Irish Times, Mar. 6, 2003
A professor of sociology who has written books and articles critical of the Church of Scientology and other organisations told the High Court yesterday the church was attempting to isolate him within the academic community.
Prof Stephen Kent, who is based in Canada, made the claim in the ongoing action for damages by Ms Mary Johnston (40), who operates a sports equipment centre at Westwood, Foxrock, Dublin, and who is a former member of the church.
She has sued the church and three members of its Dublin mission – Mr John Keane, Mr Tom Cunningham and Mr Gerard Ryan – for alleged conspiracy, misrepresentation and breach of constitutional rights.
Yesterday, during resumed cross-examination of Prof Kent, Mr Michael Collins SC, for the defendants, referred to articles written by a number of sociologists, psychologists and others dealing with the concepts of brainwashing and coercive persuasion.
Mr Collins suggested the conclusions of some of these writers were at variance with those of Prof Kent, particularly regarding the professor’s view that a person’s free will can be overborne by certain coercive persuasion techniques to such an extent they may undergo a significant personality change and truly convert to whatever ideology it may be sought to persuade them of.
Prof Kent agreed there were some differences between his views and those of some writers referred to but said he was in broad agreement with them on many issues. He said one expert had not referred to religion in discussing coercive persuasion and he believed it was vital to factor in that people are motivated for purposive rewards.
He agreed the term brainwashing can be used in two different senses, involving an element of physical force and no such physical element.
He accepted that one expert appeared to be saying that brainwashing did not produce a true change in a subject to the extent that person genuinely came to believe in the ideology they were being coerced to espouse. Much depended on the nature of the study population and how free will was defined.
He also believed there were coercive persuasion techniques capable of truly changing a person’s psychiatric status but added he would not necessarily put a time frame on this.
Mr Collins said one recognised expert had described as a myth the theory that certain techniques could result in a person’s psychiatric status being transformed from normal to pathological. Prof Kent said he believed there could be a change in psychiatric status as a result of coercive persuasion. He agreed hypnosis could be a factor but said there were other factors.
He had not taken a stand on the broader question of brainwashing techniques being applied to get people into cults as opposed to retaining them in such groups.
He was aware of situations which seemed to indicate the use of brainwashing techniques to get people into certain programmes. There were extreme cases where people could not leave cults and the cost was their lives, such as the mass suicide of followers of the Rev Jim Jones at Guyana, he said.
At one point, Prof Kent told Mr Justice Peart the defendants had put in a critique of his work in an attempt to isolate him in the academic community.
Mr Collins said Prof Kent had responded to that critique and he was indicating, in referring to certain articles, was that the professor has been the subject of criticism by reputed scholars.
Mr Collins said he had not explored the matter of whether that criticism was justified.
The hearing continues today.