In a small house overlooking a lake in the Chicago suburb Wauconda, a minister directed his female followers to go into a back room and take off their clothes.
In one-on-one sessions, he got naked, touched their bodies and told them to touch his.
He called them prayer sessions.
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What allegedly happened in that room over a series of months would spur a criminal investigation in one county, spark civil litigation in two others and reopen the age-old debate on what’s a cult.
Calling it “light therapy,” the minister, Philip Livingston, testified in a Kane County case that he repeatedly performed the naked ritual — claiming it helped cure everything from drug addictions to yeast infections. He said it was done only with consenting adults who were members of his donor-funded Light of the World Ministries. But one participant testified that a teenage girl was involved too.
The case offers a window not only into the evolution of a fringe church, but also the struggles of authorities to know when such a group warrants their attention.
Livingston’s supporters have maintained he’s an earnest, albeit unconventional minister who has done no wrong. But a Kane County judge this summer ordered that three children be kept away from Livingston and his church. That was after police in Wauconda, in Lake County, where Livingston’s church is now based, launched a pending criminal investigation.
Since then, a Cook County judge has ordered Livingston, his wife and his top assistant to stay away from the onetime follower whose allegations of child endangerment sparked the latest legal rounds.
The cases cap allegations that have long dogged the onetime contractor — a man whose preaching career sprang from leading a renegade prayer group at one of the area’s largest churches. […]
[One follower] told the Tribune she ardently believed Livingston’s teachings that he spoke directly with God. She said she believed in the church’s latest mission: to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ by, according to its website, “getting to know Jesus inside of us and being in perfect harmony with Him as His body.”
Then Livingston introduced a new way to achieve that harmony — a technique that would become the focus of a criminal investigation.
Livingston called it “light therapy.”
To traditional doctors, light therapy is a way to treat some forms of depression and disease by shining light on the afflicted.
For Livingston, it meant praying for followers by touching them.
Testimony and affidavits filed in court indicate he developed the practice about two years ago. […]
Back in 2008, even before the light therapy began, [one] girls’ father complained to police, child-welfare workers and the court that he should get custody of the children in part because his wife was in a “cult.” (The father is not being named to protect the identities of his daughters.)
The father had convinced a psychologist hired by the court, Dr. Mark Goldstein.
“At the very least, the ministry is out of the mainstream, and at its worst, it may very well be a cult and potentially dangerous,” Goldstein wrote in his May 2009 report.
But Associate Judge Marmarie Kostelny deemed the father a worse alternative because he had a history of lies and manipulation. As for Livingston’s group, there were no specific allegations of abuse. […]
DePaul University professor Roberta Garner, who has studied cults, said such groups typically have a leader who demands ultimate authority, citing a direct line to God. They’re typically small — large groups are hard to control — and often believe conspiracy theories that reinforce the leader’s legitimacy. It’s also not unusual for cult leaders to incorporate sexual practices.
It’s hard to tell how many such groups exist around Chicago, with researchers hesitant to even guess. It can also be difficult to gauge whether they are dangerous.
With the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom, authorities are left to determine whether groups’ leaders commit actual crimes, not just have unusual beliefs, she said.
Livingston and his supporters insist they’re not a cult.