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The Rise and Fall of “Deprogramming” In the United States PDF Print E-mail

By Dan Fefferman

July 21, 2010

based in part on ICRF’s “White Paper Report and Call To Action To Uphold The Right of Thought and Conscience by Ending Forcible Deprogramming” (2003) by Lee J. Boothby, Esq.


Although the crime of secret confinement and forced exit from religious minority groups has been brought to a virtual end in the United States, this human rights felony still continues with impunity in contemporary Japan. The purpose of this paper is to outline the history of “deprogramming” in the U.S., in order to develop insights that may be useful for eradicating this human rights abuse in Japan and elsewhere if necessary. This approach focuses mainly on the legal arena, touching only briefly on public relations and other related aspects.


At the outset, we should be aware that the US experience does not exactly parallel that of Japan. For example:

  • The US legal system involves a more complex relationship between local, state, and federal courts than exists in Japan.
  • The tactics of early faith-breakers in the US was recognized quite quickly as being illegal, thanks in part to the shameless attitude of criminal actors such as Ted Patrick, who was convicted no less than four times on criminal charges.
  • In the U.S., “deprogrammers” often did the “dirty work” of kidnapping and confinement, making it relatively easy to bring charges against them.  In Japan, especially in the last two decades, these faith-breakers have acted mainly as “consultants” who advised families to kidnap believers and then sought to “persuade” victims only after they had been confined.
  • The presence of many diverse religious groups who were victimized in the US made it relatively easy to form coalitions that transcended denominations. This has not been the case in Japan.
  • The tradition of civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a left-liberal group that prides itself on standing up for the rights of those with whom it disagrees, is also not strong yet in Japan.
  • The role of Christian ministers, and especially of mainline churches, was much more negative in Japan than in the US, where the National of Council of Churches proved to be one of the most outspoken opponents of faith-breaking.


A. The Origin of ‘Deprogramming’ in the United States

In spite of both international commitments and clear judicial precedents based on the First Amendment’s, thousands of individuals in the United States were subjected serious abuse when exercising a most basic human right -- the right to change or adopt a different religious belief from that of their family of origin.[1] During the 1970s and 1980s some government officials at the local level even lent state power and authority to faith-breaking.[2] As in Japan, many prosecutors and courts turned a blind eye to this obviously criminal conduct – including such felonies as assault, battery, kidnapping, and false imprisonment – when young people, even though of legal age, embraced a religious belief contrary to the wishes of their parents.

Ted Patrick, who has been called the “father of deprogramming,” began investigating a religious group known as the Children of God in 1971.  He concluded that it was his life’s mission to bring people out of what he called “cults” and “pseudo-religions.” Because these groups often involved strong communal lifestyles, Patrick believed that the only way out for such people was to be forcibly removed from their communities so that he could bring them back to “reality.” To justify this action, he claimed that the devotees of these religious groups we no longer able to exercise their free will, and had been “programmed” by their leaders through “mind control.” He thus coined the term “deprogramming” to describe the process by which he “liberated” believers by kidnapping them, holding them against their will in secret locations, and criticizing their religious beliefs and practices until they succumbed to his pressure and agreed to leave their groups.

Patrick’s techniques spawned a “cottage industry” of faith-breaking in the US.  From 1971 through the 1980s, people without any professional training in religion or psychology acted as vigilantes, paid by the worried families of victims, to remove thousands of believers from their communities. In his book, Let Our Children Go, Patrick admits employing physical violence, secret incarceration, shame, and deprivation of food and sleep – the very tactics he accused the “cults” of using.[3] By 1979 Patrick alone boasted of “deprogramming” nearly 1,600 people from the Hare Krishna movement, the Unification Church, the Children of God, the Church of Scientology, the Divine Light Mission, the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, the Worldwide Church of God and others. Dozens of other faith-breakers followed Patrick’s example, many of them former members who had been pressured by Patrick to leave their groups. Professional private investigators likewise saw opportunities to develop a lucrative business for themselves by kidnapping and deprogramming members of various religious groups, and even of certain political movements. Perhaps even more troubling, the theory of “mind control” gained popular acceptance, to such a degree that certain psychologists were willing to declare a person mentally incompetent without ever having met them, simply because he or she had joined a certain group. Some judges even issued legal “conservatorships” requiring police to take the person by force and turn them over to the custody of their families and “deprogrammers.”[4]

Professors Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony explained why deprogrammers seized upon the “brainwashing” theory they employ to justify their “deprogramming” work:

Deprogrammers and anti-cult activists assert that the relevant issue is not freedom of religion but freedom of thought; that is, freedom from the insidious mind control to which cults are accused of subjecting their members.  But candidates for deprogramming are generally assumed to be brainwashed simply by virtue of their affiliation with a certain religious sect.  When deprogrammers, outraged parents, and anti-cult activists have their way, adult cult converts are subject to deprogramming without prior hearings in which they may contest allegations of their incompetence and without prior psychiatric examinations.[5]

B.  The Role of Religious And Civil Liberties Organizations

As victims sometimes escaped and told their stories, the mainstream religious and civil liberties communities in the US soon began to speak out in opposition to “deprogramming.”  The much-respected “National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.” became alarmed and concluded that this type of faith-breaking was a serious threat to religious liberty.  On February 28, 1974, its governing board adopted a resolution in which it condemned such activities, stating that “forcible abduction and protracted efforts to change a person’s religious commitments of duress” was a gross violation of religious liberty.[6] The NCC denounced the use of “kidnapping to compel religious deconversion” as a “criminal” act that should be prosecuted as such. Rev. Dean M. Kelley became a leading observer of the deprogramming phenomenon and advocate of religious freedom. He stated:


People who otherwise are circumspect and law-abiding will suddenly feel obliged to react as to a terrible disaster.  They will take the law into their own hands, hire thugs to “rescue” the convert, spend tens of thousands of dollars to reverse the conversion, and if caught and accused of crime, will plead “necessity” -- i.e., that their action was taken in an “emergency” to forestall a far worse evil.  What evil?  The exercise by an adult of the right to change religion![7]

A few years later on March 5, 1977, the National Board of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement opposing “kidnapping people from religious groups.”[8] It stated:

[The]ACLU opposes the use of mental incompetency proceedings, temporary conservatorship, or denial of government protection as a method of depriving people of the free exercise of religion, at least with respect to people who have reached the age of majority.

The Congressional Research Service of The Library of Congress in July1977 analyzed the legal implications of taking religious converts over state lines for deprogramming purposes.[9] The report concluded that “even a benevolent purpose does not immunize a captor from liability under the federal kidnapping statute.”  It stated:

Consequently, it would appear that the forcible taking of an adult child across state lines by its parents for deprogramming purpose would be actionable under the federal kidnapping statute.  The parents and their agents would not be immunized by the parental exception in the statute, because that concerns only the taking of minor children by their parents.  Nor would the parents be immunized from prosecution by the supposed benevolence of their purpose: …the statute covers kidnapping not only for pecuniary motives but also for “any other reason.”

The report also questioned any state intervention or ratification of parental abductions of their minor children, stating:

…[I]t is clear that state intervention in, or ratification of, parental abductions of the adult children for deprogramming purposes raises serious First Amendment questions.  Absent an adequate showing of the sect member’s incompetence and consequent inability to make free and informed choices for himself or of some other compelling reason for state intervention, it would appear that the sect member’s rights of religious freedom under the First Amendment would be violated by state sanctions of this removal and deprogramming.[10]

C.  Criminal and Civil Litigation Responds to Forcible Deprogramming

These findings by mainline churches, civil liberties groups, and government authorities were significant in laying the foundation for the ultimate defeat of faith-breaking in the Unites States by 1977. However, it would be criminal and civil court decisions that finally brought “deprogramming” to an end by putting the perpetrators in jail, punishing abusive parents with financial consequences, and finally putting the mainstay of the anti-cult movement—the Cult Awareness Network—out of business.

The following representative cases show the progression of legal reasoning in dealing with the issue.  However, it should be kept in mind that many other cases can also be cited. Ultimately, the courts concluded that forcible deprogramming cannot be squared with the principles of religious liberty and also is a violation of criminal laws.

The Wendy Helander Case

In September 1976 the Fairfield County Superior Court in Bridgeport, Connecticut, ordered Ted Patrick to pay $5,000 to Wendy Helander, a young woman who had been a victim of Patrick’s deprogramming because of her affiliation with the Unification Church.[11] The court noted she was held for several weeks practically as a prisoner.


Through surreptitious means, the plaintiff was taken from Barrytown against her will to a secluded residence in Weston, Connecticut, where she was informed that she would undergo a “deprogramming” procedure by the defendant Theodore Patrick, Jr., who was referred to as “Black Lightning,” and his assistants, the defendant, insisting that she had been brainwashed by the church, labeled her a vegetable, a dog, a bitch, and maintained that she was out of her mind.  He insisted that she denounce the church and accused her of being a prostitute for Rev. Moon when she tried to defend her affiliation with the Unification Church.  For many hours, without food or sleep, she was addressed in foul language and was intimidated by the defendant.


The Helander case against Patrick was one of the most famous, but by no means the only case in which the “father of deprogramming” was found guilty of criminal offenses. Patrick was also convicted in June of 1974 in Denver, Colorado, for false imprisonment.  In May of 1975 he was again convicted, this time for kidnapping. In 1980 he was once again convicted in San Diego, California, for kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.  He was sentenced to a year in jail, fined $5,000, and prohibited from any further deprogramming as a condition to avoid a sentence of five years in jail.[12]

The Darlene Sense Case

Some courts in the United States’ Midwest were not as sensitive to religious freedom concerns.  During the 1970s a judge and armed law enforcement officers in several Wisconsin counties authorized and assisted in the abduction of several adult members of a group known as the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, a fundamentalist Christian organization with approximately 200 members in the Midwest.

In August, 1977 a secret hearing was held before a Wisconsin county circuit judge.  After the hearing, the judge found Darlene Sense, 32, mentally incompetent to handle her own affairs and those of her two children.  The judge gave temporary guardianship of Mrs. Sense and her children to her parents. Outrageously, Ms. Sense was never notified of the hearing or given a chance to argue on her own behalf.  The judge also agreed to seal the court records to keep the abduction plan secret, thus foiling any rescue attempt.  In addition, Sense was denied the right to counsel or to secure witnesses on her own behalf.  She was held against her will for 13 days until another judge ordered her release.  This judge ruled that Sense had been illegally restrained.  He also removed the guardianship order and restored her children to her. Sense filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. This court ruled on May 19, 1980 that the judge who conspired to deprive her of her freedom could not be held liable for his part in the deprogramming plan, because of judicial immunity.  Others named in the civil suit filed by Sense, however, settled out of court for $25,000.

The Nancy Lofgren Case

On July 2, 1976, Nancy Lofgren, another member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was abducted by deprogrammers and held for 12 days of deprogramming before she was able to escape.  Lofgren was seized on a Sunday as she was entering a Howard Johnson’s Motel in Rochester, Minnesota, to attend religious services.  She was thrown into a car by her abductors. They wore no uniforms or badges and gave her no explanation of what was happening. However, in fact, they were the county sheriff’s deputies.  Later, in federal court depositions, the three deputies admitted their actions.  The wife of the late sheriff of the county also admitted her husband’s role in planning the abduction and said he did so because he was a family friend.

The first stage of abduction did not take long.  A Minnesota highway patrol officer, alerted about the abduction, stopped the car at gunpoint near Zumbrota, Minnesota, about 25 minutes later.  Lofgren was taken to the Rochester State Hospital on a 72-hour mental confinement order, hastily scrawled by the sheriff.  When fellow members of the Disciples learned of her whereabouts and demanded her release, nurses took her out a side door of the hospital to her waiting parents.  She was then dragged, kicking and screaming, into a car which took her to Roseville, a Minneapolis suburb, for 10 days of deprogramming.

While there, Lofgren was visited by her parents’ pastor on several occasions.  The faith-breaker, a Christian minister, did not disclose her location even when asked by police, on grounds that he did not want to violate pastor-parishioner confidentiality.  Officials did not press the issue. Lofgren was then moved to a home in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and escaped the next day when she was left unguarded, fleeing to the Golden Valley police station.  There, she eventually was allowed to call the leader of her religious group.  She then learned that the sheriff had been issuing news releases saying she was under doctor’s care and that she was with her parents of her own free will.  The sheriff handcuffed her and took her back to the state hospital.  She was finally released after hospital officials decided they had no good reason to hold her as a mental patient.  She ultimately won $21,000 from her abductors in an out-of-court settlement of a suit filed in federal court in Minneapolis.

Because they were settled out of court, the Sense and Lofgen cases established no clear legal precedents, but they did show that those who conspired to violate the rights of believers would have to pay a price, even if they were assisted by judges and the police.

The Susan Peterson Case

The Peterson case, however, presented a set-back to religious freedom and temporarily encouraged the deprogrammers. In this case, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that once a person stopped resisting her captors, even though she was ‘cooperating’ under duress, the fact that she had been held against her will did not constitute a “meaningful deprivation of personal liberty sufficient to support a judgment for false imprisonment.”

In May, 1976, Mrs. Margaret Jungclaus spoke to Kathy Mills, a professional faith-breaker credited with 41 “deprogrammings,” about the possibility of deprogramming Jungclaus’ daughter, Susan, who had become involved with a religious organization called The Way Ministry.  At that time, Susan was 21 years old and engaged to a fellow Way member, Kevin Peterson, whom she later married. At this meeting, deprogrammer Mills suggested that Mrs. Jungclaus’ daughter -- a person Mills had never met -- had been “brainwashed.”  Before Mrs. Jungclaus decided to have her daughter “deprogrammed,” however, she discussed the matter with a Lutheran clergyman from Bird Island, Minnesota.

On May 24, 1976, Susan was picked up at Moorhead State University, where she had been studying, by her father and the minister.  The three drove to a house occupied by Veronica Morgel, Kathy Mills’ mother, who was also a “deprogrammer.” Susan’s father took his adult daughter to a small bedroom in the Morgel house where she was held against her will from May 24 to May 31.  Susan screamed and cried and pleaded with several people to let her go, but her pleas were ignored.  Her protest continued until approximately 3:00 a.m. on May 31.  During this time Kathy Mills told Susan that papers had been drafted to commit her to Anoka State Hospital if she refused to cooperate with the deprogramming.  She then ceased objecting, played a more passive role, and attempted to gain her captors trust. After a closely guarded trip to Ohio for “rehabilitation,” on June 9, Susan escaped by flagging down a police car after sneaking out of the house.  She was taken to the Northeast Minneapolis Precinct by two police officers and was then freed to leave with her fiancé’s father.

Susan later filed a civil lawsuit.  A jury trial was held, and on February 17, 1978, judgment was entered in favor of Susan against Kathy Mills in the sum of $6,000 and against Veronica Morgel in the amount of $4,000. However, on appeal, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned this ruling and sided with the abductors, saying:

“When parents, or their agents, acting under the conviction that the judgmental capacity of the adult child is impaired, seek to extricate that child from what they reasonably believe to be `a religious or pseudo-religious’ cult, and the child at some juncture assents to the activities in question, limitations upon the child’s mobility do not constitute meaningful deprivation of personal liberty sufficient to support a judgment for false imprisonment.” [emphasis added]

Justice Wahl, in a dissenting opinion, noted that under the theory advanced in the court’s decision, an individual’s `acquiescence’ in the latter stages of deprogramming operates as consent which `relates back’ to the events of the earlier three days and constitutes a `waiver’ of her claims of those days.” Recognizing the danger of the majority’s holding, Justice Wahl denounced it as a “dangerous precedent.” Justice Otis, in a separate dissenting opinion, also protested, stating:

I join in the views expressed by Justice Wahl, and particularly take issue with a rule which authorizes what is euphemistically described as “limitations upon the adult child’s mobility” whenever a parent, or indeed a stranger acting for a parent, subjectively decides, without the benefit of a professional opinion or judicial intervention, that the adult child’s “judgmental capacity” is impaired and that they should be “extricated” from what is deemed to be a religious or pseudo-religious cult.

Despite these warnings, this case became the key decision and was relied upon by the anti-cult movement throughout the United States as justification for their deprogramming activities.  However, the Minnesota Supreme Court decision was subsequently repudiated by a Federal Court in the William Eilers litigation.

The William Eilers Case

Bill and Sandy Eilers were members of The Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ -- the same group as in the Darlene Sense and Nancy Lofgren cases. On August 16, 1982, Bill Eilers, aged 24, and his pregnant wife, Sandy, 22, were abducted as they were leaving the Winona Clinic following Sandy’s prenatal examination.  Bill was grabbed from behind by two security men and forced into a waiting van.  Sandy was placed in another van, and both of them were driven to a religious retreat house a short distance away.  Bill, although forcibly resisting, was carried by four men to a room on the top floor of the dormitory-style building.  The windows of his room and the hallway were boarded over with plywood, and the telephone in the hallway had been dismantled.  Bill and Sandy were held in separate quarters for 5 1/2 days.  Shortly after their arrival Bill had a violent struggle with his captors and was subsequently handcuffed to his bed.  He remained handcuffed to the bed for at least two days of his confinement.  During the initial period Bill was allowed out of the room only to use the bathroom and was heavily guarded during those times.  On one occasion when Bill had to use the bathroom, one of his abductors kicked a wastebasket toward him and told him he was an animal and could just use the wastebasket. During his confinement Bill was physically abused, threatened with mace, and told that he would be kept confined until he had been successfully deprogrammed.  At no time during the week was Bill free to leave, nor at any time were reasonable means of escape available to him.

On the evening of August 21, 1982, as Bill Eilers was leaving his temporary prison to be transported to Iowa City, Iowa for further deprogramming, he took advantage of his first opportunity to escape and jumped from the car in which he was riding.  Some of his captors pursued him.  Others sped away from the scene in an apparent attempt to elude the police, who had been called by local residents.  The Winona Police Department, however, apprehended one carload of deprogrammers and placed them under arrest.  A formal criminal complaint was filed against all but one of those who were captured by the police.

On October 7, 1982, the grand jury selected to hear the evidence in the criminal case returned a verdict of “no bill,” thus dismissing all charges brought against the deprogrammers in the case and holding them blameless. Because grand jury proceedings are sealed, we may never know exactly what happened within the grand jury room. However, it is probable that the Minnesota Supreme Court decision in the Peterson case was an important ingredient in the grand jury’s decision.  Also important was the fact that the prosecuting attorney did not call any of the deprogrammers to testify as witnesses.

When a civil suit was filed against the deprogrammers by Bill Eilers, the defendants claimed they had acted only “to exercise their constitutional rights of free speech.”  The deprogrammers also quickly asserted they had no liability for what they had done because under the decision in Peterson they were relieved of any liability as agents of the parents.  To them, Peterson seemed to provide safe haven for their illicit operations in Minnesota.

At the conclusion of the Eilers trial, United States District Judge Harry MacLaughlin entered a directed verdict[13] of guilty on false imprisonment counts against each of the defendants.  In his opinion,[14] Judge MacLaughlin stated:

There is also no question that the plaintiff was actually confined.  Relying on the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision in Peterson v. Sorlien, 299 N.W.2d 123, 129 (Minn. 1980), the defendants contend that there was no actual confinement because there is evidence that the plaintiff consented to the defendants’ actions.  At least by the fourth day of his confinement the plaintiff, in contrast, has testified that he merely pretended to consent in order to gain an opportunity to escape.  The plaintiff’s apparent consent is not a defense to false imprisonment. Many people would feign consent under similar circumstances, whether out of fear of their captors or as a means of making an escape. . .

Judge MacLaughlin’s opinion in the Eilers case, coming on the Federal level and specifically refuting the ruling of the Minnesota Supreme Court, thus nullified the “choice of evils” defense of the Peterson case.  No longer could hired deprogrammers use vigilante methods to sell their services in the belief they could use the judicial system and the prejudices of the community to free them from both civil and criminal liability for their acts.  Bill Eilers was awarded $10,000 in damages, but in addition the family members and others settled out of court for $50,000.

The Thomas Ward Case

This case (completed in 1981) clearly established at the level of a Federal Appeals Court the right of an adult child to sue his deprogrammers, on the basis that new religions cannot be considered “cults” whose members lack civil rights, but constitute a class of minorities whose rights must be protected under US law.

On November 24, 1975, Unification Church member Thomas Ward came to visit his family in Virginia for the Thanksgiving holiday.  But he was kidnapped at the airport and taken against his will to a location where deprogrammer Ken Connor and others restrained, assaulted, and deprived Ward of sleep.  Ward was taken from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was constantly subjected to physical and mental abuse.

The lower United States District Court initially ruled against Ward and concluded that “since the parents of the plaintiff were motivated to act by their concern for the well-being of their son, the requisite discriminatory class bias was absent.”  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Ward v. Connor, 654 F.2d 45 (4th Cir. 1981), however, overturned this verdict, stating:

While we do not quarrel with the court’s assumption in regard to such parental concern, the complaint sufficiently charges that the defendants were motivated to act as they did not only because they found the plaintiff’s religious beliefs intolerable, but also because of their animosity towards the members of the Unification Church.  This, in our opinion, stated a discriminatory motive sufficient to support a claim under the statute.

In this way a solid body of jurisprudence began to develop rejecting both the argument that parental concern can justify holding an adult child against his will for purposes of “deprogramming” and the argument that a victim’s eventual cooperation with his captors negates his rights to sue for harm.

The Molko Case

This case, known formally as Molko and Leal v. Holy Spirit Association, did not involve faith-breaking per se but is important for it’s role in defeating the “brainwashing” defense that many deprogrammers used to justify their activities. Here, two former members of the Unification Church sued the church on the grounds that they had been victims of “coercive persuasion,” false imprisonment, intentional emotional distress, and deception. The case resembles in some ways the “lost youth” cases in Japan, in which plaintiffs won financial settlements from the UC. Here, however, the UC was not found to be liable, and the allegation of brainwashing was dealt a fatal blow.

In Molko, the plaintiffs relied largely on the testimony of psychologist Margaret Singer to justify their claim that they had been victims of “coercive persuasion.” A lower court rejected this analysis and emphatically denied that any coercion was evident.  It granted a “summary judgment” (without trial) in favor of the HSA (church). On March 31, 1986, the California Appeals Court upheld the lower court’s findings.[15]

As the case continued through the appeal process, the American Psychological Association filed a “friend of the court” (amicus) brief. [16] The brief stated that the idea of brainwashing, as related to religious movements, had no scientific basis.  At a later date, the American Sociological Association submitted a similar brief, showing that a consensus that had emerged in the scientific community to reject the concept of  brainwashing as it applied to new religious movements.  Other groups filing amicus briefs that sided with the UC in this case included the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the National Council of Churches, the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The California Supreme Court eventually reversed the Appeals Court on some theoretical points and upheld it on others. However, the UC was not judged guilty of any of the charges. Moreover, the brainwashing theory had been thoroughly discredited as an academic concept and the courts soon began to reject this theory completely.[17]

The Britta Adolfsson Case

In People of the State of Colorado v. Dennis Whelan and Robert Brandyberry,[18] two men, Robert Brandyberry and Dennis Whelan, both professional deprogrammers hired by Britta Adolfsson’s parents, admitted to have abducted this 31 year old woman. However, they argued in a criminal case that they were not guilty of a crime. The trial court agreed that they were not guilty of a criminal conspiracy and kidnapping, under a “choice of evils” defense.  This defense was based on the defendants’ claim that the victim had been “brainwashed” by the religious group of which she was a member and not therefore exercising “free will” with respect to her religious beliefs.[19]

However, the district attorney representing the state believed the case represented an erroneous judicial holding and appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals seeking judicial guidance as to “[w]hat kind of behavior is the law prepared to recognize as justifiable?”

Consistent with its 1974 Resolution, the National Council of Churches, together with Council on Religious Freedom, filed a friend of the court brief supporting the state’s position.  That amicus brief argued that

the trial judge clearly erred in permitting the jury to decide whether the claimed facts and circumstances could constitute justification without first specifically finding as a matter of law whether the asserted facts… that the actions taken by defendants were necessary as an emergency measure to avoid imminent injury and that there were no lawful means available to meet the perceived emergency.  The judge’s failure to carry out his statutory assigned role, however, has far graver consequences than in the more traditional criminal actions.  The court’s failure to make the appropriate determination as a matter of law permitted a criminal action directed against admitted violators of a serious criminal statute to turn the case into a heresy trial.[20]


The brief noted that the “necessity” defense raised here was the same defense used by one of the defendants, Robert Brandyberry, in the Eilers case in Minnesota.[21] The brief pointed out that the Eilers court specifically held that the defendants’ failure to attempt to use the lawful alternative available to them effectively eliminated the “choice of evils” necessity defense citing Eilers, 582 F. Supp. at 1099.[22]

The Colorado Court of Appeals adopted the argument made by the National Council of Churches in its amicus brief, deciding in future legal actions to preclude the use of the “choice of evils” defense.[23] The appeals court said:

Here, even if we were to assume that defendants rationally perceived that the victim’s membership in the church posed a threat of an imminent injury to her, they failed to show that the remedy they elected to pursue (knowing violation of criminal laws) was the least harmful option available to them for avoiding the threatened injury.

Moreover, there is no evidence that defendants sought assistance or alternative remedies from law enforcement officials or from the courts, either prior to or after kidnapping the victim.  Rather, defendants planned the abduction with the victim’s parents without benefit of legal advice about what reasonable legal alternatives might be available to avoid any supposed injury to the victim other than the remedy they chose by violating the law. . . .  And, after the victim was seized, the defendants actively concealed her whereabouts from police authorities, continued their unauthorized custody and deprogramming efforts, and moved the victim repeatedly to avoid governmental or other outside interference with their activities.

The Jason Scott Case

Although deprogramming was already on the decline, the Jason Scott case sealed the doom of the deprogramming movement in the United States and put the Cult Awareness Network, which actively conspired with the faith-breakers, out of business. Jason Scott, at the time of the failed deprogramming attempt on him in January 1991, was an 18-year-old member of the Life Tabernacle Church, affiliated with the United Pentecostal Church International.[24]

A jury in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, after a six-day trial in Scott v. Ross, found the plaintiff Jason Scott’s abduction by deprogrammer Rick Ross and his team had violated Scott’s civil rights and that it constituted criminal negligence. They awarded Scott $875,000 in compensatory damages and $4 million in punitive damages.  The jury allocated 10 percent of the negligence liability and $1 million of the punitive damages against the anti-cult organization, Cult Awareness Network (“CAN”), formerly incorporated under the name of Citizen’s Freedom Foundation, on the grounds that CAN had conspired with Ross to deprive Scott of his civil rights.

The Cult Awareness Network filed an appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit with respect to the jury’s verdict finding CAN liable for conspiracy and negligence.[25] The court of appeals noted that “[t]he evidence indicates that it was CAN’s practice to refer people to deprogrammers, including Rick Ross, and that Ross was known to engage in involuntary deprogramming.”  The court found it important that CAN’s executive director had given referrals to Ross.  The court found sufficient evidence, if believed by the jury, to establish that CAN members routinely referred people to deprogrammers, including Ross, that Ross conducted involuntary deprogrammings, and that CAN was aware that Ross conducted involuntary deprogrammings.  The court also held that even though CAN had an official policy prohibiting involuntary deprogramming, this neither undermined the evidence concerning CAN’s practices nor precluded the imposition of vicarious liability on CAN.  Following the court of appeals decision, CAN filed for bankruptcy.

Summary and Conclusion

Although there were setbacks along the way, the legal battle against abduction and faith-breaking in the US generally followed a steady path to victory. Beginning with the convictions of Ted Patrick in the 1970s through the death-blow dealt to the Cult Awareness Network in 1991, the “deprogrammers” found themselves on the outside of the law. Even when police and local judges cooperated with them, their legal victories were short-lived. Civil libertarians and the mainline churches were outspoken in the opposition to faith-breaking. Wrong decisions by judges were overturned by higher courts.

Looking back over this brief survey of a complex history, one turning point in the battle appears to be the Eileers case, in which a federal appeals court overturned the decision of the Minnesota Supreme Court which had ruled that any cooperation with one’s captors, even in order to obtain and opportunity of escape, provided the abductors with legal cover for their crime. The Molko case resulted in the thorough discrediting of the “brainwashing” theory. The Ward case officially established that minority religions such as the Unification Church were a “protected class” deserving of First Amendment protections of religious liberty. The Britta Adolfsson case showed that the “choice of evils” defense did not protect parents and faith-breakers from legal liability. Finally, the Jason Scott case established that a supposedly “educational” group such as the Cult Awareness Network, could be held legally liable for violating a persons civil rights by collaborating in faith-breaking.


[1] The freedom to change one's religion, to adopt a religion, and to have a religion or no religion without coercion is a universal human right guaranteed by international standards.  See Human Rights Committee, General Comment No. 22 (48) (art. 18), U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4 (1993); Arcot Kreshnaswami, Study of Discrimination in the Matter of Religious Rights and Practices, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/Sub.2/200 Rev. 1, (1960).

[2] There were several attempts by state governments to pass laws making deprogramming legal.                     New York was the first state to propose a deprogramming bill in 1981. It based both houses of the legislature but was vetoed by then-Governor Hugh Carey. Similar attempts to legalize deprogramming also met with failure in Kansas, New Jersey, Nebraska, and Maryland.

[3]Ted Patrick in his own book described his "rescue" work with one of his victims:

Wes had taken up a position facing the car, with his hands on the roof and his legs spread-eagled. There was no way to get him inside while he was braced like that.  I had to make a quick decision.  I reached down between Wes's legs, grabbed him by the crotch and squeezed hard.  He let out a howl, and doubled up, grabbing for his groin with both hands.  Then I hit, shoving him headfirst into the back seat of the car and piling in on top of him.  -- T. Patrick with T. Dulack, Let Our Children Go p. 96 (1976).


[4] The history of the “brainwashing” theory of NRM conversion is not dealt with in detail in this paper. However, this theory played an important role in several important U.S. legal cases. For a detailed discussion of this issue, see J. Gordon Melton, “Brainwashing and the Cults: The Rise and Fall of a Theory,” Center for Studies on New Religions,, retrieved June 25, 2010.

[5] "Legitimating Repression" by Drs. Thomas Robbins of Central Michigan University, Dick Anthony of Graduate Theological Union, and James McCarthy of Sanctuary Institute, The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy: Sociological, Psychological, Legal and Historical Perspective 322 (David G. Bromley and James T. Richardson eds.) (The Edeven Mellen Press 1983).

[6] February 28, 1974, Resolution by the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches.

[7] Id.

[8] The March 5, 1977, Statement by the National Board of the ACLU.  Likewise, the Christian Legal Society condemned such conduct.

[9] The July 12, 1977, Report of the American Law Division of the Congressional Research Service of The Library of Congress as to the “Legal Implications of Taking Religious Converts Over State Lines for Deprogramming Purposes.”

[10] An editorial appearing in the June 25, 1985, edition of The Evening Sun concerning "Parents as Kidnappers" condemned law enforcement which ignored forcible deprogrammings on the basis of parental involvement.

[11] Memorandum of Decision in Helander v. Patrick issued by the Superior Court of Fairfield County, Connecticut.

[12] March 29, 1977, news story "Deprogrammer Starts Five-Month Sentence," appearing in the Denver Rocky Mountain News; letter from Bud Cullen, Canadian Minister of Employment and Immigration, to Walter Baker of the House of Commons dated November 24, 1978. See also: August 14, 1985, news article "Deprogrammer Sentenced to Prison" appearing in the Washington Times.

[13] A directed verdict is an order from the judge presiding over a jury trial that one side or the other wins. Typically, the judge orders a directed verdict after finding that no reasonable jury could reach a decision to the contrary

[14] 14 The case, Eilers v. Coy, 582 F. Supp. 1093 (D. Minn. 1987), is cited for the principle that:

Evidence that a plaintiff has been abducted and confined against his or her will for a period of days without any reasonable means to escape is sufficient to establish liability for false imprisonment under circumstances of attempted deprogramming particularly where the plaintiff is confined beyond the time required to turn the plaintiff over to lawful authorities and lawful alternatives such as civil commitments are not used.


[15] Biermans, John T. The Odyssey of New Religious Movements: Persecution, Struggle, Legitimation : a Case Study of the Unification Church. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1986, p. 200.



[18] Colorado Court of Appeals Docket No. 88 CA 1741.

[19] Deprogrammers earlier seized upon the "choice of evils" defense to escape conviction for false imprisonment in carrying out their forced deprogrammings.  In 1974 Ted Patrick advanced this defense when tried for false imprisonment of two young adult women who were not members of any religious sect.  They were raised in strict Greek Orthodox homes but rejected those beliefs.  The court rejected such a justification defense ruling: "First, for the choice of evils defense to be available there must be imminent public or private injury about to occur which requires emergency action."  People v. Patrick, 541 P.2d 320, 322 (Colo. App. 1975).  See article, Terror in Denver, appearing in the March/April, 1975, issue of Liberty magazine.

[20] Amicus Brief of the National Council of Churches and Council on Religious Freedom filed in People v. Whelan and Brandyberry, Colorado Court of Appeals, Case No. 88 CA 1741 (1989) at 3.

[21] Id. at 7.

[22] Id. at 16.

[23] People of the State of Colorado v. Robert Brandyberry and Dennis Whelan, No. 88-1741, slip op. at 11 (Colo. Ct. App. Nov. 23, 1990).


[24] The age of 18 years is the age of legal majority in the United States, except in Alabama and Nebraska (19); Mississippi and Puerto Rico (21).

[25] Scott v. Ross, 140 F.3d 1275 (9th Cir. 1998).