Many new students starting university are curious and idealistic. Which makes them vulnerable to the increasing number of cults targeting campuses, reports Lynne Wallis
Few parents will consider it necessary to warn their children about the dangers of mind control cults as they leave for university this week, but perhaps they should. Cults and new religious movements are looking increasingly to university students as a potential pool of devotees, and autumn is the prime time for recruitment. Ian Howarth of the Cult Information Centre says that the numbers of cults recruiting from universities has almost certainly increased – they estimate that there are 500 cult movements active in the UK today. “They look for intelligent, idealistic, spiritually curious young people who will have good earning potential, and students meet their criteria in every way. Add to that the fact that they will be disorientated, in a totally new environment with nothing familiar around them, and they are a perfect target for these groups.
“Universities need to be more aware of the dangers, because the groups will rarely identify themselves as what they really are until it’s too late, and they can seem so plausible.”
Involvement with a cult can cause lasting damage. Sarah Cope-Faulkner, now 34, became a member of the now disbanded International Church of Christ during her second year at Edinburgh University in the early 90s. A member of the Christian union, she lost friends after her first year when various fallings-out occurred and she found herself in a shared house with strangers. When “Jodie” invited her to a Bible study group, she found herself flattered by the offer of friendship from this slim, pretty young woman in jeans and trainers, and was touched by her apparent care and interest.
“The atmosphere at the events I went to was angelic,” says Cope-Faulkner, “and I thought, ‘Wow, all these people want to know little old me.’ It was all ‘Amen’ and ‘Come on, sister’ and I wanted more. The only way to have more was to continue Bible study. That’s when they get you to make a sin list, and what they put me through was so black and bad I wanted to kill myself. They were still being lovely, saving me, and they said I had to redeem myself and repent which meant becoming a full member.”
Baptised in a cold garage in a freezing paddling pool, Sarah thought she had cracked it and found the key to everlasting life. Instead, it was the beginning of a miserable two years that ended in her abandoning her studies, getting into serious debt through all the donations she had to make to the cult, and having a full nervous breakdown.
She remembers: “I attended 20 meetings a week and became estranged from my family and friends. I was up at 4am for Bible study, and I spent all my time trying to please everyone. If I recruited someone and Jodie liked me again, I would feel utterly elated. I fasted frequently because they said we had to understand the suffering Jesus went through for us.”
Cope-Faulkner blacked out and came to on a train on her way to see her parents, to whom she eventually told everything. She saw a psychiatrist for three years and was put on antidepressants, and with help from cult experts she learned that she had been mind-controlled. “I still find it hard to trust people, and I can’t get close to anyone,” she confesses.
At least 34 campuses have banned cults from their premises, but somehow these groups still manage to recruit students, either by wandering in and chatting to people or by recruiting in town centres around the universities. Verity Coyle, vice-president of welfare for the National Union of Students, says, “Cults recruit in a sly way, and it’s all about misinformation. We’ve had radical Islamic groups recruiting here where police have been called, and there has been a definite rise in ‘Christian’ groups, like the group formerly known as International Churches of Christ, who prey on vulnerable people. These cults are very good at distributing information, but universities don’t always like to publicise the fact that they have a cult problem.”
When a student sets up a group at university, which many do during an organised “Societies Week”, they must create a constitution, and any sexuality, race or gender issues that run against the grain of equality legislation will prevent the group being formed. Most cults, however, are more insidious and recruiters are trained to recognise a good target whom they will court off campus.
It’s only when a student leaves a cult that any warnings about cult activity may spread through university populations, but this happens rarely as the person is usually too traumatised to remain around other members and will often switch to another university or drop out altogether.
Jeannie Mills, former member of the People’s Temple, famously said: “When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you have ever encountered, and you find the leader to be the most inspired, caring, compassionate and understanding person you’ve ever met, and then you learn that the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true – it probably is too good to be true! Don’t give up on your education, your hopes and ambitions to follow a rainbow.” After Mills left the group, she was found murdered.