The Anti-Cult Movement
The Cult Awareness Network (CAN)
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:
|Child Abuse in Cults|
|Cults on College Campuses|
|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
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
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
"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."
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.
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
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:
|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|
|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.
|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.
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."
- Anson Shupe & Susan Darnell, "CAN, We hardly knew ye: Sex,
drugs, deprogrammers' kickbacks, and corporate crime in the (old) Cult
Awareness Network." Reprinted at:
- Rick Ross, personal E-mail 1997-JAN-12
- The CAN/Ross/Scott decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on 1988-APR-8 is at: http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Senate/3803/wpage03.html
and at: http://www.cesnur.org/Scott.htm
- Rick Ross has a personal web page containing "over 270 articles, letters, and
book excerpts." See: http://www.rickross.com
- An affidavit of Katherine L. Tonkin dated 1994-DEC-12 concerning her family's
experiences with the Life Tabernacle Church can be read at: http://www.rickross.com/reference/Witness5.html
- A copy of the CAN decision of 1998-JUL-30 is on-line at: http://www.cesnur.org/CAN-name.htm
- "CAN Legal Status Continues," by CENSUR is a review of recent
developments involving the "old" and "new" Cult Awareness Networks at:
- Reuters, "Supreme Court denies appeal by anti-cult group,"
- The new Cult Awareness Network as reorganized by the "Foundation
for Religious Freedom" has a Web site at: http://www.cultawarenessnetwork.org The
"old" Cult Awareness Network (CAN) had a home page at:
< http://www.xnet.com/~can/index.htm> This link has been dead for some time. Someone
has placed a copy of that site at: http://home.icon.fi/~marina/can/canpage/
Copyright © 1996 to 2001 incl. and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2004-MAR-31
Author: B.A. Robinson