Division of family, faith

Division of family, faith
Some parents complain their children have been caught in the clutches of a cult, leading to a Brandon teacher’s dismissal.
St. Petersburg Times, Dec. 3, 2002
By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer

T[A — Christine Bowen said she worked hard and loved her job as a long-term substitute teacher at Brandon High School for the past six years.

But some parents said she used her position to recruit students for a Bible study led by her husband, Tom Bowen, that the parents allege is a cult.

The “sensitive nature” of the allegations was enough to get Mrs. Bowen fired this fall from the Hillsborough County school system.

“I do not have factual documentation to show she was actually, in fact, recruiting students,” said Linda Kipley, Hillsborough’s director of professional standards.

Whether true or not, the allegations have pitted family against family, have circulated through Brandon churches and have left the Bowens ensnarled in a religious controversy.

At least one parent said the Bowens have stolen his daughter.

The Bowens, however, vehemently deny any cult affiliation. They are not affiliated now with any church. They say they have Christian beliefs that are misunderstood by a handful of people, including some parents and leaders of at least two churches that have asked them to leave their congregations.

They say they are being harassed and stalked by parents of people who attended the weekly Bible studies once held in their home.

Mrs. Bowen said the family stopped having Bible studies at the advice of school officials.

“We cannot step out of this house without being attacked,” said Mrs. Bowen, 46, who claims her civil rights were violated. “I’ll tell you the truth, I’m scared for our lives.”

On the other side of the controversy are at least three sets of parents.

They say their young adult children have cut ties with them because of the Bowens, including two sons, Tim and Dan Pezzutti, who are now engaged to two of the Bowens’ daughters and live with the family.

Some of them refer to the couple as the “Bowenites.”

One family could not be reached for comment. Another refused to comment. The third said their daughter no longer speaks to them because of the Bowens.

“This is a destructive religious cult,” said Gerald Mussenden. “They basically encouraged kids to sever ties with their parents. They have. To sever ties with family. They have. To sever ties with friends. They have.”

Mussenden, a Brandon psychologist, wrote a school administrator in July and told him that Mrs. Bowen had recruited his daughter and her boyfriend at Brandon High to attend a Bible study.

At first, he was supportive of her spiritual growth. Then, he said, he noticed subtle personality changes, such as hostility toward him and his wife.

Eventually Gina Mussenden, Brandon High’s senior class president in 1999, ended all her involvement at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church and with her family because of their claims that she is in a cult.

Mussenden said the three families have become so concerned about their children they brought in a cult deprogrammer, David Clark. The St. Petersburg Times was unable to contact Clark.

“What my daughter told us is what is important is religious family, not biological family,” Mussenden said.

Gina Mussenden, 21, said her father is wrong. She claims her parents have ruined her reputation and harassed her.

In October, a judge denied her request for a restraining order against her father for insufficient evidence. She accused her father of making harassing phone calls.

“A lot of people are afraid to talk to me because they hear these vicious lies, that I’m in a cult,” said Gina Mussenden, who said she hopes to become a nurse. “I’m not in a cult. I’m not brainwashed.”

Gina Mussenden and Tim and Dan Pezzutti don’t call their parents Mom or Dad. “I have one father,” said Dan Pezzutti, 21. “He’s in heaven.”

The Bowens, who have a blended family of five children, said they never encouraged the young people to cut their family ties. They said they have told them to restore their relationships.

An expert who counsels former cult members said he is unsure whether the Bowens operate a cult.

Most cults are typically abusive, authoritarian or elitist to a fault, said John Wick, chief operating officer of the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center in Albany, Ohio. He said they’re usually deceptive as well.

“To be something I would call a cult, the individual would suffer in some way or have a negative impact,” said Wick, whose organization has counseled more than 600 former cult members. “Is it a long-term benefit to the individual or does it benefit the group?”

The Bowens said their beliefs are scripturally based and nondenominational. They believe the Bible is God’s faultless word, that Jesus Christ is the risen Savior — beliefs that most Christian churches espouse. But they were kicked out of one church, Crossroads Wesleyan Church, for what they say was a dispute over church doctrine. And they were asked to leave Cornerstone Baptist Church over questions about their beliefs.

In a response to questions from that church, the Bowens said they believed the Old Testament edict to honor one’s parents. But they raised questions about the definition of mother and father, and suggested that children should disobey parents if the parents “go against the ways of the Lord.”

Tom Bowen, a pharmaceutical salesman, summed up the family’s views this way: “Christ is sufficient and love is enough. God’s love is enough. I don’t know what else there is.”

They wish the accusations would end.

“This is Christian against Christian,” Mrs. Bowen said. “This is not what God wanted.”

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