Wednesday, May 25

Destructive cults: from street proselytizing to social media

In Vistabella del Maestrat, a Castellón population of just 337 inhabitants in the region of L’Alcalatén, they are still amazed by the recent dismantling of a supposedly destructive sect that had lived in a sort of commune for two decades and was led by Antonio G. , known as the Uncle Tony. Installed in the La Chaparra mass, far from the urban center of the municipality, the sectarian community housed several families with minors in their care, presumably victims of sexual abuse. The National Police, in an operation commanded by the General Information Police Station and directed by the Court of Instruction number 6 of Castelló, seized the leader of the sect 103 luxury watches, 15,000 euros and sex toys. Nine of the cult members, including the Uncle TonyThey were arrested.

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“As far as I know, people still live in the farmhouse, with the neighbors they had practically no relationship, the purchase and little else, everything was very hermetic”, explains the mayor Jordi Alcón. An expert on sects who prefers not to be identified is surprised after the police operation that dismantled the sect: “I was surprised that it had been running for so long and nobody knew anything.” The investigating judge agreed to admit the leader of the group and two other alleged members of the sect into provisional prison, communicated and without bail.

Michael Pearlpsychotherapist specialist in sects and clinical coordinator of the Ibero-American Association for the Investigation of Psychological Abuse (AIIAP), has been working for a year with the first victims of Vistabella. “They come out very confused, they perceive some things but they don’t quite put the pieces together and once we put together the group of victims, with surprise, they realize that beyond the individual a pattern emerges, that is very symptomatic,” explains Perlado to

The underground and closed world of the sects emerges cyclically when the victims decide to take the complicated step of going out and asking for help. “One of the most characteristic signs is isolation, not only geographical, which in this case also accompanied, but especially relational and mental isolation,” says Perlado, author of Captured! Everything you need to know about sects (Ariel, 2020).

The leader of the sect of the farmhouse of La Chaparra, with a strong authoritarianism, assured that he could cure cancer and spread in the hermetic community the healing and esoteric chatter to several families who lived with minors, schooled outside the municipality, and who allegedly suffered sexual abuse. “He lives in community but paradoxically he lives isolated within the community, in which a scenario of progressive submission unfolds until he is bowed down and subjected to the tacit law of silence”, Miguel Perlado abounds.

Psychological assistance to victims

Theologian Luis Santamaría del Río, founding member of the Ibero-American Network for the Study of Sects (RIES), explains the issue beyond the abuses. “Approaching the issue by looking only at money and sex can give us a distorted view of the phenomenon,” says Santamaría, who adds: “Normally, both the plundering of the assets of the followers, something very common, and the manipulation through sex, which It can include abuse and sexual violence, they are realities in the sects but they are not the goals of these groups or their leaders, but rather they are means that the guru himself has so that the manipulation of its members is complete and as strong as possible” .

In the case of the dismantled sect in Vistabella, the minors were presumably introduced by the Uncle Tony in “practices to awaken their sexuality”, assures the psychotherapist Miguel Perlado, who has been in charge of the process of accompaniment and psychological assistance of the victims. “It’s a highly anxiogenic trance,” he says. “The impact of police intervention should not be underestimated, they have a reverberating collateral effect for families, neighbors and at work because, suddenly, something that was hidden emerges,” adds Perlado.

In addition to the amplification in the media, “that crap comes out and clouds everything.” For the victims “it is hard”: they feel relief but they also see increased anxiety. Luis Santamaría del Río agrees: “Any person who suddenly leaves a sect has the subjective perception of being alone in the world and experiences what in many cases is very similar to pro-traumatic stress, they need accompaniment and guidance that includes their previous social resources. such as family and friends, as well as professional support by psychologists who know this subject well”.

The specialist compares the process with a kind of archaeological work: “Recovering the previous personality is to return to a point where the subject can exercise their freedom that they have been made to renounce within the sect through a strategy of coercive persuasion” . “Because the recruitment and conversion to the sect is something relatively fast, the subsequent recovery is slower and more laborious due to the shame of admitting that he has been deceived and manipulated,” adds Luis Santamaría del Río.

Synergies due to the pandemic

Vistabella del Maestrat is one of the first destructive sects to be dismantled in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Miguel Perlado has detected “extremely striking interactions and synergies of sectarian groups that approach extreme right-wing groups” and the conspiracy theories as a result of the vaccines on TikTok or Instagram.

Cults have morphed over time from street proselytizing to social media into an amalgamation of “diffuse spirituality, taro, new witches and new age”. “Its identification is becoming more diffuse and complex, with less clear limits,” points out Perlado, who clarifies that many groupsthey can present sectarian behaviors without this meaning that they are destructive”. Although destructive cults “intoxicate people’s minds to the point of breaking up families, making them more intolerant,” he adds.

The classic sects have mutated into groups that are organized in the “environment of personal development, self-knowledge, therapies or meditation, something that is outside the religious field and moves in a broad and diffuse spirituality,” Luis Santamaría del Río abounds. .

The phenomenon, yesterday and today, is extremely difficult to quantify. Spain has a level of incidence of sects of approximately 1% of the population, although these are estimates, warns Perlado, who recalls that these groups do not have censuses, they usually swell their figures and make up a “hidden and marginal phenomenon” but with a sufficient incidence “to pay attention from the point of view of victim assistance”.

The specialist Luis Santamaría del Río recalls that there is no unequivocal profile of the victims, although there are some personality traits that can make a person more likely to be captured by a sect, such as emotional or family deficits or even qualities and virtues that make the candidate “more attractive to the sect”. “I always emphasize that anyone can be captured if they find them at the right time, the sects feed on our vulnerabilities and we all have bad streaks,” he adds.

In fact, the National Police has announced the launch of a “new mechanism” to investigate the presence of sects in Spain, guaranteeing the confidentiality and anonymity of the complainants, after the dismantling of the sect in Vistabella del Maestrat (the specialists of the General Information Police Station can receive complaints and alerts through the email [email protected]).

“The most dangerous groups are the smaller ones because they depend directly on the will of the guru and it is almost impossible to monitor them.” warns theologian Luis Santamaría del Río.