Personality cults. Christ complexes. Brainwashing. Still battling the aftermath of child sex abuse scandals, the French Church has been dealt a new blow: the 1,300 reports of “sectarian drift” received by the Episcopal Conference in the five months from October 2018 to February 2019.

Driving the news

The Catholic television network KTO has produced a new documentary on cults in the French Church. Directed by Jean-Claude and Anne Duret, it aims, in its own words, “to raise public awareness on the possible risks connected with the quest for spirituality”.

On the occasion of the documentary’s premiere, the French Bishops’ Conference released a dossier detailing the reports of “sectarian drift” they have received since promising in 2016 to support victims and help bring perpetrators to justice. The 1,300 complaints affected groups across the Catholic spectrum, from both new and old communities to conservative and charismatic groups.

For the record

Presenting the dossier, Alain Planet, Bishop of Carcassonne and Narbonne and head of the French Bishops’ anti-cult taskforce, said “we firmly believe that the only answer to such evil is to combat it and we hope to make a contribution that may help carry out this battle in full transparency”.

The big picture

Sister Chantal-Marie Sorlin, former magistrate and current judge on the ecclesiastical court of Dijon, explained the shape Catholic cults can take:

  • A founder who takes the place of Christ, and whose words “are the words of the Gospel. His/her writings and teachings replace the Scriptures”
  • The formation of a “parallel Church” under a “vow of unity” in which outsiders are seen as “incapable” of understanding the group’s charism and everything outside the group is seen to be “heretic” or “modernist”
  • Deviations from standard Catholic teachings whereby by means of an “internal phraseology” old terms take on innovative meanings
  • A “cult of suffering” in which the “right path” consists in “taking up one’s cross”
  • Isolation of cult followers from family, friends, and social groups, along with the reclusion from television, radio, newspapers, etc.

Why it matters

“What are the physical and mental conditions of those leaving the community? They are completely broken persons”, deplored Sorlin, lamenting the fact that those who manage to leave a cult often finish up “naked like Job”.

“How many cases of depression, how many attempted suicides, how many suicides … The reason is that these people feel guilty and that they’re a total failure”

The presence of sects in the Church shows that evil is not something in the supernatural realm but a phenomenon within us, lamented Sorlin. Cultic activity “is all the more serious when it occurs where we expect to find authentic witnesses of God and the true fruits of holiness”, bemoaned the nun.