TORONTO — There’s a raging debate in Hamilton, Ontario about just what the Dominion Christian Centre is. But wide agreement on what it’s not.
The D.C.C., as it’s known, is no ordinary church. No hymns here. Every Sunday service begins with a one-hour rock concert – complete with power vocals, driving guitars and pounding bass.
The man on the drums is the pastor. Peter Rigo came to Hamilton, he says, “on a mission from God.”
“When He said to come, He said – drop a plumb line and establish a people that know me and that live for me,” Rigo told W-FIVE.
The pastor’s voice drips with disdain and sarcasm when he talks about other churches and how they spend most of their time competing for parishioners.
“And then we compete with the world -our God is better than yours. Our girls give better b-jobs, that’s right, we get laid twice as quick in Christian school. Our God’s better than your God.”
Sexual references aside, Rigo’s version of Christianity could be seen as an extreme version of evangelical Christianity.
“My desire is to see every man and woman on earth come to know Jesus Christ as their lord and personal savior.”
What sets him apart is the extent of Rigo’s zeal for his version of the truth. W-FIVE challenged Rigo with the notion that, “some people might like nothing more than to turn the whole world into an Islamic state.”
Rigos answer: “Yeah. And it’s going to be a war right down to the end.”
And that’s how it is at the D.C.C. Black and white. For Rigo’s followers, it’s also pretty much a full time job. Spending every spare hour at the church–living the word of God. Unlike those ‘other places.’
In his sermon at the D.C.C., Pastor Rigo says, “For the most part, Church is just a nice outhouse. You simply go once a week, move your conscience bowels, get a little relief and go back out and eat like a pig for another seven days. That’s why churches mainly stink.”
Rigo went to Bible College but never graduated. He was affiliated with the Open Bible Faith Fellowship, a network of evangelical churches across North America, but they recently kicked him out.
Rigo tells W-FIVE, “I don’t accept what we’ve called Christianity to date. A lot of teaching goes on in the name of God. Very little living. So the standard that I read in a relationship of God and of the Word is – if you love me, you’ll obey me. Not, if you love me, you’ll learn about me.”
The Brun del Re Family – Split Apart
Lucie and Renato Brun del Re have learned a lot about Peter Rigo’s concept of obedience. They’ve been left with a huge hole in their lives – a hole left by their daughter Mirella.
Like many young people from religious families – Mirella was on a spiritual quest, and hungry for answers. That quest ended in Hamilton. She told her parents that she’d finally found what she was looking for.
Lucie explains, “After going through different churches, she came to me and said: ‘Mama, I did find the church,’ the right one, the true church, she called it.”
At the Dominion Christian Centre, Mirella found truth and a place in the band as the violinist. What her family was finding was a very different Mirella.
Lucie recalls a conversation with her daughter, after she’d joined the D.C.C.
“`God is talking to me and is telling me that we are all going to be moving to Hamilton.’ And I said, what do you mean, what are you talking about?”
Lucie started to worry.
“And you could see the transformation on her face, like someone was talking for her. So that’s when I started to worry that something was wrong – the way she was thinking, analyzing, talking. And she became more distant.”
The family was concerned about what was happening to Mirella. Giancarlo, Mirella’s brother and also her best friend, decided to check out the D.C.C. for himself. He didn’t like what he found one bit.
“I was just sitting there. And then the pastor starts singling me out in front of the whole church.” Giancarlo continues, “And asking me if I’m saved and if I have Jesus in my life. And it was kind of intimidating because he’s singling me out in front of everyone else. And it got to the point where he got closer and closer with his microphone in front of everyone and then he ended up kicking me out.”
Publicly humiliated, Giancarlo walked out – expecting his sister to follow. She didn’t.
Giancarlo says, “She waited another two hours until the service was done to come out, which struck me as odd. And so we’re driving home, and I’m like Meece – we stick together on everything. Why didn’t you come out? And she was like – the pastor was right.”
By now Mirella was spending every spare minute at the D.C.C. – helping out in the kitchen, anywhere she was needed. Anywhere except with her family.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening. It was like in a movie. You can’t even try to make some sense out of it. It was so difficult,” said her mother.
And as time went by, Lucie noticed that Mirella’s indifference towards her family was turning into something darker.
“The hate she developed towards the siblings, the family – the arrogance, the hate towards us. Like we didn’t mean anything any more. She was in another world,” she said.
Her father, Renato, was starting to believe his daughter was being brainwashed. “She was fed a lot of information. And when you tend to go to church every day, or close to every day, there’s a lot of time when you get indoctrinated.”
Cole and Nettie Brown
Mirella’s parents began to wonder if their daughter’s thoughts were still her own. And when the Brun del Res began to ask questions, they found they weren’t alone with those concerns. They met Cole Brown and his wife, Nettie – both former members. When he attended the D.C.C., Cole was Peter Rigo’s right hand man.
At first, Cole found the D.C.C. to be a good and caring place. He remembers when things began to change, starting with Pastor Rigo himself.
“There’s the old saying, power corrupts. And the more people who come, the more power you have,” Cole told W-FIVE. “There was one way, or it was the highway. It was, do it like this – or there’s the door.”
Cole remembers that as Rigo began to exercise more and more control over the lives of his congregation, the Pastor’s own behavior was becoming increasingly bizarre.
“I’ve seen him pick up chairs in the sanctuary and whip them across the room in a rage, an angry rage, trying to stop someone from doing a certain thing.”
When Cole told Peter Rigo that he’d had enough and was leaving the church, Cole told W-FIVE that Rigo tried to separate wife from husband.
“He went to my wife and he told her that I’m leading her astray. I’m going to have an affair on her. He would tell her ‘you better watch if your husband leaves the church, you’re going to have to leave your husband.'”
It didn’t work. The couple left the church together and remained together. But others were starting to raise alarms about the church and its Pastor.
When interviewed by W-FIVE, Peter Rigo insisted that there were never more than a few malcontents.
“This sound is being made by a handful. I can’t name you more than five people in here that have any difficulty with their family. Yes, lots have come through and decided not to stay – parishioners.” Rigo continued, “There’s certainly far more people for us than against us.”
Other Parents Speak Out
But that’s not what W-FIVE discovered, when an invitation to attend a town-hall meeting was issued to anyone dissatisfied with the D.C.C. More than 70 people showed up, most of them devout Christians. And almost all said their lives had been negatively affected by the D.C.C. and by Peter Rigo.
Shared and disturbing experiences quickly began to emerge, mainly the separation of families.
“Over the space of a year, it was little by little by little. Until she came to a point where she went to my younger children and said: ‘I’m sorry, I won’t ever see you again,'” said Peter Spiering, who hasn’t seen his daughter, Sherry, for more than seven months.
Other members had similar stories. “Nathan used to come to the house and he doesn’t anymore. I have to pull his teeth. He refuses to come to dinners. And that’s not the Nathan I knew,” said Dave Rozon about his son.
And what does Peter Rigo have to say about all this? Basically, that it’s all God’s will.
He told W-FIVE, “The gospel separates families. Jesus said very clearly in His word: ‘I did not come to bring peace and unity, I came to bring division with a sword. And whoever loves the father or the mother, their husband or wife, brother or sister more than me is not fit to serve in my kingdom.'”
Another theme that emerged during our town hall was the complete control that many say Peter Rigo exercises over his congregation.
At the town-hall meeting, Sarah Muller talked about how D.C.C. members relied on the pastor to make decisions.
“And it came to a place where you didn’t even know how to function without asking the Pastor – what should I do? Or, what colour should my hair be? You know, down to stupid things, you needed to ask them about everything.”
From the most serious spiritual decisions to the most mundane details of life, Rigo said the ex parishioner controls it all. That included his restrictions on dating.
Kendry Bilston explained, “From day one, the day I walked in there, it was – girls and boys together is bad. You’re not going to end up with anybody in here, you will not date, you will never be with a boy, it will never happen.”
In W-FIVE’s interview with Rigo, he defended his policies.
“When you talk about a standard, the standard is – there is nobody in here screwing around with each other. There is no couple sneaking off and doing stuff. It’s clean here, and once water’s clean, you don’t really want to dirty it.”
But what if you want to leave it? Again, another disturbing theme emerged from W-FIVE’s town-hall meeting. According to the D.C.C.’s ex-members, Peter Rigo intimidated members who tried to leave.
Allen Bilston recalled a conversation he had with Rigo about leaving the D.C.C.
“If I leave, then some of these other young people might leave with you. You might as well just tie a stone around your neck. And he said – you might as well just cut your throat, because the Bible says if you lead any of these people out of here, you’re as good as dead. You’re going to hell.”
Joe Ricottone told the town-hall what the pastor said when one particular member left to help set up another church.
“He went on a tirade and he basically said – who does he think he is? That man will die within a year of a heart attack. And that was how he blessed him when he left the church.”
Other former members of the D.C.C. spoke up regarding the accusations they say Rigo had made against people who left or were thinking of leaving the church.
Sarah Muller described how Rigo affected her relationship to her father.
“It came to a place where I couldn’t even be close to my father because I thought there was something going on there.” She said that Rigo told her, “That my father saw me as a wife and lusted after me in inordinate affections. Because my father had gone to the church and he left.”
Another ex-member of the D.C.C. added, “It’s a dangerous place psychologically. And when you have a so-called man of God threatening death on people, they’re scare tactics and people are living in fear in that environment.”
Peter Rigo tells a different story. He told W-FIVE that he doesn’t force anyone to stay -that he encourages the part-time Christians to leave, before they corrupt the full time flock.
“I actually saw people try to take them out, right within our own church. So you can imagine my message started to get stronger and stronger with – we got to live this, get in or get out. Find the floor, get a hold of God, or find the door.”
An extreme interpretation of Christianity? Perhaps. But add to that the control, the isolation, the shunning of loved ones. And the people who attended W-FIVE’s town-hall meeting came to one disturbing conclusion – they believe the D.C.C. is, without question, a cult.
“I think cult is ridiculous,” responded Peter Rigo. “I went down Rick Ross’s cult 10 warning signs of how to know that somebody is in a cult, in a religious cult. And we didn’t match any of them.”
The Rick Ross Institute is a U.S.-based organization that provides on-line information about what it considers to be destructive cults and controversial groups.
But the D.C.C. does match some of the warning signs listed by that website and by other organizations that inform the public about cults. Some of the warning signs? The church is everything. And those who don’t belong, even family and old friends, are to be shunned.
Cole Brown believes that determining whether the D.C.C. is a “cult” is less important than understanding what actually goes on there.
“Spiritually, there’s absolutely no accountability. No one to even ask him how he’s doing or there’s no one outside – no parents, no friends, no other pastors, no one. And again that makes for a very unsafe, unstable place.”
Mirella Brun del Re told W-FIVE that it’s her parents, and all the other concerned families who are being manipulated by ‘the enemy.’
But that’s not at all how Mirella Brun del Re sees things. She agreed to sit down with W-FIVE and give her side of the story for the first time. Mirella insisted that she’s not being used or controlled by anyone. She told W-FIVE that it’s her parents, and all the other concerned families who are being manipulated by “the enemy.”
“Who’s the enemy? Satan is the enemy. You have the Devil who’s against everything God is doing,” she told W-FIVE.
It was eight o’clock in the morning on the Wednesday before Christmas, 2005. Mirella Brun del Re says she was walking to work in downtown Hamilton, Ont., when she was approached by a man, asking for directions. He wasn’t alone.
“All of a sudden I realize there’s five men that have surrounded me. They’re all wearing black coats. Some of them are wearing toques and I’m looking around. I’m like – oh my gosh, I think I’m going to be robbed or raped, or something horrible is going to happen. I had no idea what was going on. I was just fighting and I was pushed into a van that just pulled up right beside me,” Mirella told W-FIVE.
Mirella claims she was grabbed by a group of men, a black hood thrown over her head, and shoved into a waiting van.
“And I was just held back in the chair and I looked up and I was handcuffed.”
Mirella claims that she was handcuffed to her own brother, and that she was driven to a cottage in the country where she was held a virtual prisoner for nine days.
“I was handcuffed all the time. So, eating, drinking, doing everything – I was handcuffed basically.”
Mirella says that her family subjected her to an intensive deprogramming regime, showing her videos about cults and reading from Mary Alice Chrnalogar ‘s book “Twisted Scriptures.”
Mary Alice Chrnalogar makes her living as a full time deprogrammer–reversing the effects of brainwashing. She’s an expert of Christian cults and wrote a book about them. It was to her that Mirella’s parents had turned for help.
“They had a very good cause (to worry about) Mirella. Anybody that’s in a cult goes through turmoil. You struggle. You struggle terribly. And I think that any parent should be concerned if they’re in a group like this,” Chrnalogar told W-FIVE from her home in Chattanooga.
“I think they’re an extremely destructive cult. The kids are struggling to stay there. They talk about how they might have to leave, but they don’t want to – because they may be condemned or go to hell.”
The Brun del Res’ worst fears were now confirmed. Their only daughter – part of a cult. Chrnalogar said she could help but she needed to be face to face with Mirella.
At the parents’ request, Mary Alice Chrnalogar agreed to fly to Canada to see if she could help – but on the condition that Mirella would be free to leave if she wanted to.
Lucie Brun del Re admits that it didn’t go well.
“So after talking to Mirella for four hours, finally Mirella says – are you finished now? So Mary Alice says, well we’re not keeping you. She said, oh, you’re not? Okay. So, she took her bag and she started walking out. And I was after her, holding her, and saying – where are you going? We’re not finished. Wait for Papa. And I was in tears because I didn’t want her to leave.”
Mirella told W-FIVE that she understands her parents’ motivation.
“I understand what they want. They want that old Mirella back. The one that lived the façade of what religion is and just accepting life as is. And I don’t want that life! I want to live true because now at this point I’ve – I’ve seen behind the curtain. I’ve seen that there is a real god and I have to live up to what I’ve seen.” “Because I believe that and I want to believe that,” she added.
Their daughter gone, it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse for the Brun del Res. But they did. They were summoned to the Hamilton police station where criminal charges were laid, including kidnapping and forcible confinement.
W-FIVE asked Mirella about how she felt about the charges facing her parents.
“They could go to jail. Yes.”
“That’s up to the court to decide whether they should or not,” Mirella continued.
The Brun del Res are devastated. Mirella – strangely matter of fact about the whole thing.
W-FIVE asked Mirella if she’d be willing to testify against her family.
“I may have to. Yes, I am prepared to do that. Absolutely.”
The courts will ultimately decide the guilt of the Brun del Res.
At W-FIVE’s town-hall meeting, some of the families indicated they’d thought about trying to rescue loved ones from the D.C.C.
“I phoned the lady down in Chattanooga who wrote the book, “Twisted Scriptures”, and she said – if you can get him in the car and get him down here in four or five days, I can deprogram him.”
But Randy only made it halfway to Windsor before his son bolted and ended up back at the D.C.C.
Randy recalled, “He was frantic. He didn’t know what to do. He was like a fish out of water. I said – Josh, you have to trust me on this. I love you. I want to see you back home. This isn’t right what he’s doing. But all he knew was Rigo.”
Mary Alice Chrnalogar feels that parents are justified in attempting to rescue their loved ones.
“Parents are absolutely justified. And if I had a child that got in a cult, I would not hesitate in going to get my son or daughter and give them information that maybe the rest of their life, that they could be free.”
Chrnalogar worries that things could get worse at the D.C.C. and so do the families who attended W-FIVE’s town-hall meeting.
“I’m not going to lose him,” said Dave Rozon of his son Nathan. “Even if I have to fight for him, I will. And that’s the truth and God be my witness.”
And Kelley Wells, another concerned parent, admitted that she’s scared to death of what her instincts are telling her.
“As a mother, you will do anything to try to save your child from something that extreme because we have a gut instinct that there’s something wrong, and he’s trying to push it away from us. We know what our kids are going through. And I ask – what will it take? Until one of these children commits suicide?”
Back at the Dominion Christian Centre, Rigo and his followers laugh off the suggestion that they are a destructive cult.
“I’m talking with the neighbor yesterday and he’s like – if you’re an f-ing cult, I’m joining it. I know you can’t say that word on TV, but you sure can in the house of God,” said Rigo during a Sunday service.
“People just say the word cult because it’s something that they don’t know. It’s different and that’s just what they can relate it to because they don’t know it. They don’t understand it. Oh, it’s a cult,” said one young man.
Another member challenged W-FIVE’s reporter. “You’ve got a code of ethics and standards and probably a policy manual that you have to abide by. Well our policy manual is the word of God. It’s the bible. So if that’s a cult, yeah you know what, I’m in a cult,” he said.
W-FIVE asked if anyone felt they were being forced to stay at the D.C.C, or if they were being controlled.
“Not at all,” answered a young woman.
Another D.C.C. member, a singer in the rock band, added: “I’m here seven days a week. And I love this place. I mean, I work around here, I eat here. It’s basically become my life out of my choice.”
W-FIVE asked him if the D.C.C. is a place that people could participate in part-time.
“Well, I mean you can, but you definitely feel like an outsider after a while with all these people. Most of us live the same way. We’re here all the time,” he said.
One middle-aged woman added, “If this is controlling, it’s absolutely wonderful, because before coming here I was very uncontrolled. I was going to church all my life but my life was out of control.”
And they all insisted they’re free to leave at any time. That’s a refrain cult deprogrammer, Mary Alice Chrnalogar, says she has heard many times before.
“You don’t feel like you’re being controlled because you’ve been taught this is the right way, this is God’s way, this is Jesus’ way. And therefore you never feel like you’re being controlled, even though you are,” she said.
Chrnalogar believes that part of that control comes from being convinced to shun family and friends who don’t belong to the church.
The D.C.C. members who spoke to W-FIVE after the church service confirmed Chrnalogar’s, and their families, worst fears.
When W-FIVE asked about the cost of belonging at the D.C.C, one member said, “The cost of giving up life in the world. It has cost you friends. And it has cost us certain freedoms that, in the olden days, you could do whatever you want.”
“It’s cost me family. It’s cost me my own way of thinking. But it’s not really a cost. It’s more of a privilege to lose those things,” said another.
Those words are a red flag for Chrnalogar.
“It absolutely can get worse and more dangerous because they’re a closed society. The only thing that’s right, good and true is what comes from the leader. He calls the shots. And once you get into a closed system, anything can happen,” said the cult expert.