The Community of Jesus, a small, communal Christian sect in Massachusetts that stresses discipline and rejects homosexuality has made an effort in recent years to leave behind its shadowy past and accusations of psychological abuse.
The group was founded 1958 by two Episcopal women, Cay Andersen and Judy Sorensen, or “Mother Cay” and “Mother Judy.” They professed to represent God and called for absolute submission from their devotees, who lived communally in Cape Cod, said David Reed, a University of Toronto professor with expertise in cults and new religious movements.
By the early 1970s, the Community of Jesus was gaining favour as a counterculture alternative to the rampant individual freedoms and sexual liberation of the previous decade, Mr. Reed said.
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“What you sometimes get is a kind of conservative overreaction,” he said. “The whole community movement was a reaction to the hyper-individualism that they inherited.” The 1960s spawned a slew of ecumenical groups that satisfied the need for belonging through regimented communal living, he said.
In 1985, reports that an authoritarian sect was psychologically abusing its members on the shores of Cape Cod Bay began surfacing when about 20 adherents defected, including two sons of one of the co-founders.
About a half-dozen such defectors later contacted Steve Hassan, a counsellor in Somerville, Mass., who specializes in treating cult and mind-control victims.
Mr. Hassan said the defectors showed symptoms that pointed to having endured mind-control: identity confusion, panic attacks, sleep problems, trouble concentrating and difficulty trusting people.
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In recounting their time in the Community of Jesus, his patients described having been controlled in their behaviour, thoughts, emotions and access to information, Mr. Hassan said.
“Uncategorically, they were a stereotypical mind-control cult. Definitely not a healthy group for people to join.”
Former members spoke of so-called light sessions, in which a member was forced to come clean on unconfessed sins. “They were very much like breaking sessions,” he said. “My recollection is that people were pretty much told what faults they had and were broken down.”
Mr. Hassan stopped monitoring the group when former members and their families ceased to call him.
But the group appears to have moderated and evolved in recent years, especially after a change in leadership. Mother Cay died in 1988, and Mother Judy has long since retired.
The new leaders have loosened the grip on their followers and have opened up membership to people living off-site.
Now, only about one-quarter of the estimated 325 members live in celibacy in the convent and friary. The rest of the group, including secular families with a range of jobs, live in nearby households in Orleans.
Philip Bristow, an Anglican priest in Unionville, Ont., said the Community of Jesus is much different now than when he started paying visits to the group in the mid-1970s.
“It has evolved over the years … into new understandings of the breadth, length, height and depth of the cross,” Mr. Bristow said. He last visited the community about two years ago.
The group adopted forms of ancient worship, he said, modelled after Benedictine monasticism emphasizing personal devotion. “The idea was to pray continuously. They have adapted that.”
But controversy has not completely eluded the community in its more moderate incarnation. In the 1990s, it waged a legal battle with the Cape Cod Commission over the size of its chapel. A settlement was reached, and now four times daily the Church of the Transfiguration is filled with prayer, psalms and chants.