A United States federal judge has thrown out a racketeering and defamation lawsuit filed against New Zealand website operator, Ian Mander, by a Maine-based spiritual healing organisation.
The US group mounted a legal campaign against former members who wrote that they had been financially and sexually exploited by the group’s leaders.
But senior US District Judge Gene Carter found that “no reasonable person could conclude” that the former members of the Gentle Wind Project, Judy Garvey and her husband, Jim Bergin, violated federal racketeering laws when they worked with the operators of websites to publish articles in which the couple compared the organisation to a “mind control cult“.
Because Bergin, Garvey and website operators communicated through e-mail, Gentle Wind mounted a lawsuit claim under the US Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisation Act, which was developed to prosecute organised crime figures, the Portland Press Herald reported today.
Some of the website operators settled the case by removing the Gentle Wind content from their sites, and though Mr Mander did not respond to the complaint, he was dismissed from the case along with Bergin and Garvey.
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Judge Carter also dismissed claims of defamation and “false light” invasion of privacy, saying they did not belong in a federal court.
The decision was welcomed by Bergin and Garvey as the end of their three-year legal battle, which began when they started speaking publicly about their 17-year involvement with Gentle Wind.
In their articles, which were quoted in the lawsuit, Bergin and Garvey alleged that Gentle Wind controlled their lives, leading them to sell a profitable publishing business in Massachusetts and donate tens of thousands of dollars to the organisation.
“After 17 years of keeping our mouths closed and our minds closed, we had a right to speak out,” Garvey said. “I think this ruling will make it a whole lot harder to stop a former member of a group to speak out.”
Gentle Wind’s president, Mary “Moe” Miller, said the organisation would either mount a new lawsuit in a state court, or appeal in the federal court, or both, because the group had lost more than $US1 million ($NZ1.44 million) in revenue since the articles were published.
“Our company was a 22-year-old non-profit in good standing,” Ms Miller said. “Our life’s work has been destroyed, and we feel we have to hold the people who did that to us responsible.”
Court documents said the group took shape in the 1970s when Mary Miller was introduced to plastic “healing instruments” by her former graduate school classmate John “Tubby” Miller. Over time the group produced a wide variety of products, including brightly coloured laminated cards and plastic disks.
According to John Miller and Mary Miller, their design comes in the form of blueprints via telepathic communications from spiritual entities known by the Gentle Wind Project as “The Company”.
According to the group, the instruments were distributed for free, but users were asked to donate from $US250 to $US7800, and the group collected more than $US1 million a year before the bad publicity.
In late 2003, Garvey wrote an article describing sexual rituals that she claimed John Miller said were necessary for the creation of the instruments, published the article on her own website and provided it to the operators of other sites, who posted links to the article.
Bergin followed with his own article in which he described an apparent similarity between “cults and high-control groups” and Gentle Wind.
Daniel Rosenthal of the Portland law firm Verrill Dana, Gentle Wind’s lawyer, said he was disappointed with Carter’s ruling, but Bergin’s and Garvey’s accusations were false.
Rosenthal said Gentle Wind will decide how to proceed within a week.