudgels right round the world just like that was tremendous.  It's rare that a senior politician pops up, especially in a rich country like Australia which is a real target for cults: it was hugely encouraging, and we are all hugely appreciative.  I hope there would like someone here to pass on our thanks to him. 

The second tribute I want to pay is to you, because you have got this meeting together, you have these active voluntary organisations, and the fact that you are organising a lobby tomorrow - all this is highly encouraging.  The main reason I came today, if I may say so, is precisely because I really wanted to thank you personally on behalf of another anti-cult organisation in another part of the world for what you are doing. 

You have struck a real blow for freedom, and not everyone can say they have done that.. 

Thank you very much

Tom Sackville.


 

Questions from the floor:

Question 1

We have listened to your sporting metaphors.  But have you been able to score any runs?

A very good question.  The answer is no, not enough, but one that particular sticks out recently was when it was discovered a couple of years ago that the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, of which you will be aware of, had given an award to Sai Baba.  This was in connection a youth project they were running in Birmingham.  There were people hopping up and down with rage all over Britain.  One such was a member of ours, who is actually in his spare time a judge, whose mother in law was recruited by Sai Baba, along with her money.  Our member had been campaigning ever since...So we had to try and do something.  And we for once managed to interest some journalists, perhaps here was a story that, however indirectly, involved the Royal Family.  So I was slightly conflicted here between my hatred of Sai Baba and my admiration for the Monarch.  But I did I think err on the right side, and we ended up with a headline saying 'Duke of Edinburgh in Paedophile Scandal'.  It was of course not me who chose those words.  But sometimes you have to be a bit ruthless to make your point.  In this case we did land a blow on a very unpleasant cult, albeit with it some collateral damage.

 

Question 2

Recently Eric Pickles, who I think is PPS...  communities, people and subspecies....  has said something along the lines that, the community doesn’t want local regions to be allowing the Church of Scientology to have land rate concessions.  Would we be naive to think that heralds some level of motivation at that high level to deal with issues?

It's funny.  He was involved with the Church of Peniel as local MP, and seems to have got really duffed up as a result of it.  And I think that’s why he's sensitised to it.  We were very, very encouraged, and we tried to see him personally, to encourage him.  Pickles definitely stuck his neck out there, and he said the right thing – it is an absolute scandal that some Councils are giving some cults rate relief as though they are charities or somehow working for the public good.  And obviously Pickles has picked up on this, and put out “advice” – apparently he cannot issue direct orders without new legislation: we have written to congratulate him at the time.  This was a bit of good news: we don’t hear enough good news, so thank you for raising it.

 

Question 3

One of the solutions Senator Xenophon has suggested in Australia for the cult problem is to have a charities commission that applies a public benefit test to tax exemptions of charities.  As I understand it the UK has a charities commission, and I think a public benefit test, and yet the group I am most interested in, the Exclusive Brethren, is able to operate as a church with exemptions.  I am just wondering whether that is a powerful tool or not in the fight against cults?

Well we need something because, a few years ago there was a rabbi in Hove, which is on the south coast of England, who had actually got his rabbinate via a correspondence course from Wisconsin.  But he had enough rabbinical authority to remove 12 women from their husbands and had them all living with him, because he told them this was what was required by the religion.  We went to the charities commission, and for two years they did nothing, even though he was phoney, clearly running illegal charity shops, when they were not a charity.  I had two investigators from the Commission come to my office, limp wristed creatures, who said 'oh we haven't done anything as we are not 100% sure we could get a conviction'.  After 3 years they finally did.  You know I don’t think the Rabbi was even Jewish.  So we need something much stronger then our charities commission.  Again, if the government had a policy, the charities commission, although they are slightly independent of government, they would then be sensitised to the fact there’s a whole lot of scams going on around cults.  But they haven’t.

 

 


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