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The Cult Awareness Network (CAN)

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The "Old" Cult Awareness Network (CAN ™) - prior to 1996-JUN-22:

The "old" Cult Awareness Network was perhaps the world's largest and most successful anti-cult organization. They had a staff of four and a network of volunteers. CAN described themselves as "a national, tax-exempt non-profit educational organization, dedicated to promoting public awareness of the harmful effects of mind control." CAN stated that they only dealt with "unethical or illegal practices" by cults; they claimed that they did not judge a group's "doctrine or belief". They operated a support group for former cult members, called Focus. CAN estimated that "five million people...have been seriously affected by what they estimated to be more than 2,500 destructive cults."

In 1996, they offered for sale a number of anti-cult books and videos. They also sold information packets for US $18.00 on:

bullet Specific Groups:
bullet est/Forum
bullet Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT)
bullet Insight/MSIA
bullet International Church of Christ
bullet Jehovah's Witnesses
bullet Lifespring
bullet Ramtha
bullet Rama
bullet Church of Scientology)
bullet Transcendental Meditation (TM)
bullet Unification Church
bullet The Way International
bullet Topics:
bullet Child Abuse in Cults
bullet Cults on College Campuses
bullet New Age
bullet New Age in Business

By 1995, they maintained files "on a total of 1505 groups." A sampling includes the following organizations: "...Amway, the Amish, Anti-Reformation League; chiropractic, Roman Catholics,  Campus Crusade for Christ, the board game Dungeons and Dragons, the Democratic Workers Party, the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana (America’s largest Protestant congregation), the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International, The Grateful Dead, the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, the International Workers Party; Klanwatch, the Ku Klux Klan, Lutherans, Mormons, Shirley MacLaine, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Oklahoma City bombings, Opus Dei, the Order of the Solar Temple, Protestants, Peoples Temple, Promise Keepers, PTL Club, the Rockford Institute, the Rutherford Institute, the Rajneeshees,  Soka Gakkai, Scientology, Santeria, Teen magazine, Transcendental Meditation, Toronto Blessing; Urantia, the United Pentecostal Church, the Worldwide Church of God, the Wycliffe Bible Society, Women Aglow and Youth for Christ." 1 Some of the religious organizations that they targeted are simply high intensity religious groups which expect a major commitment from their followers (e.g. Jehovah's Witnesses and the Unification Church). Only the Order of the Solar Temple and Peoples Temple were destructive, doomsday religious cults.

There seems to have been a dark side to CAN. They were dragged into legal difficulties over the kidnapping and abusive deprogramming of Jason Scott. Jason was at the time a member of the Life Tabernacle Church. The congregation is affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church International. In 1995-SEP, CAN, Rick Ross and two others were found guilty of conspiracy to violate the civil right to freedom of religion of Jason Scott. Ross was ordered to pay more than $3 million in damages; CAN was ordered to pay in excess of $1 million. Ross had been involved in hundreds of interventions with members of various religious groups over a 15-year period. He estimates that in about 20 cases, an intervention involved an adult held against their will. 2 Scott was one of these: after an allegedly violent, brutal kidnapping, he was forcibly confined for five days. Ross attempted to get Scott to abandon his church's beliefs. According to a 1998-APR-8 decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals:

"Kathy Tonkin withdrew from the Life Tabernacle Church, convinced that it had a destructive effect on her six children. Three of Tonkin's sons refused to join her. Tonkin contacted Shirley Landa, a 'contact' person for appellant Cult Awareness Network (CAN). A CAN "contact" is an unpaid volunteer who is available to speak to members of the public on behalf of CAN. CAN operates nationally through a network of contacts and affiliates, and has only four paid staff members.

Landa referred Tonkin to Rick Ross, a person who conducted involuntary 'deprogramming' of people who had become involved with religious cults. Landa was aware that Ross engaged in involuntary deprogramming because she had seen him do so on the television program '48 Hours.' Ross was known to, and received referrals from, other CAN members as well. Tonkin hired Ross to deprogram her three sons.

Ross "successfully" deprogrammed Tonkin's two minor sons. Tonkin, Ross, and Landa knew that it would be difficult to deprogram Tonkin's eldest son, appellee Jason Scott, because he was over 18. Landa advised Tonkin that although there were legal problems involved, the only way to deprogram Scott was to abduct him and let Ross do his work. With the aid of two confederates, Ross abducted Scott and held him captive for five days. Scott feigned acceptance of Ross' deprogramming and escaped.
" 3

Ross charged about $3,000 for the kidnapping. (Some foes of CAN claimed $25,000, but that number appears to be fictitious.) Jason settled his claim against Rick Ross for $5,000 and 200 hours of Ross' time. Scott is now reunited with his family. Rick Ross was charged separately with the unlawful imprisonment of Jason. The jury acquitted him. 4

The Life Tabernacle Church certainly does have some non-traditional beliefs, and appears to require strict discipline from its members. In her testimony, Kathy Tonkin (Jason's mother) testified and wrote in an affidavit about suspected sexual abuse with a minor child by a church member, extreme authoritarianism, undue influence, and family estrangement. 5

The crippling damage award, plus a large number of additional civil cases brought against it by the Church of Scientology International drove CAN into bankruptcy. Their office closed on 1996-JUN-21. They expressed concern on their web page that their records and cult archives may get into the wrong hands, that the information might be destroyed and that their donors, supporters and callers might be harassed.

The "Old CAN" subsequently suffered a series of legal defeats:

bullet Their 1998-APR-8 request to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld the 1995 ruling. The court ordered the old CAN to pay Jason Scott $875,000 in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages plus interest, dating from 1995. The court found that a CAN agent in Washington state made referrals for what they called "involuntary deprogramming" in which a person is held against their will and an attempt is made to alter their religious beliefs. The court found that "CAN members routinely referred people to deprogrammers." The court held that "under Washington law and 42 U.S .C. § 1985(3), referral of a parent to a 'deprogrammer' by an anti-cult group's volunteer 'contact' person is sufficient to establish vicarious liability to an involuntarily 'deprogrammed' child." 3
bullet On 1998-JUL-30, the United States 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the bankruptcy court sale of the CAN name, hotline telephone number and other assets. 6,7
bullet The old CAN's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court also failed. Their lawyers commented: "A decision [by the Court of Appeals] that silences the message of an advocacy organization has serious nationwide consequences.'' Jason Scott's lawyers said that the old CAN's arguments were  "factually and legally without merit.'' On 1999-MAR-22, the U.S. Supreme Court took no action, thus allowing the Appeal Court decision to stand. 8

An analysis of data from the old CAN's files was presented at the meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion on 2000-OCT-21. 1 The paper revealed fascinating details about CAN's internal workings and their close interactions with coercive deprogrammers. There are allegations of financial kickback from deprogrammers to CAN. There are also allegations of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and illegal drug use during some deprogramming sessions.

This essay continues below.

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The "New" Cult Awareness Network (CAN ™) - after 1996-OCT-22:

On 1996-OCT-23, in an ironic twist, some of CAN assets were sold in bankruptcy court to the highest bidder, Steven L. Hayes, of the law firm "Bowles & Hayes". This included rights to their name, logo, Post Office box and hot-line phone number. The CAN files and library resources were not included in the purchase. Hayes had collected money from a coalition of religious freedom advocates, among the most active of which were a number of Scientologists. Hayes, himself a member of the Church of Scientology, said he was working with a group who are "united in their distaste for CAN." All of the $20,000 that he used to purchase the rights came from private donations; none came from the Church of Scientology

Hayes licensed the CAN™ name to a new corporation which was registered in California in 1997-JAN. It is called "Foundation for Religious Freedom" and is run by a multi-faith Board of Directors. The initial chairperson is Dr. George Robertson, a Baptist minister from Maryland Bible Collect. Their goals are to attack religious bigotry and promote respect for individual religious freedom. They have established a Web site 9 and operate a "hot line" (1-800-556-3055) for anyone worried about involvement a religious group. They have available a list of over 50 religious scholars and religious freedom advocates who act as referrals for the new CAN.

Since the verdict against the old CAN by the district court was originally announced, the numbers of kidnappings and attempts at deprogramming in the US have dropped sharply. Scott's attorney, Kendrick Moxon, commented: "This decision is a milestone for religious and civil rights in America and the end of an era of anti-religious fanaticism." Dr. George Robertson said, "We applaud this decision as the death blow to a former reign of religious terrorism, fueled by lies, fear and bigotry. We feel religious liberty is America's most important freedom." He also said, "Having now helped over 6,000 callers we are extremely pleased to continue our work repairing the damage of the old CAN. We provide people with factual information and reconcile families. The old CAN only fomented disharmony."

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References cited above:

  1. Anson Shupe & Susan Darnell, "CAN, We hardly knew ye: Sex, drugs, deprogrammers' kickbacks, and corporate crime in the (old) Cult Awareness Network." Reprinted at:  
  2. Rick Ross, personal E-mail 1997-JAN-12
  3. The CAN/Ross/Scott decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on 1988-APR-8 is at: and at:
  4. Rick Ross has a personal web page containing "over 270 articles, letters, and book excerpts." See:
  5. An affidavit of Katherine L. Tonkin dated 1994-DEC-12 concerning her family's experiences with the Life Tabernacle Church can be read at:
  6. A copy of the CAN decision of 1998-JUL-30 is on-line at:
  7. "CAN Legal Status Continues," by CENSUR is a review of recent developments involving the "old" and "new" Cult Awareness Networks at:
  8. Reuters, "Supreme Court denies appeal by anti-cult group," 1999-MAR-22
  9. The new Cult Awareness Network as reorganized by the "Foundation for Religious Freedom" has a Web site at: The "old" Cult Awareness Network (CAN) had a home page at: <> This link has been dead for some time. Someone has placed a copy of that site at:

Copyright © 1996 to 2001 incl. and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2004-MAR-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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